Author Archives: Katherine Hill

Considering an Accessible Urban Landscape

Image credit: Caleb Pritchard

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) marked the beginning of a new era for property owners and public works entities. The ADA outlines the minimum standards projects  must meet in order to be safe and accessible, though many cities have chosen to adopt stricter policies. Cities like New York, where a large portion of the population uses public transit, and Portland, where steep grades and weather present challenges, have spent years studying and developing pedestrian strategies.

Currently, Austin’s Public Works Department is responsible for more than 2400 miles of sidewalk. According to the department, as of 2016, 80% of those sidewalks were in poor condition. They also estimate an additional 2500 miles of sidewalks still need to be constructed, with much of North Central and East Austin having an ‘Absent Sidewalk Score’ of more than 59 points. The updated Sidewalk Master Plan for Austin calls for 390 miles of those needed sidewalks in the next 10 years, prioritizing the areas around bus stops, schools and parks. Austin’s climate presents another challenge, and many areas with or without sidewalks lack tree cover and the micro-climate that makes traveling by foot possible on hotter days

Sidewalk-related issues came to the fore this week when the Austin Monitor published a photo of a newly constructed sidewalk taking several 90 degree turns in quick succession. According to the article, it appears that the unorthodox  shape of the sidewalk was the result of the contractor attempting to keep the sidewalk’s grade, or rate of decent, at no more than 5%. City engineer Bill Hadley confirmed that the sidewalk appeared to adhere to the law as it is written. However, the National Center for Bicycling and Walking recommends a wider sidewalk on grades, allowing those in wheelchairs to travel in a zig-zag pattern. In addition, a wider sidewalk as opposed to a zig-zag shaped sidewalk, would ensure that visually impaired pedestrians would not be faced with navigating an unpredictable path.

It’s time for a frank conversation about pedestrian design as Austin is experiencing rapid expansion and is expected to spend $250 million on sidewalks over the next decade.

Sources: Austin Monitor and the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.

Extraterrestrial on Earth

Image Credit: Reuben Wu

Photographer Reuben Wu has been using adapted drones to light-paint in natural environments, creating beautiful and otherworldly landscapes. His image series “Lux Noctis” transform natural landscapes into images that evoke ideas of extraterrestrial exploration and science fiction. Wu’s photos endeavor to explore unknown and hidden places and present them as if they were a memory of a foreign place.

Wu uses drones to create light trails around rock formations and to provide supplementary light from above. The long exposure images are ethereal, colorful, and otherworldly. His other work similarly blends landscape, futurism and architecture.

Source: Colossal and Rueben Wu

Architectural Effects of a Divide

09 Image credit: Jürgen Ritter

The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years, bifurcating the city into West and East Berlin respectively. Demolition of the wall began in 1990, and 28 years later, an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2018 will be exploring the question of what happens to the built environment when physical divides are torn down. The exhibition, titled “Unbuilding Walls,” will showcase 28 examples—one example for each year the Berlin Wall divided Berlin—of historic and contemporary walls, barriers and fences and their effect on or reaction to the landscape.

In 2012, astronaut André Kuipers documented one example of the wall’s divide still evident from space: the color difference in the street lights of and west and east sides of the city is clearly perceptible.

Source: Topos Magazine and the Washington Post.

Brutalism Balls

Image credit: Louise Samuelsen

Are you the type of person to stop and ogle a mid-century structure or admire the stark brutalism of a concrete wall? If you also have a sweet tooth, these Danish sweets might be just the thing for you.

Danish born designer and goldsmith Kia Utzon-Frank is not a baker by trade, but she began making  flødeboller because she could not find the treat in the UK. As an artist, she couldn’t help but elevate them. The meringue and almond paste balls are covered in cocoa, and decorated with ingredients including charcoal, black sesame and cocoa butter to mimic the texture of concrete, granite or marble. She now runs a Kufcakes Geometric Flødeboller Masterclass at the London-based art center Barbican, and will be hosting a brutalist-edition on March 3rd, 2018.

Source: Mashable and KUF Studios.

A Film Camera for the 21st Century

Image Credit: Reflex

Analog photography is getting a revamp. The first Single Lens Reflex (SLR) film camera designed since the 1990s was successfully backed on Kickstarter at the end of 2017. The project, simply titled Reflex, is on track to be available for sale in August 2018.

