In a season of climate change, we’re plagued by more than high winds and rising waters, massive blizzards and hail storms, damaging surges and colossal floods. Though more and more of us live through these frequent disasters, we can’t seem to find ways to focus on the key question they raise about everything from protecting our coast lines and river banks, to where to develop real estate and where to find next the tax base. Distracted from these very real but hard to solve problems roiling around us, our ecological strategies remain unfocused, kept under our radar by a general lack of clear communication and public discourse. Here Kevin Shanley, FASLA, is CEO of SWA Group and a long-time resident of Houston, provokes us to think deeper than the next tweet. –SSS
Kevin Shanley, FASLA / SWA Group
Jared Green: You were recently in Washington, D.C. speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, this is an issue on the minds of just about everybody who lives on the coast. What were the lessons of this disaster?
Kevin Shanley: There are several lessons. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.
The other lesson we need to learn is quite important: we forget really quickly. Katrina happened, now eight years ago. Some structural changes were made to the levee system, but all of the really great plans to re-build New Orleans as a more sustainable community, a better community, a more integrated community came to nothing. In Houston in 2008, Hurricane Ike was a near miss. The SSPEED Center at Rice University is involved with this and has been working to make sure we don’t forget what happened with Ike. If Ike had come in, it would have been a disaster ten-fold Katrina. It didn’t, so we were lucky. It swerved about sixty miles to the east and it literally wiped the Bolivar Peninsula clean, virtually every structure on the peninsula was gone. It went up Chambers County, an agricultural community, and created huge damage, but relatively light because there’s nobody there, which is a lesson to learn.
Hurricane Ike damage at the Bolivar Peninsula / Bryan Carlile, Beck Geodetix
The challenge after Sandy is to ask ourselves what’s the next thing that’s going to distract everybody? In 2001, Houston was hit not with a hurricane but with a really amazing tropical storm called Allison. It dumped thirty inches of rain in twenty-four hours. It flooded seventy-five thousand homes and ninety five thousand cars. It was an amazing flood. It actually tracked all the way up to Canada. Post-Allison, many good things started to happen and a number actually did happen. There were bigger policy changes and changes that many of us were working on, but then in September 2001, guess what happened? The national attention, the local attention, everybody’s attention totally changed and a lot of policy-changing momentum was lost. (more…)
Having followed Robin Guenther’s work for some time, when Fast Company named this FAIA and LEED AP one of “The World’s 100 Most Creative People in Business 2012,” I was delighted, but not surprised. The sustainable healthcare design leader at Perkins + Will is known as a strong and persistent advocate for human- and planetary health. Her crusade to increase her own knowledge about our material world gives her the authority of someone with genuine concern for her fellow creatures and long-term experience in the complex filed of health care design. Her advice to the magazine’s readers about the materials we live with every day, is dramatic in its simplicity:
“If they don’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want what’s in it.”
“Consult your nose—if it stinks, don’t use it.”
“Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can.”
With this in mind, I asked Robin to talk about the Health Products Disclosure (HPD) initiative, and how it may change our material world for the better. Read her realistic, but optimistic observations on everything from HPD’s short and long term influence on the built environment, to the power of the design community in creating positive change in the marketplace, and more.
Susan S. Szenasy: You have been an eloquent advocate for patients (in fact anyone who works or visits) in the healthcare segment for as long as I can remember. Your ammo has been finding the least toxic, most healthy products available for the interiors you design. In view of your long and inspiring campaign for healthy interiors, what does the formation of HPD signal to you?
Robin Guenther: The HPD represents a major milestone in the advocacy for safer and healthier building materials. For the first time, we will have access to important, accurate information on the contents of building materials – “a nutrition label,” so to speak, that we can use to inform our specifications. As the HPD information is used to build Pharos, the Healthy Building Network comparative tool, it will accelerate the possibility of independent comparisons of products, another important aspect of this quest. (more…)
The author and urbanist Daniel Brook has a fascinating new book out entitled A History of Future Cities. In it he examines three historic “instant” cities—Mumbai (Bombay), Shanghai, and St. Petersburg—along with that over-the-top 21st century newcomer, Dubai. He looks at the economics, culture, architecture, and political forces that formed these cities; all of them grew rapidly, exploding, seemingly overnight. Brook’s smart take works on two levels—as a kind of cautionary tale for today’s world and a helpful reminder that this phenomenon is not entirely new. The author will speak at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 15 and at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn on April 18th. Recently I traded email questions with the New Orleans-based writer. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Martin C. Pedersen: How did the idea for the book evolve?
