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Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

Photo: Jean-Christophe Quinton Architecte. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson.
“At street level,”
CityLab reports, “12 Rue Jean-Bart blends into its neighborhood. At the top, things get a little funky.” 

Blogger Laurie and I exchanged comments the other day about how neighbors with decent housing too often vote against building affordable housing nearby. True, even though we all know that forcing families into homelessness hurts us all.

A recent story about Paris, where the neighbors didn’t get to vote, shows that good architecture can enable what the French call “social” housing to be constructed in the most exclusive neighborhoods.

Marie Patino and Kriston Capps write at CityLab, “The project at 12 Rue Jean-Bart is a modest one, just eight units of affordable housing on a narrow lot in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens. The social housing project nevertheless caused a stir with neighbors in the 6th arrondissement, one of the city’s more affluent areas.

“When local politicians backing the project came to visit the building during its construction, neighbors shouted from windows across the street that it was a shame to build social housing here, according to Jean-Christophe Quinton, the Paris-based architect who designed the small in-fill development.

“Local resistance was a persistent feature of the project throughout its three-year-long construction, Quinton says; the building regularly faced harsh scrutiny in local newspaper Le Parisien.

“Quinton responded to critics with design. The final building that emerged at 12 Rue Jean-Bart is striking: Its facade features great concave swoops of limestone, like ribbons of frosting atop a particularly elegant slab of cake. Yet in many ways, it’s a traditional project. The architect strived to make the building familiar: It’s finished with the same materials found throughout Paris and built to the same proportions as some of the 19th-century buildings on the street.

“ ‘We need to destigmatize social housing,’ Quinton told Bloomberg CityLab from his Paris design studio, his Zoom background cluttered with building models. ‘That’s also why it’s made out of stone, because it’s totally integrated into the city, to say that you can build social housing in Paris, and that’s a good thing.’

“Quinton says he’s learned that there’s no use trying to compete with the street in Paris, so 12 Rue Jean-Bart does its best to fit in amongst its neighbors, in a way that makes it almost invisible from afar. The design’s most dramatic gestures are reserved for the upper floors. At street level, the building’s curves look almost like classical fluted columns. Twin weight-bearing stone culs de lampe on each side of the front entrance, which support the corners of the building where the curves meet, are hidden feats of engineering. …

“Other details are traditional, too, and as typical of Paris architecture as possible. The white balconies and joinery at 12 Rue Jean-Bart are common in the city. So is the honey limestone, which comes from a quarry in Vassens, not far from the city. The scale of the project is simply driven by local building codes. The setbacks at the top of the building match those built during the mid-19th century. …

“For residents at 12 Rue Jean-Bart, the experience is rather dramatic. The building is narrower at the back than at street level, and each floor fans out from a central staircase column. The layouts of the upper-floor units with balconies shift dramatically from those below in order to maximize light while adhering to strict accessibility standards required by Paris codes — a challenge, given the limited size of the lot. The balconies provide a rhythmic frame for the street.

“The building’s been fully rented for almost a year now. The residents love it, according to the architect. And the neighbors have learned to live with it.

“ ‘From afar, you don’t see it, and up close, it has personality,’ Quinton says. ‘It’s a Parisian personality.’ ”

More at CityLab, here. No firewall.

Fellow bloggers who visit Paris: If you are ever in Rue Jean-Bart, do send us a picture of number 12.

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Photo: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, this double-decker bridge in India’s Nongriat village is among the most famous of the region’s many living-root bridges. Locals say it’s about 250 years old.

I’m reading a quirky, amusing novel about India right now, Tomb of Sand, in which at times the author reminds one that many of the things Westerners think they invented already have a long history in South Asia.

Today’s post shows that at least some Westerners are garnering architecture ideas from Indian villagers.

Anne Pinto-Rodrigues reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “Covered with thick subtropical forests and streaked with streams and rivers, the hilly state of Meghalaya in India’s northeastern corner is one of the wettest places on the planet. During the monsoon season, torrential rains turn docile rivers into raging waterways, and people rely on centuries-old bridges to access farms, schools, and markets. 

“But these aren’t typical overpasses made of wood or steel – the bridges are alive. 

“For hundreds of years, the Khasis of Meghalaya have manipulated the aerial roots of the rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) to build sturdy bridges, known in the Khasi language as jingkieng jri. There are at least 150 such bridges in Meghalaya, according to Morningstar Khongthaw, who works to preserve and educate the public about the community’s architectural traditions. The figure includes the famous double-decker living root bridge of Nongriat village, which locals estimate is about 250 years old. Mr. Khongthaw’s village, Rangthylliang, has 20 living root bridges. ‘The oldest one is about 700 years old,’ he says, with great pride.

“Today, the jingkieng jri are not only a big tourist draw, but also an important proof of concept for engineers and designers interested in practicing living architecture. Integrating plants into architectural design lessens the need for harmful construction materials and promotes biodiversity, but it can also take generations to test and develop the right building methods. Bioengineers from around the world are studying the living root bridges in the hopes of applying aspects of the Khasi tradition to projects in their own countries.

“ ‘The Khasis have a brilliant understanding of architectural engineering, totally different from the western way,’ says Ferdinand Ludwig, professor of green technologies in landscape architecture at the Technical University of Munich. …

“ ‘There are different ways of designing, building, and growing a living root bridge,’ says Mr. Khongthaw. The most popular model of construction, and the fastest, involves the creation of a bamboo framework, over which the roots of a nearby rubber fig tree are pulled and intertwined, until the roots reach the opposite bank. The bamboo framework itself serves as a temporary bridge while the living root structure takes shape. Over time, the bamboo rots away while the roots grow and merge together, making the structure sturdier and more stable. 

“Mr. Khongthaw says a bridge crossing a stream would be about the length of a school bus, and take nearly 20 years to become functional, whereas a bridge across a river would take 70-80 years. In places where there are no rubber fig trees nearby, villagers must first plant a sapling on the river bank and wait 10-15 years for the aerial roots to appear before building the bamboo framework. 

