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Photo: CBS News
Blind architect Chris Downey explains to CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl on
60 Minutes how his disability has made him a better architect.

Talk about making lemonade if life hands you lemons! This story about a man who suffered a devastating loss and eventually came out ahead of the game is inspiring.

Lesley Stahl reported on Chris Downey’s saga for 60 Minutes.

“Several mornings a week, as the sun rises over the Oakland estuary in California, an amateur rowing team works the water. It’s hard to tell which one of them is blind. And Chris Downey thinks that’s just fine.

“CHRIS DOWNEY: It’s really exciting to be in a sport where nobody looks in the direction they’re going. You face this way in the boat and you’re going that way. So, okay even-steven.

“It’s not exactly even-steven in this design meeting, where Downey is collaborating with sighted architects on a new hospital building. But he hasn’t let that stop him.

“LESLEY STAHL: Here you are in a profession that basically requires you to read— read designs and draw designs. You must’ve thought in your head, ‘That is insurmountable?’ …

“DOWNEY: Friends that were architects and anybody else would say, ‘Oh my God, it’s the worst thing imaginable, to be an architect and to lose your sight. I can’t imagine anything worse.’ But I quickly came to realize that — the creative process is an intellectual process. It’s how you think, so I just needed new tools.

“New tools? Downey found a printer that could emboss architectural drawings so that he could read and understand through touch. …

“At age 45, Chris Downey had pretty much constructed the life he’d always wanted. An architect with a good job at a small housing firm outside San Francisco, he was happily married, with a 10-year-old son. He was an assistant little league coach and avid cyclist. And then — doctors discovered a tumor in his brain. He had surgery, and the tumor was safely gone, but Downey was left completely blind. As we first reported in 2019, what he has done in the decade since losing his sight, as a person and as an architect, can only be described as a different kind of vision.

“And he came up with a way to ‘sketch’ his ideas onto the plans using a simple children’s toy — malleable wax sticks that he shapes to show his modifications to others. And he says something surprising started to happen. He could no longer see buildings and spaces, but he began hearing them. …

“DOWNEY: I was fascinated — walking through buildings that I knew sighted. But I was experiencing them in a different way. I was hearing the architecture, I was feeling the space. … It was sort of this — this excitement of, ‘I’m a kid again. I’m— I’m relearning so much of architecture.’

It wasn’t about what I’m missing in architecture, it’s what— was about what I had been missing in architecture.

“Chris Downey’s upbeat attitude doesn’t mean that he didn’t go through one of the most frightening experiences imaginable — and struggle. He and his wife Rosa were living in this same home with their son Renzo, then 10, when Downey first noticed a problem while playing catch with Renzo. The ball kept coming in and out of sight. The cause turned out to be a tumor near his optic nerve. Surgery to remove it lasted nine and a half hours. He says his surgeon had told him there was a slight risk of total sight loss, but that he’d never had it happen. … The next day half his field of vision disappeared. And then —

“DOWNEY: The next time I woke up it was — all gone. It was just black. …

“After days of frantic testing, a surgeon told him it was permanent. Irreversible. And sent in a social worker.

“DOWNEY: She says, ‘Oh, and I see from your chart you’re’— you’re an architect, so we can talk about career alternatives.’ …

“Alone that night in his room, Downey did some serious thinking. About his son, and about his own father, who had died from complications after surgery when Downey was seven years old.

“DOWNEY: I could quickly — appreciate the wonder, the — just the joy of, ‘I’m still here.’ …

“He knew that how he handled this would send a strong message to Renzo. … Motivated to set an example, he headed back to work only one month later.

“Just nine months after going blind, the recession hit and he lost his job. But he got word that a nearby firm was designing a rehabilitation center for veterans with sight loss. They were eager to meet a blind architect.  …

“DOWNEY: It took my disability and turned it upside down. All of a sudden, it defined unique, unusual value that virtually nobody else had to offer. …

“Starting with that job, Downey developed a specialty, making spaces accessible to the blind. He helped design a new eye center at Duke University Hospital, consulted on a job for Microsoft, and signed on to help the visually impaired find their way in San Francisco’s new, and much-delayed, four-block long Transbay Transit Center, which we visited during construction. …

“DOWNEY: I’m absolutely convinced I’m a better architect today than I was sighted.