Daniel Brook: The spark for the book came when I went to Mumbai for the first time, in 2005. It immediately reminded me of St. Petersburg, where I’d been previously, both in its architectural mimicry of Western Europe and in the overt attempt of its people to be Western-oriented cosmopolitans. The Shanghai piece came to me after a fortuitous conversation with the translator who guided me around a Southern California-themed gated community on the outskirts of Beijing, called Orange County. She told me she couldn’t understand why American readers would be interested in something as mundane as this suburban subdivision, so I told her, deadpan, that I thought American readers would be quite surprised to learn there’s a Southern California-themed gated community near the Beijing airport. “Yeah, that’s more of a Shanghai thing,” she replied. “They’ve been doing this down there for a hundred years.” Sure enough, when I read up on Shanghai, she was right. And when I got there, in 2009, I ended up visiting a subdivision called Columbia Circle that was built by an American real estate developer in the 1920s. It looked a lot like where I grew up on Long Island, which makes sense since that too was built by American real estate developers in the 1920s. I also wanted a new global city just beginning this process today, so I added Dubai, which is the most famous and dramatic of them. (more…)
Recently, when the giant retailer Walmart announced its commitment to source $50 billion worth of goods in the U.S. in the next 10 years, I was curious to find out what this initiative would mean to our economy, labor force, manufacturing capacity, and more. So I put some questions to Dr. Daniel Mahler, PhD in communications, partner and head of Americas for A. T. Kearney, a global management-consulting firm. As the firm’s lead senior advisor to several large global U.S. corporations with revenues of up to $80 billion, and with a reputation for a commitment to sustainability, I thought Dr. Mahler’s reasoned voice would help us understand what changes may be brewing as more of our products will bear the once familiar and proud label, “Made in the USA.” I tracked him down as he traveled between his New York office and Shanghai, to ask some questions about the economic shifts taking place today.
Susan S. Szenasy: With Walmart’s commitment to source $50 billion worth of goods in the U.S. in the next 10 years, and considering our crumbling industrial base, is there any low hanging fruit left in American manufacturing? Which industry is most likely to spring into action in wake of the Walmart challenge?
Dr. Daniel Mahler: My feeling is that if there’s any low hanging fruit to be found in U.S. manufacturing, little of it is going to be about further lowering the costs of manufacturing here. If you think about the economic period from which we’re only just emerging, not only those moving their manufacturing to China, but those who remained here had to do as much as possible to make sure they were competitive. Although there are always creative approaches to gaining new efficiencies, the most obvious efficiency plays have mostly run their course.
Therefore, this is probably more about Walmart sensing that when you do the math and look not just at the cost of manufacturing, but at the total cost, the equation starts to shift in favor of the U.S. There’s the cost of bringing manufactured product to the U.S., the risk-cost of a product not getting here on time, the cost of product adulteration when bad things happen in the supply chain, which is huge in terms of risk, liability and reputation – these are all parts of the total cost picture. (more…)
Curtis B. Wayne is the host of the podcast Burning Down the House featured on Heritage Radio Network out of Brooklyn, New York. On his show he talks with architects about issues that affect the field as well as veering into architectural history—of which he is very well versed—and the bigger ideas that inform what architecture is or can be. Some of his recent guests have included Alexandra Lange, professor of design criticism at the School of Visual Arts and NYU, and author of the book Writing about Architecture; architect Winka Dubbeldam; “digital craftsman” and designer Guy Martin; David Bergman, and Victoria Meyers.
Wayne colorfully describes his show as “a weekly discourse on all things built, destroyed, admired, and despised.” It is a hold-no-punches exchange of ideas and tough, unfiltered critique. Below is our unfiltered conversation.
