The Island that Nobody Knows

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For more than three centuries, Deer Island has been the place where Boston has put the things it would rather not think about. It has been a concentration camp for Native Americans, a women’s prison, a fortress against invasion from the sea. When bodies are dumped into Boston’s waters, they wash up on Deer Island’s shores. It is also where the city’s excrement goes, the site of the Deer Island Wastewater Management Plant, a masterwork of infrastructural design that opened in 1995, after a federal court mandated the clean-up of Boston Harbor. On an average day, the Deer Island plant treats some 350 million gallons of sewage; in the event of a storm surge it can treat up to 1.3 billion gallons per day.

The plant is most recognizable for its twelve egg-shaped digesters, each 130 feet tall, which thicken sludge so that it can be converted into fertilizer. Contaminated water is purified over ten to fifteen days as it is fed through a series of “batteries,” or pools, where it is gradually aerated and cleansed before it is returned to Massachusetts Bay by a 9.5 mile, twenty-four-foot-wide, gravity-fed tunnel. Below the plant’s surface is a secret world of labyrinthine galleries, colorful machinery, and electric vehicles that looks like nothing so much as the lair of a James Bond villain. But nobody at Deer Island is trying to blow up the world. It is operated, instead, by a cadre of engineers and tradesman dedicated to keeping Boston’s water clean in times pleasant and severe.

During my fellowship year in Cambridge, I made a photographic project of documenting Deer Island, and those images were exhibited in a show, The Island that Nobody Knows, at Boston’s PinkComma Gallery. This month that show travels to the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture, where it will be on display from February 26 through the end of March.

#SavetheKalita

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kalita Humphreys Theater is the single most neglected and mismanaged landmark in Dallas,and its state of disrepair is an ongoing civic travesty. In my most recent long-ish form piece, I write about how this has happened, and about the plan to finally do something about it. I hope you will read it, and join the conservancy fighting for to save this treasure for the city.

Other recent stories:
—Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin
A New Home for the Dallas Morning News
Toyota’s New HQ: An Architectural Camry
Why Should Dallas Care about Design if its Art Museum Doesn’t
Save the AT&T Building
The Arboretum’s New Glass Pavilion
Frank Welch, the Dean of Texas Modernism
Whats Wrong (and Right) with Dallas Architecture
The Wright Stuff
An Architectural Cure for Cancer
What Frederick Law Olmsted Thought About Dallas
Architectural Criticism in a Digital Age
Paul Rudolph’s Towering Achievement
An Open Letter to Ben Carson

Back to School

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When I became the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, three years ago, the idea from the outset was to expand the idea of that position, to think not just about signature buildings and their designers, but to examine the entire physical environment of the city. I think this is the right way to approach this position, really the only viable way to approach it, but as I’ve worked to expand this definition of my role, I’ve bumped up on the limits of my own education. My academic background is in architectural history, the story of signature buildings and the men (usually) who built them. I would like to be a more effective advocate for the city, and toward that goal, I will be spending the next academic year on a Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This will give me to study public policy and urban planning, among other subjects, with the extraordinary community there. I’m hoping that when I return (and, don’t worry, I will return), I’ll be better able to offer solutions to the issues Dallas faces, not just point out the problems.

I should also note that it will be fun to spend a year on the stomping grounds of Philip Johnson, who spent a decade at Harvard as an undergrad and then graduate in the design school. Better still, my biography of Johnson should be complete (I hope) by the time the fellowship begins.

The Year in Review

2015It’s always a good to be a journalist in Texas, but this year was something special: butt injections, a paranoid district attorney on the lam, a kid with a clock. As the late, great Molly Ivins would have it, Texas politics is the finest form of free entertainment devised by man. Except sometimes it’s not so funny. Always, however, it’s interesting. To follow are some of the stories that captured my attention this year. Enjoy.