“STAHL: If you could see tomorrow, would you still wanna be able to feel the design? …

“DOWNEY: I don’t know. I would be afraid that I’d — I’d sorta lose what I’ve really been working on.” More.

Hat tip: Kristina.

 

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Photos: clockwise from top left, Emma Smales/View; Afyen Hsin-Chu; Takanobu Sakuma; Hufton+Crow/View
The bottom right photo shows Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log Houses, temporary housing in Kobe, Japan, created after a 1995 earthquake left many residents homeless. The
New York Times took an in-depth look at Ban’s body of work here.

It’s inspiring to see a successful person in any field turn her or his talents to a humanitarian cause. That is what innovative Japanese architect Shigeru Ban did after seeing problems with post-disaster housing in Africa. He knew he could do better.

Nikil Saval at the New York Times wrote an in-depth feature on Ban’s larger body of work and explained how he got into building temporary paper-tube shelters.

“His move to create shelter architecture came out of seeing the temporary structures offered to Rwandan refugees in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1994. At the time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was handing out plastic tarps and aluminum poles to hold them up, but many people were instead selling the aluminum and harvesting nearby wood to frame their tents, contributing to massive deforestation.

“Ban wrote to the U.N.H.C.R. several times before flying to Geneva. There, he encountered the organization’s senior physical planner, Wolfgang Neumann, who became interested in Ban’s idea of using recycled paper tubes to build shelters. Ban was hired as a consultant and the concept was later implemented at a camp in northern Rwanda.

“The first time Ban used paper tubes for a disaster relief project was in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, where a series of small houses — about 170 square feet each — were constructed for victims of an earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people.

As is typical for Ban’s humanitarian projects, each shelter cost less than $2,000 and took a single day to construct; according to Ban, about 30 were built over the span of a few weeks, mostly by volunteers.

“These shelters remained in Kobe for about a year, after which they were dismantled and recycled. But a church and community center in the city, also designed by Ban and built out of recycled paper, stood for 10 years, a testament to the durability of his work.

“He has also used shipping containers to build thousands of small housing units in Onagawa, on Japan’s northeast coast, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there, and beer crates weighted with sandbags have occasionally served as the foundation for his Paper Log Houses (including in Kobe), illustrating Ban’s commitment to relying on ‘local materials’ in the most expansive sense: whatever is cheap and locally available that won’t result in waste.

“These structures are off-the-cuff, constructed quickly by staff members of the Voluntary Architects Network, a nongovernmental organization founded by Ban in 1995, along with the help of local students and volunteers. Initially, he was able to pay for them through donations and his own earnings; some of his relief projects now receive public funding. But he often uses his expensive commissions to test out ideas for his aid work, toying with cheap materials in structures for the rich so he can use them later to help those who have lost everything. …

“Ban is not given to displays of pity or indignation; he usually explains his humanitarian efforts by citing his horror at waste rather than some charitable impulse. It is an austere, utilitarian front for the architect to present, considering that, at the moment, he is trying to expand his humanitarian efforts beyond temporary structures and has just begun working with the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to develop housing for its new capital, Amaravati — multistory units for which paper tubes would not likely be appropriate (he has instead been considering fiberglass foam-core panels). But disasters will continue to preoccupy him.

“He spoke of doing larger urban-scale planning, preparing cities for disaster relief. More earthquakes, certainly in Japan, are likely, to say nothing of climate-change induced nightmares. ‘This moment, the beginning of the 21st century, is a big moment to change the direction — toward sustainability and disaster relief,’ he said. ‘This will continue as the main theme of this century.’ Times had changed since the Modernist era: ‘Those times, people believed that they would have utopia some day. But we know that it’s not true. There’s no utopia.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
A stage in the back of a U-Haul (paid for in part by Fresh Sound Foundation) allows the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet to perform anywhere.

Classical musicians who believe their music will bring a blessing to whoever hears it have been presenting in offbeat locales in the Greater Boston area. Tomorrow, too. Malcolm Gay has the story at the Boston Globe.