Guy Horton: How did Burning Down the House come about?
Curtis B. Wayne: The Internet radio station I’m on, Heritage Radio Network, resides in two shipping containers in the garden of a well-regarded hipster pizzeria in Brooklyn. The short version of the story is that it was started by a proponent of what’s called the Slow Food Movement. So they were covering food issues but also wanted to branch out and cover other cultural issues. I ended up on the station as a guest and they asked if I wanted to do a show on architecture. Now, why would I want to do a radio show? I’m one of those people who wanted to be an architect when I was eight. And now I’ve been doing this for forty years. I got a wonderful architectural education at Cooper Union, studying under people like John Hejduk, Raimund Abraham, and Peter Eisenman, but I also studied theatre when I was there. So I took theatre design and acting classes. We did a lot of improv, which was very good preparation for sitting in front of a mic to talk to thousands of strangers and not get tongue-tied. It became an opportunity to address issues of the built environment and push an agenda about the choices we make about how we live. (more…)
PID Week participants and students. Photo credit: College of Design
The University of Minnesota’s College of Design (Cdes) hosted the premier Public Interest Design Week (PID Week) from March 19-24. Attracting approximately 500 participants nationally and internationally, the conference was organized by a tireless team led by conference chair, John Cary, of PublicInterestDesign.org, who is also a research fellow within the Cdes. If the many issues and problems percolating at the intersection of design and service were not addressed or resolved in 5 short days it was not for lack of trying – PID Week was a blazing success because it put a critical lens on many design challenges from macro to micro, urban to rural, economically rich to poor, from the United States to Africa. What struck me as singularly inspiring was the keenness and enthusiasm brought by the keynote speakers, the session leaders and participants to the PID conference’s platform. It seemed highly unlikely that participants were hanging out in the hotel bar due to lack of content.
PID Week participants, L-R: John Cary, PID Week Chair; Liz Ogbu, designer, social innovator and Keynote speaker; Laura Marlo, Reed Construction Data, a PID Week sponsor; and, Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design, U of MN. Photo Credit: College of Design
Central to PID Week’s success is the role of Thomas Fisher, professor of architecture and dean of the College of Design (Cdes) since 1996. Fisher is recognized as a catalyst in the design world as a university educator (John Cary is his former student), an advocate for good design from freeway bridges to football stadiums to healthcare, and a provocative intellectual force. He’s authored numerous books including Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design (Routledge, 2012); The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela (U of MN Press, 2011) and Ethics for Architects: 50 Dilemmas of Professional Practice (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010). His expansive mind and professional acumen is buoyed by a sense of humor. He is approachable. Even funny. Grass does not grow beneath Tom Fisher’s feet.
Since 2000 when the Healthy Building Network (HBN) was founded, the advocacy group has been researching and making public their findings on environmentally friendly building materials and policies. In 2006 HBN introduced the Pharos Project, to publish information on the environmental impact of building materials commonly used by today’s architecture and construction industry sectors. In 2009, Pharos received an award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which called the project “a revolutionary on-line tool for evaluating and comparing the health, environmental and social impacts of building materials in a comprehensive and transparent way.” In my series of Q&As about the Health Product Declaration (HPD), I asked Bill Walsh, founder of HBN and executive director, to provide the public advocate’s point of view. Here he talks about some initial victories and the dogged efforts of a small group of dedicated professionals (30 people in all) who have volunteered for the battle to clean up our environment, one building product at a time.
Susan S. Szenasy: Recently you wrote in Healthy Building News that “March 17th marks the 10th anniversary of the EPA order that made it illegal to use the arsenic-based pesticide CCA (chromated copper arsenate) to treat wood intended for most residential uses,” and that, as a result, “the amount of arsenic used in the United States [has dropped] from over twenty metric tons annually to approximately six” since 2003. What do these hopeful numbers tell you about the inroads HPD can make on helping to eliminate toxic materials from our built environment?