Man of Steel: The Story of Robert Bruno
A Question of Vision in Marfa
Reinventing Buffalo Bayou
Remaking the Stretto House
Frank Welch: On Becoming an Architect
Inventing Northpark Center
Broad Appeal
The New Parkland
Patricia the Guard

Man of Steel: The Life and Work of Robert Bruno

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In the early 1970s, sculptor Robert Bruno began work on a house of corten steel in a suburban development just outside of Lubbock. When Bruno died more than three decades later, that house, a remarkable organic structure looking out over a recreational lake, was still unfinished. Today it sits vacant and empty, its future uncertain. Meanwhile, much of Bruno’s other work, a catalog as astonishing as it is diverse (jewelry, sculpture, furniture, architecture) is either forgotten, neglected, or lost altogether. My latest feature for the DMN tells Bruno’s story. It’s said that journalism is the “first draft at history,” and I hope this piece will introduce Bruno to the cannon and inspire more in depth examination of his career. An excerpt:

You first see it, this unlikely vision, shortly after turning onto Canyon View Drive, a gently rolling street lined by the kind of anonymous homes that define American suburbia. What is peeking up over the horizon is something decidedly different, however, and soon enough you will come upon it in all its remarkable glory: a four-legged organism of blackened steel perched on a scruffy ridge, its curving forms resolving themselves in a postcard view over the blue waters of a recreational lake. It could easily be something landed from outer space, the kind of house a James Bond villain might occupy, if he were to put down roots in a nondescript residential development 15 minutes from the drowsy heart of downtown Lubbock.

Inside, there are no aliens and no cinema bad guys. The house itself is unoccupied and has been since 2008, when Robert Bruno, the charismatic if somewhat mysterious sculptor who had made the house his life’s work, died at age 64 after a prolonged battle with colon cancer.

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As meticulous as he was capricious, Bruno had built the house with virtually no assistance over the course of some 30 years, designing and modifying it as he went, frequently tearing out portions that no longer pleased him. On an apparent whim, he was known to jettison months of work. It was a process that seemed to take as many steps backward as forward and left friends and neighbors to wonder if he would ever finish. Indeed, after so many decades, they had come to understand that finishing was something that didn’t matter to him.

You’ll find the story, with interactive features showing the house during construction, is here.

Where Mad Men Meets the Facts of Life

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My latest for the Dallas Morning News is a feature on the erstwhile Braniff Hostess College, a forgotten gem of the mod era, where the airline trained its flight attendants. Reporting the piece was great fun, and I’ve included a short “oral history” of life in the building, and in the sky, from the hostesses themselves. An excerpt:

The doors and windows to those rooms were fitted with an electronic alarm system connected to the front desk, lest any hostess try to break curfew or import one of the city’s eligible bachelors. Monitoring of the trainees was strict. Although the airline traded on their sexual appeal and presumed availability, it did not, in fact, want its hostesses to be available. The company’s insistent use of the term “college” denoted a vision of ladylike sophistication, as if its training center should be considered alongside Bryn Mawr and Wellesley.

Indeed, hostesses were required to be of “good character,” “pleasant disposition” and “easy temperament,” with at least two years of college education, according to a contemporary brochure. Graduates could expect long hours sitting by the telephone, waiting for calls not from suitors, but unforgiving Braniff flight dispatchers. It was typical for hostesses to wear wigs, as they were afraid to miss a call while in the shower.

But they were also objects, and being attractive, young and single was part of the equation. “When you got married or turned 32 you had to quit,” said Aggie Clark, a Clipped B. “We just assumed we turned too ugly or too dumb.” The physical requirements were stringent: height between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 9 inches; no more than 135 pounds.