The time required to reach the first functional stage – when the bridge is strong enough to hold about 500 pounds, or roughly three people with loaded baskets – depends on the required length of the bridge.

“In all stages of their development, the bridges require regular maintenance. This happens in monsoon season when the roots are more pliable. ‘Everyone in my village takes part in maintaining the bridges,’ says Mr. Khongthaw. ‘Whoever crosses the bridge, spends five or 10 minutes working on the roots to make the structure stronger.’ …

“In addition to bridges, the Khasis construct cliffside ladders, tree platforms, swings, and tunnels using traditional techniques passed down orally from one generation to the next. …

“In Germany, Professor Ludwig has been studying examples of living architecture from around the world for nearly two decades. He has designed and overseen the construction of several structures that integrate plants, including a footbridge that uses living willow plants as the sole supports.

“Professor Ludwig first learned of the living root bridges of Meghalaya in 2009, via a documentary, and was struck by the Khasi approach to building. ‘They do not prescribe the structure itself. They only prescribe the aim,’ he says. ‘They want to go from A to B in a safe and comfortable way.’ …

“One of his students at the Technical University of Munich, Wilfrid Middleton, is studying Meghalaya’s living root bridges as an example of regenerative design – an increasingly popular concept wherein structures are not just sustainable (built with minimal and efficient use of resources) but they also replenish the resources required for their functioning and enrich their surroundings, thus having a net-positive effect on the environment.

“In cities, living structures like the footbridge designed by Professor Ludwig can help sequester carbon, create a cooling effect, and provide a habitat to birds and other urban wildlife. …

“Mr. Middleton has visited 70 jingkieng jri so far, and with the consent of the village elders, he photographs the bridges to create precise 3D models. ‘Each year, as the bridge grows and changes, we are able to capture its incredibly complex structure,’ he says. ‘We are trying to learn from the Khasis.’

“While there is increasing international appreciation of the living root bridges, back in Meghalaya, Mr. Khongthaw says many villagers aspire for a modern lifestyle, complete with concrete houses and bridges. Worried that traditional Khasi knowledge may feel irrelevant to younger generations, Mr. Khongthaw founded the Living Bridge Initiative in 2016, with the objective of preserving, protecting, and increasing the number of living root bridges. He regularly visits educational institutions to speak about his work. …

“Mr. Khongthaw has also started a sapling center to address the shortage of rubber fig saplings, which are not easy to find in the forest. The biggest threat to these ancient bridges, however, are the development projects in their vicinity.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall. Additional pictures at the Better India, here, are also worth checking out.

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Photo: Sunphol Sorakul/Moment via Getty Images.
Some of Kyoto’s machiya homes that mix work and living space took on a new life during the pandemic, Bloomberg reports.

The places where people worked and the places where they slept merged during the pandemic. In Japan, that change gave an ancient style of architecture renewed prominence.

As Max Zimmerman wrote at Bloomberg CityLab in May, “While the pandemic has turned many kitchens and bedrooms into makeshift home offices around the world, there’s one style of housing in Japan that’s been mixing business and living space for centuries.

“The city of Kyoto is known for its stock of unique historical structures called Machiya, which get their name from two Japanese characters: machi — which in this context can mean a neighborhood, market or group of workshops — and ya, meaning dwelling. These beautiful wooden townhouses, which mingle residences with storefronts and workshops, offer a rare window into traditional Japanese life and architecture. Their design also raises an important contemporary question: How can aging homes created for a bygone lifestyle be incorporated into a modern city?

“Despite economic and cultural headwinds, machiya have proven capable of adapting to the present — and even influencing homes in the future.  An influx of tourists before Covid-19 saw many machiya find renewed purpose as restaurants or vacation rentals, while their mixed-use design provides lessons for people adjusting their lifestyles to working at home during the pandemic. 

Kyoto’s machiya reached their maturity as an urban form as early as the 17th century when, during a tumultuous period that still preoccupies Japanese culture today, the Tokugawa Shogunate ended more than a century of political violence.

“As the city rebuilt, massive demand for housing led to a standardization of designs, materials, measurements and fittings that allowed them to be erected quickly and inexpensively throughout the city. 

“It was during this time that machiya emerged as not just homes and businesses but also the basic building blocks for the city’s wider administrative structure. In times of conflict, communities within Kyoto banded together to defend themselves, even building stockades around their neighborhoods to protect themselves from the violence. When peace was restored, the Shogunate made these groups a permanent part of the city’s administration as semi-autonomous units with the power to establish local bylaws.

“Chief among their concerns was the uniformity of each machiya, whose size and design were crucial for fostering equality and harmony among its members. These neighborhood groups regulated the width of plots, forbidding the creation of larger parcels or combining homes, and imposed strict rules on various design elements. This ensured a relatively even distribution of taxes, light, ventilation and safety — as well as a pleasing aesthetic.

“These plots became known as unagi no nedoko, or ‘eels’ beds,’ for their long and narrow proportions. These ‘beds typically started at the street with a shop unit, fronted not with walls or glass but wooden lattices that provided some visibility from the inside and privacy from the outside. The typical unit was covered in a sloping roof, clad in lines of curved tiles producing a characteristic wave-patterned surface.

“Behind the shop was the residence, composed of multipurpose rooms with tatami mat floors and sliding doors. The deepest room was reserved for the head of house and important guests, with a small courtyard garden for light and ventilation. The spine of the house was a broad corridor with a packed earth floor running down one side of the house, connecting the commercial and residential portions. This hallway was where daily functions like cooking were performed, with a toilet and bathing space at the end. While the earliest machiya were single-storied, most later examples have an upper floor used as storage or sleeping space with slitted apertures to let in light. …

“For more than 250 years, machiya were the economic, political and social glue of Kyoto — as small businesses powering the economy, as households organizing community events such as festivals, and as administrative units by which local affairs were managed. 