Bill Walsh: The Healthy Building Network initiated the effort to create the Health Product Declaration [HPD] because informed customers are the most influential driver of healthier building products. With pressure treated wood, once consumers understood that there were two equivalent types of product on the market – that with arsenic, and that without – the writing was on the wall. Chemical manufacturers voluntarily withdraw their requests to EPA for an exemption to arsenic restrictions. That made it easy for EPA to take the action it did.
As HPDs gain currency, unnecessary, avoidable toxic hazards will be the first thing to go. For example, I expect we will see a steady transition out of chemical flame-retardants in many uses where they are unnecessary, such as below grade foam insulation, and provide no added safety benefit, such as in upholstery foams. Leading manufacturers have also said that the HPD will create an incentive for companies to make quiet transitions in order to avoid disclosing problematic chemicals.
Over the long-term, the HPD is going to create incentives for continuous improvement toward ever-healthier building products. But the first thing the HPD is going to accomplish is a rapid acceleration away from hazards that can be avoided today.
When we started planning our “creative process” issue, it became obvious that we’d use the opportunity to circle back to Steven Holl, whose watercolors we’ve featured in the past and remain absolutely central to his process. Holl has published two books of watercolors, Written in Water (Lars Müller, 2002) and Scale (Lars Müller, 2012), and loves talking the role they play for him. In fact, the connection between initial drawing and completed building is often remarkably strong. The AIA 2012 Gold Medal-winning architect is an utterly disarming interview (it feels like you’re having drinks with him at a bar instead of conducting a formal inquisition). Our conversation formed the basis for the recent magazine article. An edited version follows:
Martin C. Pedersen: Your watercolors are famous. Are they always the first gesture on a project?
Steven Holl: Yes. And I have thousands of them. Do you know how many watercolors I have?
MCP: I have no idea.
SH: More than 10,000. I have these boxes over my desk. They go all the way back to 1977.
MCP: How did that start?
SH: I have always drawn. Drawing is central to architecture. I used to do pencil drawings. Around 1979 I streamlined it to the 5-by-7 watercolors. I decided to fix that format so that I could always have my sketches available.
MCP: Do you draw when you’re travelling?
SH: Yes. Every day. I did three drawings this morning between six and nine. I worked on three different things. I’m working on a big project in Dongguan, China. And yesterday we changed the entire concept. And you know what? A five-by-seven-inch watercolor pad will hold 5.5 million square feet. (more…)
As head of the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Collaborative, Peter C. Syrett comes to the project with a robust track record that includes his work at Perkins + Will. Five years ago that firm released its Precautionary List, based on nearly a decade of research of potentially toxic materials specified by the architecture and interior design professionals who shape our built environment, inside and outside. Today, Syrett is chairman of the HPD board and has recently launched a new firm, rePlaceUrban Studio, with his partner Philip Palmgren who lead the urban design practice in the New York office of Perkins + Will. “As a practice we aim to build social, ecological, and economic capital in each of our endeavors,” promises Syrett. “We strive to create a healthier urban future;” their new website will be up and running on March 18th. Here he gives some thoughtful answers to questions about what HPD is doing and how it’s going about making our built environment healthier for all who live and work in it.
Susan S. Szenasy: You were part of the group at Perkins + Will that came up with the firm’s Precautionary List of building and furnishings materials known to be dangerous to human health. Can you explain the genesis of that program and what you all hoped would happen as a result of the firm’s free sharing of the information you collected?
Peter C. Syrett: I believe the transformation of the building material market into one that supports human and ecological health will occur in three phases. The first phase is awareness; the Precautionary List is apart of this phase. The Precautionary List grew out of nine years of research on material health. When we released it in 2009 it was intended to be an open resource on substances of concern in building materials, with the intent of provoking action in the design community.
We are now in the second phase, which is about the curation and dissemination of information. In this phase awareness continues to grow through greater access to information while the quality of the information and its specificity improves. The HPD is the main tool of this phase.
The last phase is innovation. In this phase the market begins to react to the knowledge gained in the earlier two phases. Tools like the HPD will still need to exist in this last stage because we always need a means to get concise information about a product’s content and its associated health issues. That is why the Precautionary List was so important; it got people to look at the built environment in a different way. It is like reading, once you learn to read you can’t look at a word and not read it. My hope is that designers, owners, builders, now look at a material and can’t help think what is in it because of the Precautionary List.