“The 17-foot U-Haul truck sat parked in an empty field, ringed by trees. With the touch of a button, a roof-mounted winch whirred into action, unspooling cable as a fan-shaped stage lowered like a drawbridge from the rear. The U-Haul’s modified rear doors acted as a band shell, flanking the stage to project sound, and a custom-made sail, supported by deep-sea fishing rods, projected as a visor from above.

“Fifteen minutes later and the vehicle, dubbed the Music Haul, was a fully functioning stage — a 21st-century gypsy caravan that will bring live performances to the streets and schools of Greater Boston, Sunday through Tuesday.

“ ‘It really is more boat than truck,’ said Catherine Stephan, executive director of the Yellow Barn music center. ‘We got to know RV dealerships really well.’ …

“ ‘It’s supposed to be as close to magic as possible,’ said architect John Rossi, one of the traveling venue’s principal designers. …

“Its creators say the Music Haul’s main mission is to bring world-class concert performances to the most unlikely of places: schools, underserved neighborhoods, hospitals, perhaps even prisons.

” ‘We exist in the world as musicians that is in a way so finely controlled and tuned,’ said Yellow Barn’s artistic director, Seth Knopp. ‘Music Haul removes some of the ceremony, which can be a barrier for people who are not often exposed to that world. There’s an element of taking something out of its accustomed place and allowing it to take people by surprise.’ ”

What a good thought! Reminds me how you can suddenly start seeing the pictures on your walls again if you move them to a new location in the house.

Read more about this enchanting initiative here.

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Tim is an architect and WordPress blogger who is concerned with, among other things, how real communities develop organically. He has a strong sense that creating places top-down should not be regarded as sustainable place making.

Being a bit of a contrarian, I’d love to think of a contrary example, but so far I can’t.

Here Tim takes off on a planned community in his neck of the Florida woods.

“The problem with the Love Street / Jupiter Inlet Village project is that nobody will live there. … The planners, architects and developer of the project say the project is all about real place making.  Fortunately, we have a large amount of accepted research and knowledgeable writing on the subject of place making dating back over 40 years …

“First, 2 things need to be clear about place making – 1) It is a human phenomenon that is, therefore, very personal, varying, and not measurable; 2) ‘Real’ place making happens anywhere, and anytime there are humans present. …

“Wasteful land use in the form of a high percentage of non-places is the critical flaw with all drive-to places that claim to be urban or have high quality place making at their core. They simply do not, and they perpetuate the car-centric development pattern that exacerbates quality-of-life negatives in South Florida – traffic, loss of identity, and the replacement of real places with faux places.

“For Love Street / Jupiter Inlet Village to become the real place in claims it will be, it should do the following:

  1. Embrace the residential patterns that are still in the area, and were once far more prominent, and include residential units of a similar urban village quality.
  2. All parking should be metered, and of the on-street variety, and the parking lot should be replaced with a public green.
  3. Retail, commercial, and office space should be geared toward neighborhood uses, with the goal of replacing vehicle trips with bicycle or pedestrian trips to a very high degree.
  4. The lighthouse promenade must actually align with the lighthouse, and, thereby, solidify a framed street scape view of this landmark in perpetuity for all to share in. The promenade is presently a few degrees off, and focuses on a point well east of the lighthouse.

“Development and redevelopment projects are not inherently bad things, in fact, many developments create great pedestrian and transit oriented places that foster living, working and playing within a tight-knit community. However, developments that pretended to be great place makers, and really are not, represent a continuation of the very harmful growth patterns of the last half-century in disguise.

“Jupiter Inlet Village can be a great place, and an asset to the community, but it will not get there by pretending to be something that it is not.” More at Tim’s WordPress blog, here.

Map: https://www.jupiter.fl.us/index.aspx?NID=884

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You have until Jan. 3 to see beloved Boston landmarks in the form of  gingerbread, gumdrops, frosting, and pretzels. The annual competition is put on at the Boston Society of Architects, which has a public exhibit area on Congress Street between Atlantic and Dorchester avenues.

