Category Archives: architecture

Building in Downtown Austin Scheduled to Implode

Photo credit: James Rambin.

The implosion of the Ashbel Smith Hall building will interrupt the mellow, Sunday-morning mood this weekend in downtown Austin. Traffic near Lavaca and Sixth Street is expected to be more congested than usual due to the demolition occurring in the early morning hours. Typically, demolitions provoke protest from citizens who are sentimentally attached to the building, but no one seems too upset about the leveling of Ashbel Smith Hall.

“We don’t always need to clutch our pearls when something old downtown comes up for demolition,” wrote James Rambin, author of an online realty blog. Rambin compared the building to a toaster, deriding its boxy shape and two small roof vents poking out the top.

Once used by The University of Texas as office space after being built in the 1970s, the building’s Brutalist architecture juts out among a skyline of shiny, new skyscrapers. The City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission provided a dismal assessment of the structure’s contribution to the life of the city:

“The building does not appear to possess architectural distinction. […] The building does not possess a unique location, physical characteristic, or significant feature that contributes to the character, image, or cultural identity of the city, the neighborhood, or a particular demographic group. […] The property is not a significant natural or designed landscape with artistic, aesthetic, cultural, or historical value to the city.” —City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission, September 25, 2017

The building must be imploded to mitigate the negative effects of demolition on the surrounding area and to speed up the process. After being demolished, developer Trammell Crow plans to build a 37-story tower with office, restaurant and retail uses, costing $1.6 million per year to rent.

Sources: Austin American Statesman, Towers,

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.

Vacant Lots to Garden Plots: Restoring Urban Biodiversity

Many homes in Baltimore are being demolished due to high vacancy rates. Ecologist Chris Swann uses the empty lots to plant wildflowers. Photo Credit: Patrick Semansky, Associated Press.

As urbanism pervades the world, open spaces and the biodiversity they provide are beginning to dwindle. Curtailing sprawl is often touted as an answer to protecting biodiversity outside the city, but Chris Swann wants to also protect the biodiversity within the existing urban context.

Swann—an ecologist and professor from the University of Maryland—studies what plant species work best for ecosystems in urban spaces and, in a recent experiment, he sprinkled wildflower seeds across vacant lots. He is specifically looking for plants that can survive in the soil of recently demolished homes in Baltimore, where vacancies are on the rise. Though the lots are only “temporary prairies” because they will likely be redeveloped soon, Swann hopes the boost in plant life will reduce runoff and attract other organisms. Swann’s project is uniquely scientific; not many have studied what works to restore balance to a city’s ecosystem. Other cities have begun utilizing small plots of land for gardens or mini parks, despite the lack of research surrounding what they should be planting.

Yet, all green spaces are not created equal. Providing more green space in an urban landscape can not only pose an ecological challenge but also economic and equity challenges. Property values increase near parks and open spaces, oftentimes inducing a development surge that brings a risk of gentrification. Laying the groundwork for a fully furnished park is a costly endeavor for the city; the City of Minneapolis cited the cost of a park as $481,333. In contrast, one of the cheapest types of wildflower seeds costs just $231 per acre.

Swann’s experiment to seed wildflowers in vacant lots will not only help answer the question, “what do we plant” but also “can we afford it?” If wildflowers grow well in infertile soil, they could become a means for urban biodiversity that is more economical and thus, more equitable. Creating prairies in vacant lots could prove a small step towards creating a better habitat for all creatures residing in urban contexts.

Sources: CityLab, City of Minneapolis, Holland Wildflower Farm, University of California at Berkeley

Building Inter-generational Communities: The Tiny House for Older Adults

Keeping up with the needs of a large home can be difficult for seniors. In fact, providing smaller, more manageable spaces for older adults could be the difference between entering a care facility or maintaining independence. Bill Thomas, a renowned geriatrician, created a tiny home for older adults that he says prolongs independence and counters ageism.

The first Minka-style tiny home for older adults stands on the University of Southern Indiana’s campus in Evansville, IN, where 67 percent of the population are under 50 years old. Although the house was built for older people, the structure appears very modern. The modular design provides residents with both affordability and accessibility; because of the compact and interchangeable parts, the home can adapt to people with different needs or disabilities. The home costs just $75,000 to build.

No one lives in the first tiny home currently; it serves as a prototype. Thomas hopes that the homes inspired by the prototype will one day will serve to keep elders integrated in society, instead of segregating them in nursing homes. It’s no secret that Baby Boomers and Millennials have wildly different worldviews, and both can be quick to blame the other for social problems. In a time of increasing political polarization, mixing of different generations may be exactly what our cities need; a tiny home village for older adults on a college campus could be a great start to humanizing the people often seen as the other’s enemy.

Sources: American Fact Finder, NPR, Changing Aging, Minka

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

If Ebenezer Howard Had an Apartment Today

Image Credit: Carina Romano

Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner known for Garden City Movement, desired for city-dwellers to leave the slums of the inner-urban area and experience the clean air of a rural space. His ideals were focused on improving city-life, but his philosophy has arguably impacted the interior design strategies of today, as evidenced by Liz Sparacio’s loft apartment.

Natural light radiates from the windows in Liz’s living room, illuminating the tall ceilings and rustic brick walls of what was once a textile factory in Philadelphia. While the large windows and the brilliant view of the Philly skyline harken to the outside, it is Liz’s aesthetic choices that evoke the natural world and its potential for human engagement. Her loft includes not only dozens of plants, but art and spatial design echoing the activities that take place outside—namely, hanging one’s legs off of a wooden tree swing. Just as Howard advocated for activity centers in cities, Liz has intentionally created mini “activity centers” in her home.

In Garden Cities of To-morrow, Howard writes, “human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together.” If he were here today, perhaps he would beckon the beauty of nature into our homes instead of beckoning the people out. Perhaps a houseplant (or two) or a space with natural light pays homage to the man who desired an integration of landscape and human interaction.

Sources: Garden Cities of To-morrow, Apartment Therapy

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

Approval for David Adjaye’s Library and Events Complex

Image Credit: Dezeen

David Adjaye has won approval to design a “micro village” in Florida’s Winter Park. The Winter Park Public Library and Events Center is replacing an existing civic center with David Adjaye’s cultural building on a new site near Martin Luther King Jr Park. The center includes three pavilions with vaulted red walls. The library building will have circular skylights to bring daylight into the reading areas. The buildings—raised on a platform—will help shape communal outdoor space.

Source: Dezeen

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

Domino Sugar Refinery: Ruin or Building?

When is a building considered a ruin? That’s the question currently being discussed between design firm PAU and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The Domino Sugar Refinery was built in the 1880s on the riverfront in Brooklyn, and has been vacant for more than a decade. When the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU) revealed its plans for the Domino Sugar Refinery, their proposal planned to use the masonry facade to mask a new glass office building. They argued that the building was in fact a ruin, or “a doughnut awaiting filling.”

Users of the building would experience the historic facade from a series of metal decks between the two. The LPC instead contends that the proposal transforms an adaptable building into a ruin.

Source: Arch Daily


Pencils Confidential

In a digital age, photographers Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney have created a series of photographs commemorating the traditional tool of the architect: the pencil. The images feature extravagant mechanical pencils, simple knife sharpened pencils, and the tooth-marked set of yellow pencils owned by artist David Shrigley. World famous architect Thomas Heatherwick’s pencil is embedded in an ornamental metal grip.

The images have been collected in a book titled “The Secret Life of the Pencil,” available from publisher Laurence King.

Source: Dezeen