SSS: Now you are chairman of the HPD Board (and working at a new firm). Can you talk about your plans in going forward with HPD and what your goals are? Is there a timeline for action?
PCS: Last fall at GreenBuild we released the first version of the HPD. Until then all our efforts were focused upon creating the HPD and gathering a core group of earlier supporters and enlightened manufacturers for the pilot program. Now that HPD Standard is out we need to quickly build the organizational structure to increase the number of HPDs. We see this as a multi-pronged effort. Foremost, we must increase demand for HPDs. Fortunately, this is already happening. Just last week Cannon Design sent out a letter to manufacturers requesting HPDs “for products used in our buildings be publicly provided” and by January 1, 2015, “only products with product content transparency will be allowed in our library and selected for inclusion on projects.” We will work hard to make sure that Cannon Design’s insistence on HPDs becomes the norm in the building industry.
We are also setting up a universal approach for the adoption by rating systems, certifying organizations, purchasing groups, and other parties that wish to use the HPDs as a disclosure standard. This is a complex effort, but is essential to making HPDs a part of standard practice.
Most importantly, we are looking at ways to help manufacturers to provide HPDs for their products. Creating a HPD, even for the most basic product, takes a huge amount of effort. Partnering with the manufacturing community is essential for the success of the HPD. To that end, we will be reaching out to members of the manufacturing community that have NOT embraced the use of HPDs to get their input on what we need to do to make the HPD work for them. This will allow us to better refine the HPD for its next update.
Ultimately, we hope that use of HPDs exponentially increases in the next few years. We are going to do everything possible to make this a reality. (more…)
The U.S. EPA, the European Union Commission on the Environment, the State of California are among the government organizations that have come out on the side of healthy materials for our built environment. In addition, there are a growing number of associations and firms engaged in collecting data on toxic materials that should be avoided, sharing their information with the public. They include the Healthy Building Network ‘s Pharos Project, Clean Production Action, Perkins + Will’s Precautionary List, Living Building Challenge and that organization’s Watch List, and the various LEED programs, such as HC and Pilot.
Most recently, the first open standard format for reporting the content and hazards in building products was launched at Greenbuild 2012. Called the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Open Standard Version 1, the program is managed by a non-profit group of collaborators. The HPD Collaborative is lead by the Pilot Project Committee of 29 building product manufacturers and 50 expert reviewers from across the building industry. The collaborative is in the process of developing, maintaining, and evolving the HPD Open Standard to meet the growing demand from the design and specifying community for health information on the many products used in our buildings. Included in this pilot group is the Canadian furniture manufacturer Teknion. In an effort to build the case for HPD, starting from the supplier’s point of view, I asked Tracy Backus, LEED AP ID+C, director of sustainability programs at Teknion U.S. to answer a few questions. Here she talks about what one manufacturer is doing to safeguard human health, and the Earth that gives us life.
Susan S. Szenasy: As a member of the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Working Group, in the manufacturing sector, and with Teknion’s long-term commitment to environmental health, could you tell us why your firm has decided to join this particular group? And what are your hopes for outcomes?
Tracy Backus: We were asked by Google to participate originally. As we looked more closely at our history and how Teknion has already made steps to reduce chemicals from our products, like PVC, it was a natural for us to begin the work of full disclosure to the public. The challenge was developing a method that worked for all manufactures of building materials. That is the work of the HPD.
SSS: I understand you heard about HPD from a client, Google, in search of more transparency in products’ chemical/material content, as these relate to human health effects. What was Google looking for?