The public is invited to a reception on Monday.

“Please join the Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) for the Gingerbread Reception, where we will view more than 20 gingerbread designs from teams of architecture and landscape architecture firms on exhibit, enjoy light refreshments, announce the winners, celebrate the incredible bakers, and launch CDRC’s first Open Call for Projects.

“Vote for your favorite gingerbread house now!

“At the Gingerbread Reception we will launch our first Open Call for Projects — an open invitation to neighborhood groups and community nonprofits in the greater Boston area to apply for a design assistance grant. Underserved audiences are especially encouraged to apply, as well as projects that otherwise fall between traditional funding cracks but that somehow serve to make communities better. …

“While challenging designers to explore a new medium, this sweet event also raises funds for the CDRC. A special thank you to the Boston Society of Landscape Architects and the BSLA ‘gingerscapes’ for joining us this year!” More here.

The BSA’s photos are on instagram. Look for bsaaia. It’s fun to guess what you are seeing.

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Kimberley Mok reports at Treehugger about how a prize-winning architect plans to repurpose the rubble from the recent earthquake to rebuild Nepal in an adaptable style based on traditional Nepalese architecture.

“Japanese architect and recent Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban announced back in May that he would be part of the humanitarian effort in rebuilding post-earthquake Nepal. In addition to employing his signature cardboard tube architecture, Ban has announced that he intends to re-use brick rubble from the disaster, in order to speed up the rebuilding process.

“According to Designboom, Ban’s design for relief housing will consist of a modular wooden framework measuring 3 feet by 7 feet. Immediate occupation will be made possible by tossing temporary tarps over the structure, which will allow residents and builders to rebuild at their pace, u sing rubble or other materials for the infill. Walls could be then mortared with whatever is locally available. …

“Ban studied traditional Nepalese methods of building, and used this research in the design of the operable window frames. … For the long-term, there are plans to implement some sort of prefabricated housing, which the architect has done before in the Philippines.”

More here.

Photo: Shigeru Ban

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I have another unusual library story — this time from China. It’s about a small village that built a magnificent library, drawing admiring visitors and boosting the local economy.

Jane Perlez writes at the New York Times, “The tiny village of Jiaojiehe suffers from being close to the nation’s capital. The young flee easily to the big city, leaving the elderly behind, lonely and poor.

“In today’s China, villages like this often try to engineer a sense of well-being by opening a new medical clinic, say, or by upgrading the water supply.

“But Li Xiaodong, an award-winning architect who fuses traditional Chinese ideas of design with Western themes, had a different idea for Jiaojiehe. He was captivated by the potential he saw in the village’s most abundant natural resource, the branches of its thousands of trees, which the locals harvest for fuel.

“So he built a library — with a twist. At its base, it is a steel and glass box in the vein of a Philip Johnson open-plan creation from the 1950s, but its exterior walls and roof are clad with fruit-tree twigs.

“The spindly sticks are arranged in vertical rows, and their uneven shapes allow natural light to filter into the library’s reading room, while keeping the building cool in the summer and cozy in the winter. They also act as a kind of camouflage, making the library’s rectangular edges barely noticeable in the landscape as visitors approach the village on a narrow, twisting road. …

“The library has a presence on social media, and many of the visitors on the weekend are university students or young professionals. They wander around the village, snap photos of themselves and order the local delicacy, stewed chicken with chestnuts, at one of the restaurants.

“And some of them actually read. Sun Liyang, 27, an automotive journalist, said a friend in Beijing had donated some books after hearing about the library online, and he decided to come for a look. ‘I am sitting here reading “The Adventures of Tintin,” ‘ he said. ‘It’s taking me back to my childhood.’

“Wang Fuying, 57, who used to grow crops in the area, is now the librarian, even though she can barely read. ‘All the library visitors are from the city,’ she said. ‘We have up to 200 visitors a day over the weekend. They come for fun, take a look, take some pictures and take a walk.’