“They began to change in the mid-19th century, when reform-minded revolutionaries overthrew the shogunate, destroying much of Kyoto and ushering in Japan’s modern era. In its rebuilding process, the city embarked on a period of modernization by incorporating western technologies and culture. …

“Although Kyoto was spared from destruction in World War II, its aftermath endangered machiya more than any other conflict. Japan’s postwar recovery redoubled modernization efforts that produced major housing changes. In their heyday, the machiyas’ use of gardens for natural light and ventilation would have made them relatively comfortable dwellings. By new standards, however, they were cold in the winter, lacked novel necessities like modern kitchens, had poor lighting and were expensive to maintain. …

“Many owners demolished or sold their machiya to make way for western-style housing like danchi apartments. Those that held on refurbished them with modern appliances, materials and layouts. New laws also made it impossible to build machiya with traditional construction techniques, leading to a decline in their number and skilled workers who can build them. There were 40,146 surviving machiya in Kyoto as of March 2017, down from 47,735 in 2011, according to a city survey. …

“Since the early 2000s, many machiya have found new life as restaurants, cafes, and museums thanks to a nostalgic aesthetic popular among young people and tourists. Some people still use their machiya to make traditional crafts like sake and textiles, while others have been preserved as cultural landmarks. …

Garden Lab, a co-working space and residence built out of two machiya that were uninhabited for four decades, is one such example of reuse. It forms part of a restored machiya cluster that includes a coffee shop and roastery, which makes use of the machiya’s capacity to accommodate machinery. Garden Lab’s founder, Drew Wallin, says that neighbors have noted the renovation’s positive impacts on the area after their long-term abandonment. 

“Wallin founded Garden Lab, however, to demonstrate how machiya can help balance private and professional life, a struggle for many still working from home as the pandemic endures. He found that machiya’s incorporation of natural light and outside air fostered healthier routines in ways that artificially lit, climate-controlled  homes fall short. Their reliance on the sun for light and warmth, for example, can help residents detach from work in the evenings and improve sleep habits as night set in. “

More at Bloomberg, here. Great photos. No firewall.

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Photo: David Levene/The Guardian.
Francis Kéré, outside his Serpentine pavilion in London, is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture.

There’s a 7-year-old girl in my family who has been designing buildings this week, complete with elevators, staircases, rooftop playgrounds, and two kinds of dining rooms. With flowers. I can’t help wondering if this is the kind of childhood interest that leads to a career like the one in today’s story.

Oliver Wainwright reports at the Guardian, “Few architects have experienced such a meteoric rise, against such odds, as Francis Kéré. Born in a remote village in Burkina Faso without running water or electricity, he began his career by building a mud-brick school for his community, before being selected to design the country’s national parliament less than 15 years later. Now he continues his unparalleled trajectory, named as the winner of the 2022 Pritzker prize, architecture’s highest international accolade.

“ ‘It is unbelievable,” said Kéré, speaking from his office in Berlin. “I don’t know how this all happened. First of all I am happy and overwhelmed, but the prize also brings a great sense of responsibility. My life is not going to be easier.’

“He is the first black architect to be recognized in the [award’s] 43-year history, reflecting the profession’s overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class bias. …

“ ‘I don’t want to talk about racism directly,’ he said, ‘but this is a field where you need a lot of resources. You really need to be strong and be lucky, as competitions are not always so open. I hope that young people in Africa will see me and know that this is a possible path for them too.’

“Kéré has made a name for himself with a series of schools and medical facilities in Africa that appear grown out of their context, built by local communities with the bare minimum of resources. Often featuring walls of clay-earth bricks, shaded by large, overhanging corrugated metal roofs, his buildings are elegantly tuned to their arid climate – whether in Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique or Sudan – using natural cooling to avoid the need for air conditioning.

” ‘Francis Kéré’s entire body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place,’ said the Pritzker jury, chaired this year by Chilean activist-architect Alejandro Aravena. ‘His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities – in their making, their materials, their programmes and their unique characters. They have presence without pretence and an impact shaped by grace.’

“Born in Gando in 1965, Kéré was … the first in his community to attend school, sent away at the age of seven, after which he won a scholarship to study woodwork in Germany. He saw slim prospects for a career in carpentry in a country that had little wood, so he switched to study architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. For his final project he designed a primary school for his home village – and set about fundraising and mobilising friends and family to see it built. It was realized in 2001, for about [$26,000]. …

“Kéré’s Gando primary school set out the basic principles that would go on to define his work, using earth bricks made on site, topped with a perforated ceiling crowned by a thin ‘flying roof.’ …

“Kéré suspended his metal canopy above the classrooms to encourage stack ventilation, drawing cool air in through the building’s side windows and releasing hot air through the holes in the ceiling. The whole village was involved in construction: children gathered stones for the foundations while women brought water for the brick production, beginning a collaborative model of practice that he has continued ever since. The school won an Aga Khan award in 2004, catapulting Kéré to international fame and prompting him to found his practice in Berlin the following year. …

“International commissions including the Serpentine pavilion in 2017, and an installation for the Coachella music festival in 2019, have continued to help him raise funds and awareness of his work in Africa. …

“His biggest project so far, for the national assembly of Benin, is currently under construction, rising out of the ground in the capital, Porto-Novo, in the form of a majestic palaver tree. ‘The site is next to a botanic garden,’ he said, ‘so we proposed to extend the garden and place the biggest tree in the centre, with a debate hall beneath the figurative tree canopy – reflecting how democracy has always been conducted in west Africa.’

“His equivalent project back home, for the national assembly of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, is now hanging in the balance, after the president was removed by a military coup in January. Kéré was commissioned in 2015, following a national uprising when the parliament was torched and the then-president hounded out of the country. …

“ ‘I want the people to take ownership over the parliament building,’ he said, ‘so that, one day, when the next revolution comes, they will protect it as their own.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Patrick Reynolds.
The Maori-designed “redevelopment of New Zealand’s New Plymouth regional airport is a finalist in the Prix Versailles Airports 2021 awards,” the Guardian reports.