TB: Google is aligning its business to protect the health and well-being of it’s employees by building and procuring products that eliminate chemicals of concern, identified by the EPA, Living Building Challenge, and the National Cancer Institute. They are investing and, therefore, expect the same of manufacturers to advance the industry to research and develop safer materials for the built environment. (more…)
Michael Luck Schneider
At the upcoming Digital Signage Expo (February 26-28) in Las Vegas, there will be a lot of talk about integrating electronic media into the designed environment. On the 26th, at a full-day session called “New Design Directions: Dynamic Digital Environments,” Michael Luck Schneider, senior designer at ESI in New York will discuss, in some detail, the collaborative effort it took to create the Dream Cube in Shanghai. I asked him about how his global team worked together as they communicated between Cologne to Sydney to Beijing and points between; and the ways and means of systems design. In my previous interviews on the topic of media-rich environments, panelist Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Center City, talked about the use of digital media in the large-scale urban environment; Jeff Kovel, AIA, principal at Skylab Architecture in Portland, Oregon, discussed his firm’s experience in building Camp Victory for Nike. Here we dig down into ESI’s interactive spectacular, designed, as Schneider says, to “demonstrate the power of collaboration in shaping a more sustainable future.”
Created with flickr slideshow.
Susan S. Szenasy: Let’s use your project, the Dream Cube in Shanghai, to discuss how media rich environments come together, and how this project relates to other, previous work at ESI. Firstly, the global communication part. How did that work? Describe the expertise on the team in NYC and Shanghai, and another location, if any. Then talk about how the team came together.
Michael Luck Schneider: At ESI we always start the design process by imagining a project from the audience’s perspective and thinking about what their experience should be. Once we defined the vision for the Dream Cube—to create an interactive spectacular that would demonstrate the power of collaboration in shaping a more sustainable future—the next step was to find the partners that help us produce it. Through an open bid process we ended up with a pretty incredible international team based in in New York, Cologne, Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Los Angeles.
The first partner to come onboard was the lighting design group Full Flood, based in Los Angeles. As the visual content of the Dream Cube really came to life through projections, LED and LCD displays, light was a key medium to create a unified experience, and Full Flood was instrumental in the process from an early stage.
Spinifex Group from Sydney then came on to translate our design into animations and develop the majority of the audio-visual content. They’re unique in having a deep understanding of the technology that drives media experiences, which enables their team to build amazing stories for unique canvases like the Dream Cube. They also worked with a team in Hong Kong to produce local Shanghai video shoots and compose the experience’s musical themes.
PRG Germany joined as the systems integrator, and they oversaw the design and implementation of what was a highly complex and groundbreaking technological system. Pico in Shanghai supported our designs and mockups. They also did the final exhibit fabrication and installation.
With this international group, having face-to-face meetings with everyone at the table was essential to establish a shared view of the project and common goals. Once these were defined, we were able to use digital tools to review and track process in all quarters, and we held weekly calls to ensure clear communication throughout the process. Spinifex also developed a model that enabled us to view media mapped to a 3D visualization, which turned out to be invaluable. In addition, we had two full-scale mockups built—one in Shanghai and one in Berlin—that enabled us to review and refine the project in person at critical stages.
Parking structure, Roosevelt Island, New York
Do you ever wonder how another person does what you love doing? As a photographer, trained in architecture, I do. So when I get a chance to talk to a person who’s as turned on by cities, structures, and details, I grab the first chance I get a conversation going. Meeting fellow photographer Heike Buelau, known for expressing herself through capturing the poetic aspect of our constructed environment, was like meeting a kindred spirit. As I was to find out, we share some aesthetic sensibilities, but how she arrives at her vision is completely her own.
Jean Nouvel, Chelsea condo tower, New York
With training in classical operatic singing, the German born Heike brings a sound/musical sensibility to her photography, framing every shot she takes, brining to the appreciation of the city and buildings a special flair. Used to the language of rhythmic tempo, the pauses, the piano forte, the crescendos, Buelau visually re-interprets the city as if composing a piece for chamber music: gentle, subtle, every note essential, regardless of how simple.
In a temporary hiatus from the U.S., with her a new show opening in Torino, Italy–as she was preparing the imagery she created while exploring new horizons, sights, cityscapes in the Far East, from Dubai to Abu Dabi and Kuwait–I caught up with Heike and asked her to elaborate on her views on architecture, art, and the Dubai urbanscape.
Smith Gill Architects, Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai
Paul Clemence: What catches your eyes as you navigate the city?
Heike Buelau: Detail, small, hidden, largely undetected detail.