In many ways this camera takes everything back to the very basics: it requires one to manually focus the lens and advance the film. However, a few key features make this film camera a massive leap forward compared to the Pentax K1000 bodies still found on eBay. The Reflex team was determined to create as flexible and modular a tool as possible.

First, the interchangeable “I Plate” lens mount allows photographers to use lenses they already own from brands like Pentax, Minolta, Canon and Olympus. An interchangeable film back means changing from color to black and white film is easy, or from a fast film to a slow one. Bluetooth connectivity, while it might seem gratuitous on an analog camera, will allow photographers to quickly take notes on their shots as they compose them, and log their settings for future reference. Finally, Reflex is determined to allow open source development for their camera using 3D printing so individuals can create their own accessories.

While the price point will likely be comparable to an entry level Digital SLR, revived interests in almost-obsolete mediums like vinyl LPs have shown that people are willing to invest in keeping older formats alive. With the flexibility and the promise of open source development that Reflex offers, it’s hard to imagine they won’t have some enthusiastic adopters.

Source: Reflex Kickstarter and The Guardian.

Space Graffiti

The fluid and much discussed space between vandalism and art has now entered Earth’s orbit in the form of a large mirrored ball. Rocket Lab, a New Zealand company determined to “…remove barriers to commercial space,” launched what is essentially a massive disco ball into orbit on January 21st, 2018. Humanity Star, composed of carbon fiber and reflective panels, will orbit Earth every 90 minutes for 9 months until it enters Earth’s atmosphere and is destroyed. Until then, it can be tracked online via Rocket Lab’s website, and will be the brightest, flashiest object in the night sky. 

However, like many artists and visionaries seeking to make their mark, Peter Beck and Rocket Lab didn’t seek permission before launching Rocket Lab. Astronomers have voiced concerns, as the bright object in orbit could interfere with research they are completing on actual stars. Those researchers see the satellite as nothing more than space graffiti. Others see Beck’s satellite as another encroachment on public space, the night sky being one of the few landscapes available to almost anyone, anywhere.

That universality was exactly the goal of the minds behind the Humanity Star. They simply hope Earthlings take a moment to look up and consider the space around them and their responsibility to Earth and its people.

Source: Rocket Lab and Dezeen.

The Olympic Challenge

Image credit: Pawel Kopczynski

Countries worldwide vie for the honor of hosting the Olympic games, seeking the international spectacle and the economic incentives. This year’s host, South Korea, has invested heavily in upgrading their transportation network and resort architecture in Pyeongchang. With the opening ceremony taking place on February 9, 2018, the conversation now turns to how the province will utilize the new infrastructure moving forward.

Even in densely populated former Olympic cities like Atlanta and London, deciding how to deal with multiple large venues following the close of the games is a challenge. These structures require constant maintenance, and if left unused are quick to deteriorate. The Olympic Complex in Athens—constructed for the 2004 Summer Olympics—is now best known for being essentially a ghost town. Pyeongchang province has a population of only about 45,000 people and bases its economy heavily on tourism. As of now, the arenas for speed skating, hockey and curling lack a specific use after the Olympics and Paralympics conclude. As for the 35,000 seat pentagonal arena that houses the Olympic torch, the plan is to demolish it after the closing ceremony after having been used a total of four times.

Source: Quartz and Reuters.

Nihon Noir: The Metabolism Movement in Photos

Image Credit: Tom Blachford

Photographer Tom Blachford’s series ‘Nihon Noir’ calls to mind futurism, science-fiction, film noir and yes, the 1982 cult classic film Blade Runner. Blachford was inspired by the Metabolism movement era architecture in Japan, and his images showcase its unique intersection of architecture and infrastructure.

Metabolism was a post-war movement brought to the international stage during the 1960 Tokyo World Design Conference. The designers behind the movement organized their vision into a manifesto entitled Metabolism: The Proposals for New Urbanism, which described a design ethos focused on meshing mega-structures with organic shapes. The most prolific member of the movement, Kenzo Tange, worked as a designer, architect, and urban planner until his death in 2005.