A modicum of justice is seen in an unlikely place: the redesign of an airport by indigenous people from whom the airport land was stolen as recently as 1960.

Eva Corlett reports for the Guardian, “A tiny regional airport in New Zealand that weaves a Māori story of love and longing into its architecture is in the running for a prestigious design award, up against international heavyweights including New York’s LaGuardia.

“Unesco’s Prix Versailles recognizes architecture that fosters a better interaction between economy and culture, and includes a range of categories from airports to shopping malls. The finalists for the airport category include the New York LaGuardia upgrade, Berlin’s Brandenburg airport and international airports in Athens, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.

“The sixth airport finalist is Te Hono – meaning ‘to connect’ – and is found in New Plymouth, a town with a population of 85,000, on the western shoulder of the North Island.

“After six design options were floated, Rangi Kipa – a member of the local Puketapu hapū (subtribe) and lead figure on cultural design, settled upon a story. ‘The Ascension from the Earth, Descending from the Sky,’ tells the story of Tamarau, a celestial being, who was so captivated by the earthly beauty of Rongo-ue-roa, a terrestrial being, that he came down to meet her.

“ ‘This story aligns closely with the creation narrative of Te Ātiawa iwi [tribe],’ said Rangi. …

“The spine of the building is oriented to represent the journey from the mountain to the river – the main ancestral walking track in this area, and while visitors may notice these aspects of the architecture first, there are many subtle stories told through the details.

“Manaakitanga – the Māori concept of hospitality – also influences the design. Campbell Craig, the project’s architect and associate for design at firm Beca, said the project attempted to challenge western architectural practices that do not bear any relationship to Māori design.

“ ‘It was important for Puketapu to welcome and take care of guests in a place that is in many ways the gateway to the region,’ said Craig. ‘The faceted curved forms of the building at the entrance and airside “embrace” travelers, to shelter them from the elements.’

“In 1960, the land the airport sits on was confiscated from Māori, under the Public Works Act to build an aerodrome. This was a major source of grievance for the hapū, who had urupā [burial grounds] on the site. …

“Kipa said: ‘For the most part, we have been invisible in our own landscape for 160 years, so it’s amazing to have the chance to influence, and give life to, some of the things that make us who we are.’

“For Craig, the most heartening aspect of the project was the intensive collaboration between Māori, the airport and the architects, which enabled a sense of collective ownership over it.

“ ‘The experience at Te Hono provided a blueprint for working with tāngata whenua [people of the land],’ he said, adding that it would be an approach embedded into all of their future projects.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg
The cocktail island in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Can today’s architecture compete with the hotel atriums of the past? Does it want to?

There’s something about elegant hotel atriums that carries one back to times gone by. Their ideal temperature must be horrendous to maintain, but they do give a traveler a feeling of being special.

Our family’s all-time favorite atrium was in a Sheraton Hotel in notably unspecial Cheektowaga, New York. The rooms gave onto a warm, landscaped pool area where ducklings and bunnies were added at Easter. Maintaining the trees so that they stayed the right size for the space was challenging, I imagine.

Anthony Paletta at Bloomberg CityLab has more about that.

“If you’re craning your neck as severely when you step inside a building as you did outside it, you might be in an atrium hotel, an intensely American structure for sleep, conferences, cocktails, and much more. These are facilities built around a massive central chamber stretching a dozen or several dozen stories into the sky; at the lobby level, you’ll find bars, restaurants, gardens, live birds, and maybe even a boat or two.

“We don’t build them much anymore, but Americans invented, perfected and exported this unique building style to the world (where it continues to prosper). Birthed in brash excess, atrium hotels were first seen as too gaudy by the modernist architectural establishment and as too profligate by penny-pinching chain hoteliers. To varying observers, they suggest everything from Disney to dystopia. But in their heyday, these buildings promised — and delivered — a spectacle like no other. 

“Real estate developer Trammell Crow, the man with the most Dallas-sounding name you’ve ever heard, provided early inspiration for the form with his Dallas Trade Mart atrium, built in 1958. But it was Atlanta architect-developer John Portman, his occasional partner, who adapted and built the form into a colossus. Portman’s Hyatt Recency Atlanta opened in 1967, and was an immediate sensation. Atriums became a signature of the Hyatt Regency brand, and Portman went on to work for a variety of other chains, including Marriott and Westin.

“Portman wasn’t taking half measures with his hotels. Consider their majestic heights: his first, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta: 22 stories; Marriott Marquis in New York City: 37 stories; Marriott Marquis Atlanta: 50 stories. Only Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, which opened in 1999, eventually topped Portman’s tallest atrium.  …

“The atrium is an ancient architectural feature. It’s fairly rare in skyscrapers, however, as it inevitably involves a waste of leasable space. There are a few direct hospitality antecedents: The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, built in 1892, boasts a seven-story atrium topped with stained glass, and the West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Indiana, which opened in 1902, features a 200-foot diameter atrium.

“Portman’s first atrium wasn’t in a hotel at all, but in the now-demolished Antoine Graves public housing tower in Atlanta, built in 1965. The idea was simple, says Mickey Steinberg, a structural engineer on many of Portman’s early projects. The architect was just trying to provide some sociable space and ventilation to tenants. (The building was not air conditioned.)

‘If I had a hole down the center of the building,’ Steinberg recalls Portman saying, ‘people could come out and talk to each other and I might be able to get some air through the building.’

“That notion recurred to Portman two years later for the Hyatt Regency. ‘It wasn’t any grand philosophy about a style of architecture,’ Steinberg says. ‘He was designing for people to want to be there.’