Other recent stories:
James Carpenter Gift Wraps the Cotton Bowl
Architecture to the Rescue
Dallas: A Canvass for Change
Escaping Astrodoom
A Plan to Save Braniff’s OMB
DFW: A No-Nonsense Monument Hits Middle Age

The Seagram Story

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My favorite postwar building in New York? There are only two options: the Whitney, Marcel Breuer’s inverted ziggurat on Madison Avenue, and the Seagram Building, the Mies-Johnson masterwork on Park. Both possess a rare combination of modern austerity and generous, almost playful humanity. I write about Phyllis Lambert and the making of the Seagram Building in this Sunday’s New York Times:

Though it now seems an implacable and timeless monument, a bronzed monolith standing resolutely behind its well-proportioned plaza, the tower’s existence was by no means ordained. In June 1953 Ms. Lambert was a 26-year-old recently divorced sculptor living in Paris, a self-imposed exile from her native Montreal and from her domineering father.

It was then that she reeled off a missive to her father, a response to his own letter outlining plans for a New York skyscraper. She was not impressed with the undistinguished modern box his architects proposed and let him know: “This letter starts with one word repeated very emphatically,” she wrote, “NO NO NO NO NO.”

Seven more pages followed, in which Ms. Lambert alternately scolded, cajoled and lectured her father on architectural history and civic responsibility. There was “nothing whatsoever commendable” in the proposed design, she wrote. “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.”

Check it out, along with a follow up on Design Observer.

Big D

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I am pleased to announce that next month I will become the new architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, and also a professor in the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington. This is an extraordinary personal opportunity, to say the least, and one that will place me in a city of Ewing-sized ambition and energy. In getting to know it, I’ve come to see Dallas as a city engaged in a tremendous effort to progressively reinvent itself for the new century, but one that remains burdened by a built legacy that has left it physically and metaphorically divided. In many ways it is the archetypical American city, and in every way it is a fascinating subject.

It is especially heartening, and I suspect not just for me, to see a major metropolitan newspaper finding a way to add an architecture critic to its payroll in 2013. That speaks to the level of interest in architecture and urban planning in Dallas generally, but also to the leadership at the paper and at the university, who together have found a way to make this position possible. Though there has been a welcome proliferation of architectural and urban criticism online, it is a sad fact that the professional rank in daily print journalism is an endangered species. These positions, in my opinion, have the greatest power to shape discourse and policy in the service of the broadest possible public. I am honored and humbled to be joining this select group of practioners.

For the record, I will not be abandoning my home on Design Observer, and I will remain on the masthead at the Architectural Review. Most importantly, work on my biography of Philip Johnson, who had his own critical connections to Texas in general, and Dallas in particular.

The Floating Worlds of Stephen Talasnik

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A few months ago, I had the good fortune to become acquainted with Stephen Talasnik, an artist of considerable energy and charm who creates dense, mesmerizing works in two and three dimensions. New Yorkers may be familar with his idiosyncratic portfolio from one of his many exhibitions here or from his recently installed work at Storm King. Our initial introduction led to my contribution of an essay to Talasnik’s new book, Floating World, a documentation of his installation of extraordinary bamboo islands at the Denver Botanic Gardens. These pieces, all meticulously assembled by hand, are held together by repurposed military restraining ties. An excerpt of my piece from that book is up on Design Observer; I hope it conveys the intelligence, generosity, and visual pleasure of both Talasnik and his work. He has some very exciting major new projects on the horizon, works on a grand land-art scale that I expect will become great American landmarks. But that is for the future.

New York at Night

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What better way to close the year than with a celebration of those beloved establishments, some gone and some still here, that give the city its character? I close the door on 2012 in the Metropolitan section of the Times with “Elegy in Neon,” a short piece on the latest tombstone from James and Karla Murray. (Don’t miss the accompanying slideshow.) As I write: “You can trace your personal geography in these pages. Here’s the reformed speakeasy where you first spied that dark-eyed beauty, the old standby where they still know your order, the dim-sum parlor that served your grandparents and is still there for your children.”

A few other favorites from the year gone by:
Still Here: The Once and Future Library (Metropolis)
A Brief History of the Microwave (Icon)
Letter to a Critic Departed (Design Observer)
The New Barnes (Architectural Review)
Memories of Architecture’s Lost Visionaries (Design Observer)