“There are a few flaws. To preserve the wood floor, patrons must remove their shoes at the front door, but in the summer when there are many visitors, the reading room becomes smelly from all the socks, Ms. Wang said. …

“Mr. Li’s projects in other parts of China where he has built small structures in rural areas — including a school built high over a creek — have won many prizes. But few honors seem to have pleased him more than last year’s Moriyama R.A.I.C. International Prize, named for the Canadian-Japanese architect Raymond Moriyama. …

“On a recent weekend, Mr. Moriyama, 85, was one of the visitors to the library. He liked what he saw. ‘I was so happy this particular project won,’ he said. ‘It was all about picking one that represents service to the people. The sense of humanity of the library is so great.’

“The older architect patted Mr. Li on the back. ‘You did good,’ he said. ‘I was not on the jury, and quite often, I disagree with the jury. But in this case, I believe it was 150 percent right.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
Li Xiaodong, a prize-winning architect, was inspired by the branches of local fruit trees, which he used to cover the Liyuan library’s roof and exterior walls.

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Photo: Fernando Guerra | FG+SG

ArchDaily has published the editorial team’s choices for best houses of 2014. Some of the houses are widely fanciful, like storybook dwellings. Be sure to look at them all.

The magazine says, “For another year, in 2014 ArchDaily has featured hundreds of houses from designers around the globe, with homes that appear to float above ground, sink below grade, snake through forests, jut over cliffs, and blur the line between building and environment.

“This year, we’ve seen some of the most intuitive, outlandish, and creative designs cropping up around the world, from São Paulo to Ho Chi Minh City to Stockholm, and to celebrate the end of the year we’ve rounded up our 50 best projects from 2014, representing an incredible range of living environments from the world’s most innovative architects.

“Enjoy the sandy surrounds of House in Miyake or the minimalist paradise of Love House; or escape for a getaway to Weekend House in Downtown São Paulo. Find out which houses stray from the norm, reviving the wooden cottage and redefining the stone cabin with a touch of linearity and serious panoramic views. Step inside wondrous spaces that soar skyward or connect with the earth, speak to the divine or convene with the spiritual – and yet all share the unmistakable feeling of ‘home.’ ”

See the amazing houses here.

Architecture on the Stockholm page includes homes, apartment complexes, and the public library. Perhaps a Swedish reader will be familiar with a few of them.

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A 70-year-old California homesteader’s shack near Joshua Tree national park is now a light installation, Lucid Stead.

When architect Michael Graham Richard talked to artist Phillip K. Smith about the work, Smith explained, “Lucid Stead is about tapping into the quiet and the pace of change of the desert. When you slow down and align yourself with the desert, the project begins to unfold before you. It reveals that it is about light and shadow, reflected light, projected light, and change.”

To Richard, the disappearing act that Lucid Stead achieves with reflections is a revelation. “Sometimes the best way to be part of the landscape is to blend into it,” he says. “Animals have been using camouflage for millions of years for survival, but there can also be aesthetic reasons to want to disappear, at least a little.”

In Smith’s creation, he continues, “the desert itself is used as a material,” as is reflected light. Check out a slide show here , at Treehugger.com, which highlights the artist’s use of solar power. Be sure to note how amazing the “shack” looks at night (slides 7-9).

Photo: Steven King, Phillip K Smith, III/royale projects contemporary art

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Heather Murphy reviews a cool-sounding book about birds as architects in Slate.

“Birds are exceptionally skilled architects. And, unlike humans, they do not require expensive schooling to obtain their skills. Nor do they covet their neighbors’ homes, explains Peter Goodfellow, author of Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer and Build. The innate ability to create sturdy and beautiful nests is written in their DNA. Goodfellow, a retired English teacher, has been studying birds since the 1970s. His new book documents the process of nest design and construction in extensive detail.” Read the article and check out the terrific slide show at Slate.

To see a bird building one of nature’s most complex nests, watch this BBC video of about 4 minutes, showing a weaver bird learning to master the skill.

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Another new writer focuses on Feathers.

Amazon posts the book description: “Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. [Biologist] Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn … . Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered … . They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice.”

John has been reading Feathers, which he interrupts occasionally to tell us some little-known evolutionary fact or to praise the author’s writing style. John and Meran are really good birders, and it’s looking like their son is a birdwatcher in the making.

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