“He was also designing for people who might not have wanted to be in Atlanta, whose central business district was in decline. Steinberg recalled Portman’s intention: ‘I’m going to create a space for them to want to be in, because downtown Atlanta doesn’t have it anymore.’ …

“The atrium concept didn’t initially enthrall the moneymen, Steinberg says. …

“[But] a then-unknown savior turned up in the form of Don Pritzker, whose nascent Hyatt chain then had only three locations. That bet paid off once the Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened: Visits to the hotel in the first four months of operation exceeded their expectation of the first five years. Guests lined up just to go up and down in the glass elevators. …

“Sheer space was a vast lure, opening up the typical dark double-loaded urban hotel corridor, Steinberg says. ‘It was different than having a little bitty lobby where you enter and then you take an elevator to where you’re shelved.’ …

“As new construction, you are now likelier to see atrium hotels in the Middle East or Asia. Still, the company that pioneered the form remains enthusiastic about its virtues. ‘This concept changed the idea of what a hotel experience could be by converting lobbies from transactional spaces that guests passed through on their way to check in or check out,’ Sarah Klymson, vice-president of product and brand development at Hyatt, wrote in a statement. ‘The architectural form of atrium hotels acts as a stage that can evolve.’ “

More at CityLab, here.

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Photo: Bertramz
When you look at the remains of Qalb Lozeh church in Syria, you can see the inspiration behind Notre-Dame.

As many of us have been learning in recent years, much that is beloved in Western architecture was originally inspired by buildings in the Middle East. Moreover, there are Christian cathedral styles that mirror Muslim mosques.

A new book aims to set the record straight. Oliver Wainwright reviewed it at the Guardian.

“As Notre-Dame cathedral was engulfed by flames last year, thousands bewailed the loss of this great beacon of western civilisation. The ultimate symbol of French cultural identity, the very heart of the nation, was going up in smoke. But Middle East expert Diana Darke was having different thoughts. She knew that the origins of this majestic gothic pile lay not in the pure annals of European Christian history, as many have always assumed, but in the mountainous deserts of Syria, in a village just west of Aleppo to be precise.

‘Notre-Dame’s architectural design, like all gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh fifth-century church,’ Darke tweeted on the morning of 16 April, as the dust was still settling in Paris. …

“It is not only the twin towers and rose window that have their origins in the Middle East, she pointed out, but also the ribbed vaults, pointed arches and even the recipe for stained glass windows.

“Gothic architecture as we know it owes much more to Arab and Islamic heritage than it does to the rampaging Goths. ‘I was astonished at the reaction,’ says Darke. ‘I thought more people knew, but there seems to be this great gulf of ignorance about the history of cultural appropriation.’ …

“With Stealing from the Saracens, an exhilarating, meticulously researched book, [she] sheds light on centuries of borrowing, tracing the roots of Europe’s major buildings – from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to Chartres cathedral and St Mark’s basilica in Venice – back to their Middle Eastern precedents. …

“ ‘Now we have this notion of east and west,’ says Darke. ‘But back then, it wasn’t like that. There were huge cultural exchanges — and most came from the east to the west. Very little went the other way.’

“Given their prevalence in the great cathedrals of Europe, it is easy to imagine that pointed stone arches and soaring ribbed vaults are Christian in origin. But the former dates back to a seventh-century Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, while the latter began in a 10th-century mosque in Andalucia, Spain.

“In fact, that first known example of ribbed vaulting is still standing. Visitors to the Cordoba Mezquita can marvel at its multiple arches intersecting in a masterpiece of practical geometry and decorative structure, never needing a repair in its thousand-year existence. …

“The pointed arch, meanwhile, was a pragmatic solution to a problem encountered by masons working on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. One of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, it was built in 691 by the ruler of Islam’s first empire.

“The challenge was how to line up an outer arcade of rounded arches with a smaller inner arcade, while maintaining a horizontal ceiling between them. For the openings to align, the masons had to give the inner arcade tighter arches, forcing them to become pointed. Another world first can be spotted higher up in the shrine, where encircling the dome is an arcade of trefoil arches, the three-lobed style of arch that went on to encrust practically every European cathedral. …

“[Misidentification of] the Dome of the Rock was down to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages mistakenly thinking the building was the Temple of Solomon. They used the domed, circular layout of this [shrine] as the model for their Templar churches (like the City of London’s round Temple church), even copying the decorative Arabic inscription, which openly chastises Christians for believing in the Trinity rather than in the oneness of God. Their pseudo-Kufic calligraphic patterns went on to adorn French cathedral stonework and the borders of richly woven textiles, with no one aware of what they actually meant.” More at the Guardian.

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When I worked at the Fed magazine, I attended a couple conferences on housing for seniors and learned about a thing called universal design. Universal design espouses the notion of making all architecture accessible so expensive alterations aren’t needed later. Someday, you might be using a wheelchair or crutch in the home you love, and wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to reconfigure it for a ramp, flat thresholds, wider doors, handrails, higher toilet seats, etc.?

Similarly during the coronavirus pandemic, architects have been rethinking design so we don’t need too many adjustments in pandemics. Think of all the light switches, doorknobs, and elevator buttons you’re careful not to touch these days! Think of the store ventilation systems you wonder about! What if you didn’t have to worry?

Recently, Carolina A. Miranda addressed this topic in a long feature at the Los Angeles Times.

“In another time, not long ago, an elevator was a conveyance to reach a higher floor, an open office was a spot to clock eight hours while hoping your boss didn’t catch you checking Facebook and a doorknob was one of those banalities of architecture that seemed to warrant attention only when it needed replacing.

“What a difference a virus makes. …

“ ‘If you take the great architectural inventions of the 20th century: the airport, the high-rise, the freeway — those are the things that are challenged the most right now,’ says Brett Steele, dean of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. ‘They have great density or they promise movement at high speeds. Those are exactly the things that sit at the crux of the crisis we are going through.’