PC: You talk about silence a lot, how you value it….Amidst the urban chaos, how do you find it?
HB: This question ties beautifully into the first. To me a moment of silence is a moment in which I get to experience a pause from the constant influx of imagery and information in daily life, which generally sets off a never ending and unwanted noise in my mind. I have come to find that pause, that silence more and more in the detail of things and structures. The more I close in on the finest feature of a particular building, for example, the more I get drawn into its absolute beauty. Subsequently this results in that magical moment of silence. A moment of having discovered something in which all else gets shut out. All that exists to me at that point is the creative genius of the architect and my very own response to it.
Asymptote , project, Yas Hotel Abu Dhabi
Victoria Meyers is an architect with a prolific and varied career. She is a founding partner at hMa, where her current design interests include how architecture can achieve beauty while embodying the principle of “zeroness” as well as using sound and light to produce unique architectural solutions. But Meyers does not limit her endeavors solely to practicing architecture. She also writes—one book on light, another currently in development, on sound—and she teaches.
Given that the field of architecture has changed radically over the past five years through a convergence of economic factors and technological advancements, we asked Meyers to offer some of her observations on architectural education.
Won Dharma Center, image via hanrahanmeyers.com
Sherin Wing: How did your own education influence the way you teach now?
Victoria Meyers: It’s hard to know what to tell people. My undergraduate degree was in civil engineering and art history, so I had a much broader knowledge of art history than my contemporaries at the GSD. It’s not for everyone to do what I did. Most people don’t want to be in school as long as I was, they don’t want to read as many books as I’ve read and they don’t want to spend as many hours studying as I’ve spent studying. But when I’m teaching and when I’m talking to contemporaries about a project, I will always go into the history of a typology more because that is very real for me.
SW: How has your perspective on education changed over the years?
VM: For many years I was tough as a teacher, though now I’m not. I look at the kids and I see such a rough road ahead of them and I think back on my own educational experience. I think back at the different things that were evaluated and realize that things never turn out the way we were told or expect them to. When we were graduating, there was one or two students held up to us as superstars, but we never heard from them after graduation. I’ve also been behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain and I know all the machinations of people who teach, psychological games, and how they’re presenting information.
Infinity Chapel, image via hanrahanmeyers.com
In preparation for a panel I’ll be moderating on February 26, at the Digital Signage Expo (February 26-28) coming to the Las Vegas Convention Center, I decided to learn more about my panelists, their subjects, and the potential breakthroughs in media technologies. “New Design Directions: Dynamic Digital Environments,” organized by the irrepressible Leslie Gallery-Dilworth, FAIA, will conclude with a conversation between the day’s presenters and me. Here I start on the large scale, the city, and how the urban environment can benefit from the newest technologies, be it through offering new experiences or new development opportunities, all of which respect the glorious building stock that distinguishes many of our cities. Philadelphia, the cradle of American democracy certainly fits into our list of treasured cities. So I start my Q&A series by asking Paul R. Levy, the president and CEO of the Center City District to talk about a recent kinetic light installation in that historic area, and his hopes for what it will bring to his city.
Paul Levy, President and CEO of the Center City District
Susan S. Szenasy: I understand that Philadelphia’s Center City District (Market Street East at the Gallery), which you oversee, has been designated as a large scale digital signage area. What will this initiative do for the area (talk about your expectations here)? And why, in the first place, has it been decided to establish digital sign guidelines?
Paul R. Levy: Market Street East is a 7 blocks shopping and hotel district that is just one portion of a 120 block business improvement district that covers the entire central business district of Philadelphia. In the 19th and early 20th century it was the city’s primary department store shopping district, but it declined for much of the latter half of 20th century. Now, it is the link between a large convention center and the Independence National Historical Park and is being repositioned a hospitality, destination retail, and entertainment district. Digital designs were approved to achieve two objectives: animation of the exterior of several large buildings and the generation of new revenues that can be captured by developers who are seeking to transform obsolete buildings and vacant sites. The guidelines were established to limit signs to only those properties that have a minimum of $10 million capital investment in their building for general renovation purposes, to limit the locations that can have signs and set size and other design parameters.