The images Blachford created were designed to showcase a neon futurism, and the buildings he featured were chosen because they combined brutalism and the principles of organic growth—the essence of this post war architectural movement.  “Though these buildings are from the past,” he said, “they appear as if they have appeared from the distant future.  My intention is for the viewer to ask not ‘where’ they were taken but ‘when.”

Source: Dezeen

Cityscapes by Drone

Photo Credit: Jeryl Teo

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—popularly referred to as drones—stand poised to revolutionize many industries, offering surveyors, historians, geographers and other researchers an opportunity to see above and inside structures and places that were previously too difficult or hazardous to access. UAV videography was used extensively in assessing the infrastructure and architectural damage after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Photography, a field already known for exploring in dark corners and far reaches, is now using high-quality drone cameras to document amazing cityscapes from above.

While aerial photography is not new (the first aerial photograph was taken from a balloon in 1858) drones are making it more accessible than ever. As more and more pilot photographers are taking to the skies, the interest in the images they have created on platforms like Instagram has skyrocketed. Architect and author Eric Reinholdt believes drones will only become more important in architectural photography, especially as video is used to tell the story of a building or site. Drone footage could also be used to evaluate sight lines and topography.

Even as they grow in popularity, more restrictions and regulations are being drafted to limit their use. Drones are banned in all National Parks, and their use by professional photographers can be considered commercial use and may require registration with the FAA.

Source: The Guardian and ArchDaily

Japan’s Reusable Housing Revolution


Photo Credit: Nate Berg

Japan’s population is aging, and is expected to reduce dramatically in the next 50 years as younger generations have fewer children. The population is also concentrating itself more than ever in urban areas, leaving many smaller communities with a growing vacancy problem. The tradition of replacing homes with new construction every thirty to forty years is only amplifying the growing problem.

Companies like Sekisui House and Daiwa House have succeeded in a market that demanded prefabricated housing on a near constant basis. Now, they must learn to adapt and are for the first time beginning to offer renovated or “refurbished” homes. New companies are also entering the market, specializing in the modernization of existing structures. Younger people are looking for simple, affordable homes close to work and family.

Younger families, who may not have the money to purchase a new prefabricated house, are becoming more and more likely to select a refurbished home instead. A 39 year old father of two noted that “the renovated home located close to my parents’ home has much higher value than a newly built home that is far away.” This is a clear reversal from the Japanese attitude towards housing that saw homes completely losing their value within thirty years.

As the population of Japan continues to decline and shift to urban centers, communities are going to have to get creative about reusing structures. One looming challenge will be in addressing failing structures, considering how many prefabricated buildings were never intended to live longer than 40 years.

Source: The Guardian

Space Race: Dubai

Image Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group

In the desert near Dubai, a team of scientists will live inside four geometric domes for a full year in the hopes of recreating the challenge of building a city on Mars. The Mars Science City will be the largest space simulation constructed anywhere, focused on researching issues related to water, agriculture, and energy on Mars.

The domes were designed by Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels. Dubai has become synonymous in recent years with iconic architecture and landscape engineering. The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to continue its meteoric rise by reaching and colonizing Mars by the year 2117. In spite of the UAE’s Space Agency being founded in 2014, it hopes to launch an orbiting satellite by the year 2021. 

Source: Dezeen

Bicycle Super Highways

Image credit: BMW Group

As Austin cyclists know, bike commuting has its hazards, and the Texas heat is only one of them. Cycling is also an inexpensive and green way to get around a city that is struggling with traffic congestion—as is the case with Austin.

In China, BMW and Tongji University have unveiled a plan to construct a bicycle superhighway that addresses exactly that problem. In order to address a rapidly growing urban population and a need to reduce emissions, the team proposes to construct a massive system of climate controlled roadways specifically for two-wheeled transportation.

The Vision E3 Way—the three Es standing for elevated, electric and efficient—would connect commuters to transit centers, shopping hubs, and underground stations. Solar panels and water collection systems would help keep the highways cool and clean. If the climate control, ease, and convenience aren’t incentive enough, BMW also proposed a number of bike-share stations throughout the loop.

BMW has invested heavily in e-bike and electric scooters, and they clearly see smaller, emissions-free vehicles as providing the path forward in modern urban transportation. Berlin, BMW’s home country, approved a system of 13 bike “highways” in February of 2017.

Source: BMW Group