‘It’s a reset button for the entire world,” says Mark Lee, co-founder of the Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee and chair of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. …

“ ‘I’m working on a synagogue, and that is a crazy problem,’ says Barbara Bestor, founder of Bestor Architecture, a 25-person firm based in Silver Lake. ‘How do you do High Holidays after COVID with 2,000 or 3,000 people?’ …

“The solution may involve segmenting larger spaces and segregating the most vulnerable in a separately ventilated environment. … Or it may involve designing a physical space that, Bestor says, features ‘a robust video component so that people can watch remotely.’

“Gatherings via videoconference could become a way of life. Architects could find themselves designing spaces just for that purpose. …

“First, architecture firms, like all other businesses, must weather the pandemic. … The economics are dire. And yet there is a determination to not waste the moment.

“ ‘Every crisis is an opportunity,’ says Hernán Díaz Alonso, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). ‘The optimist in me believes that this will force us to reevaluate everything that we do.’

“This is a time, he says, to ask ‘the big metaphysical questions’ about architecture and its purpose. It’s also about considering the nuts and bolts. ‘If we don’t get a vaccine, what does that mean? What does that mean in terms of physical space? What do you do with a doorknob?’ …

“ ‘Densities of offices will change,’ [says Bob Hale is partner and creative director at L.A.-based RCH Studios].

“This raises questions about one of the most popular — and widely reviled — workplace designs: the open-plan office, in which rows of workers are jammed around long bench desks.

“These are settings that have a poor track record when it comes to producing actual work. They also, according to a Danish study from 2011, account for significantly higher rates of sick leave — a phenomenon that played out in a study published by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April, which showed the ways coronavirus hopscotched around an open-plan call center in Seoul. …

“Instead, many of the architects I spoke with visualize once-cavernous spaces segmented into more intimately scaled settings with small clusters of desks. ‘We work in teams, so it’s easy to think of people in groups,’ says Paul Danna, a design partner in the L.A. office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, a global firm at work on an office development in Pasadena. ‘It’s a matter of putting barriers between groups as opposed to every individual.’ ”

The future of airports, affordable housing, and density of cities are among the many other design challenges addressed in the article, here. Enjoy.

Photo: Tara Wujcik
“Is there anyone out there who does not like fresh air and cross-ventilation or views?” asks Lawrence Scarpa in an article at the
Los Angles Times. The photo below is from a Brooks + Scarpa housing development for disabled vets that maximizes light and air.

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Photo: Tim Crocker/RIBA/PA
The Goldsmith Street project in Norwich marks the first time the UK’s Stirling architecture prize has gone to affordable housing.

I’m looking at pictures of a handsome affordable-housing project in England and remembering that during my short stint at Rhode Island Housing, a similar building, restored to provide affordable housing for homeless veterans, also won a prize. I blogged about interviewing one happy resident here. Clearly, homes for low-income people need not be ugly.

Oliver Wainwright reports at the Guardian, “One hundred years since the 1919 Addison Act paved the way for the country’s programme of mass council housing, the prize for the best new building in the UK has been awarded to one of the first new council housing projects in a generation.

“Goldsmith Street in Norwich represents what has become a rare breed: streets of terraced homes built directly by the council, rented with secure tenancies at fixed social rents. And it’s an architectural marvel, too.

“ ‘A modest masterpiece’ is how the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] Stirling prize judges described the project, designed by London firm Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, representing ‘high-quality architecture in its purest most environmentally and socially conscious form.’

“The 105 creamy-brick homes are designed to stringent Passivhaus environmental standards, meaning energy costs are around 70% cheaper than average. The walls are highly insulated and the roofs are cleverly angled at 15 degrees, to ensure each terrace doesn’t block sunlight from the homes behind, while letterboxes are built into external porches, rather than the front doors, to reduce any possibility of draughts.

“Immense thought has gone into every detail – from the perforated brick balconies to the cleverly interlocking staircases in the three-storey flats at the end of each terrace – to ensure that every home has its own front door on the street. The back gardens look on to a planted alley, dotted with communal tables and benches, while parking has been pushed to the edge of the site, freeing up the streets for people, not cars. …

The architects won the original competition because they were one of the few firms to propose streets, rather than slabs of apartment blocks.

“They took inspiration from the city’s Golden Triangle, a desirable neighbourhood of Victorian terraced houses, where the streets are laid out more tightly than modern overlooking regulations would allow. The architects used this precedent to argue that their new neighbourhood could be just as humanely scaled, while fitting in more homes.

“Marking the first time in the 23-year history of the Stirling prize that it has been awarded to social housing, the project beat stiff competition from the revamped London Bridge station, an opera house in a former stable block, the Macallan whisky distillery in Scotland, a visitor centre for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and a house made entirely of cork. …

“This year’s choice sends a clear message that, despite government cuts, it is eminently possible for brave councils to take the initiative and build proper social housing.”

Read more here.

Photo: Suzanne’s Mom
An impressive coalition of funders, including Rhode Island Housing, collaborated on this 2015 award-winning mill restoration to house homeless veterans.

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Photo: Corinna Kern/Reuters
Girls from Eritrea play in an open area opposite Tel Aviv’s artsy but grimy “new” Central Bus Station.

Things change, and sometimes names don’t fit anymore. When I was a kid, I knew a girl called Bambi. Today she would be in her 70s, and I can’t imagine the cute name still works. How about the war-torn Middle East, once called the “Cradle of Civilization,” where if you are determined, you can visit the dried-up “Fertile Crescent”?

In today’s story, a bus station still called “new” actually opened for business in 1993 and is a derelict mess. Fortunately, there is nothing like a derelict mess to inspire artists to go into creative overdrive.

Ruth Eglash reports a the Washington Post, “It’s impossible to remain apathetic toward Tel Aviv’s ‘new’ Central Bus Station, a grimy, peeling concrete structure that spans five blocks and reaches seven stories in a run-down section of this bustling city.

“No longer new — it opened its doors in 1993 — and certainly not central, the bus station evokes sharp responses from anyone who steps inside. Some are fascinated with the urban eyesore, while for others, it instills fear after years of violent crime marred its reputation.

“Designed by renowned Israeli architect Ram Karmi, the hulking station, said to be the second largest in the world, was envisioned as housing an entire city under one roof. But Karmi’s brutalist style, with coarsely strewn stairwells, mezzanine floors, winding walkways, vast corridors and dark hidden spaces made the station impractical and impossible to navigate almost from the start.

“Twenty-six years later, its legacy is as rough and as unwelcoming as the abandoned stores and deserted floors inside it. Only a small part of the station is used today for daily travel, with most commuters hurrying through, hoping to spend as little time there as possible.

“But the expansive space has given rise to a cast of exotic characters and myriad artistic initiatives that take advantage of the unique charms of this gritty interior.

“The surrounding neighborhood is populated by a mix of African migrants, Filipino care workers and longtime Israeli residents, all of whom mill about the station’s ultracheap clothing stores, bargain electronic outlets, beauty salons and foreign food markets.

“Over the past five years, artists have realized the benefits of this unadorned space, brightening its walls with graffiti on the seventh floor or filling the abandoned stores on the fifth with modern installations. A Yiddish Cultural Center and a bat colony also call the station home. …

“A local theater group has adopted the bus station for its site-specific and immersive performances. In ‘Seven,’ an artistic interpretation of the seven deadly sins, the Mystorin Theatre Ensemble spotlights some of the station’s darkest corners: a former waiting area it has renamed ‘the red square,’ the oddly painted concrete staircase and even the dreaded first floor, with its abandoned movie theater, stores, cafes and ticket booths.

‘It’s an urban playground for artists,’ said actress and theater manager Dana Forer. ‘For us, this is an ideal space. We have seven floors, and the people who come here help turn our performance into a world of fantasy and reality.’

I need to ask my friend Kai what he thinks of this example of Brutalist architecture. He’s the only person I know who has a good word to say for Boston’s unloved Brutalist city hall. Because he’s a guy who has a way of bringing out the good side of almost anyything, I try to understand what he sees in it when I pass by.

I should also mention Kai has a gentle and lovable pitbull for a pet.

For some nice pictures of the art projects in the Tel Aviv bus station, click here.

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Photo: Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay-Indonesia
The traditional homes on the island of Lombok have survived several earthquakes over the years. Concrete homes crumble.

Often there is wisdom in the old ways. That’s what residents of an Indonesian island in the Ring of Fire learned after a series of earthquakes created havoc with modern concrete structures.

Fathul Rakhman has a report at Mongabay.

“Jumayar’s house fell early on Aug. 5, as the second of four large earthquakes in the span of three weeks ripped through the Indonesian island of Lombok, clobbering his village of Beleq in the process. …

“Although Lombok, which is next to Bali, sits squarely on the quake-prone Ring of Fire, heavy, concrete homebuilding is the norm. These rigid structures became death traps during the earthquakes. Only the handful of wooden traditional houses in Beleq, with their lightweight, flexible designs, emerged unscathed. …

“Though elements like floor height or wall width may vary in different parts of the island, all traditional Sasak homes employ the same basic design: Thatched bamboo walls enclose dirt floors, connecting them to roofs of woven reeds. … Wooden homes can sway, or ‘breathe’ when earthquakes strike, concrete houses cannot; they have no flex and topple easily.

“In North Lombok, the epicenter of the damage, 70 percent of the houses collapsed or were severely damaged. Rebuilding will require hundreds of millions of dollars, according to government estimates.

“In Beleq, families in traditional houses ran outside like everyone else, fearing for their lives. Not a single one of their traditional structures fell, even as the concrete homes around them crumbled.

‘If the government offers to rebuild here, we will reject the [construction of] concrete homes,’ said Sahirman, the Beleq village head. ‘We want to go back to our ancestral homes.’ …

“ ‘The ancestors bequeathed to us an architecture that is in harmony with nature,’ said Lalu Satriawangsa, chairperson of the provincial AMAN [the country’s largest indigenous rights nongovernmental organization] chapter. …

“The Indonesian government has typically looked upon the traditional houses as ‘slum dwellings,’ an indicator of poverty. But Lalu says the government should support the construction of traditional houses. Not only are they cheaper, but as the recent disasters proved, they are infinitely safer.

“For too long traditional homes have been seen to mark the persistence of poverty rather than the preservation of culture, ignoring their instrumental value, Lalu said.

“ ‘Now is the time for us to campaign for [the rebuilding of] homes that are more in tune with nature,’ he said. …

“As rebuilding plans take form, Sahir, the Beteq village head, believes the community should look to the past for inspiration.

“ ‘I don’t want to sleep in a concrete house ever again,’ he said.”

More at Mongabay, here.

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Photo: Boston Society of Architects
This open staircase is pretty cool. Unless you are wearing a skirt.

A recent twitter series gave me a laugh. It sure shows how your perspective may change with a change of clothes.

At the Los Angeles Times, Carolina A. Miranda wrote how she hit a nerve with one frustrated tweet.

“A couple of weeks ago, after viewing an architectural schematic that featured a pair of elevated glass catwalks, I posted a tweet that invited male architects to navigate their own designs in a skirt.

Carolina A. Miranda
@cmonstah
Idea: All male architects should be required to navigate their own buildings in a skirt.

“The post ignited a flurry of responses from women, including Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor and former television critic, who suggested adding heels to the mix. To that challenge, design writer Alissa Walker of Curbed added babies. …

“I took [a picture] at the Nicanor Parra Library at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile, in 2015. The building was designed by Chilean architect Mathias Klotz and was completed in 2012 — in other words, at a point in time when male architects should know better. Yet the library features glass floors in locations throughout the building. …

“John Hill, who writes the blog ‘A Daily Dose of Architecture,’ pointed out the use of see-through walkways in Rafael Viñoly’s building for the architecture school he designed for the City College of New York — which he completed in 2009. City College isn’t the only school of architecture to employ transparent walkways. …

“This not only affects the women who work and study in those buildings — according to the Assn. of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, 42% of accredited architecture degrees were awarded to women in 2013 — but it normalizes the idea among architecture students that transparent walkways are just a benign architectural feature. They are not. …

“In 2010, technology writer Joanne McNeil wrote about this very topic in a post that ran on her blog ‘Tomorrow Museum,’ later reprinted by Mediaite.

” ‘If I were commissioning the interior of any kind of store and someone brought me blueprints including glass staircases, I’d tell him to take a hike,’ she wrote then. ‘I wouldn’t give him a second shot. If he’s not intuitive enough to grasp that women in skirts will be uncomfortable walking upstairs, clouded glass or not, then what other errors has he made in his design?’

“So, if there are a few good men out there (within driving distance of Los Angeles) willing to walk around one their own or someone else’s buildings in a skirt — while wearing high heels and holding a purse and a baby — my lines are open.”

More here. Let me know if you have encountered similar architectural challenges. Although I wear pants more often these days, I have memories of negotiating the green staircase above in a skirt — uncomfortably.

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Photo: Rafael Herrin-Ferri/Architectural League of New York
“Eclectic Row, Briarwood, NY” (2017), from the exhibit
All the Queens Houses.

How much do you know about Queens, New York, a Big Apple borough located on Long Island? I think you’ll like this. A photographer, intrigued by the fiercely independent architectural self-expression of the borough’s denizens, recently showcased some of the quirkiest styles at the Architectural League of New York.

As Allison Meier reports at Hyperallergic, “In 2012, Rafael Herrin-Ferri began systematically photographing the houses of Queens, the New York City borough he calls home. The Spanish-born artist and architect lives in Sunnyside, one of the many neighborhoods which make up one of the world’s most ethnically diverse urban areas. Herrin-Ferri noticed that the architecture of Queens reflected this diversity. ,,,

“Over 270 of Herrin-Ferri’s photographs of 34 neighborhoods [were recently] installed at the Architectural League of New York in All the Queens Houses. … The ongoing photographic survey can be explored on his project website, also called All the Queens Houses. There viewers can explore by neighborhood, typologies (like detached houses and apartment buildings), and architectural details (including stoops and gardens). There’s a map of where he’s surveyed houses, with about a third of the borough covered in 5,000 photographs.

“ ‘I have always been interested in houses and was impressed by how idiosyncratic — and unorthodox — the low-rise housing stock is,’ Herrin-Ferri said. ‘They express the personal preferences and cultural backgrounds of their owners without much regard for what is “correct,” marketable, or fashionable. … I started this series of house portraits with the idea that it would reveal something about the urban vernacular in the “world’s borough.” ‘ …

“He believes that the community demographics inspire an ‘urbanism of tolerance’ for more extreme experiments in architecture. …

“ ‘[Most] residents of Queens … accept multiculturalism and embrace a laissez-faire attitude about building,’ Herrin-Ferri said. ‘Homeowners that I have talked to understand that people from different cultures have different ideas about what their houses should look like, and there is mutual respect.’ ”

See more photos at Hyperallergic, here.

Photo: Rafael Herrin-Ferri/Architectural League of New York
“Splayed Brick-and-Stone Rusticated Entry Porch, Maspeth, NY” (2015), from All the Queens Houses.

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Photo: Wikipedia
The facade of the BIQ (Bio Intelligent Quotient) house in Hamburg has tanks filled with microalgae that produce biomass used to generate electricity.

It’s reassuring that there are always thinkers who are really “out there,” wildly inventing better ways to do things. For example, in architecture. Did you know there was such a thing as experimental architecture? Me neither.

Rachel Armstrong is a professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. You can read about her views on breathable buildings at the website Aeon.

“Traditional buildings are designed to provide protection against a savage world, with us safe on one side and our waste on the other. Architects have long relied on ‘hard’ materials such as masonry, aluminium and glass, specifically chosen to prevent the outside environment from getting in. Impermeability was, and is, a driving goal.

“It is time to rethink that approach. Our current built environment squanders too much fresh water and other vital resources, and tips too many poisonous substances into our surroundings. To develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world, we need to allow chemical exchanges that take place within our living spaces, and between the inside and the outside. We need to embrace permeability. …

“In many offices, it is no longer possible to open windows manually to let in a breeze. Automated air-conditioning systems (often answering only to sensors and software) blast summer heat out into scorching walkways, amplifying the urban heat-island effect and contributing to heat-related health risks. Such buildings ignore the metabolism that is the dynamic scaffolding of living systems.

“During the 1970s, the ecologists John and Nancy Jack Todd and William McLarney founded the New Alchemy Institute – now the Green Center on Cape Cod in Massachusetts – to reconceive building spaces as part of a self-sustaining human ecosystem. Such spaces would not be hermetically sealed, but rather open to the flow of natural elements. …

“Incorporating permeability into architecture begins with a building’s composition. In the past 20 years, engineers have developed organic construction materials that have various degrees of permeability. Mycotecture – architectural building blocks that are formed from the fibrous material of fungal roots – are as strong as concrete and as insulating as fibreglass. BioMASON bricks are built by microorganisms; they do not need firing and are as strong as traditional masonry. Bioplastics are produced by bacteria using biogas from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Since they are not derived from petroleum, bioplastics have lower carbon footprints. Like wood, they are ‘farmed’ into existence. …

“Semi-permeable ceramics in particular can be treated to provide binding surfaces for biofilms, large coordinated colonies of bacteria or other microorganisms. Biofilms can be grown to have semiconductor properties, akin to solar cells or computer circuits. When treated with manganese, biofilms can become filters that regulate the flow of air and water into a building. …

“The BIQ House in Hamburg has a façade of thin-walled tanks filled with microalgae. The algae harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide, and produce biomass that can be used to generate electricity. The translucent, living tanks also regulate the building temperature by absorbing more sunshine as the biomass increases. In this case, the glass of the tanks is impermeable to water but lets in sunlight – a different kind of permeability, which is critical for the organic exchanges within the façade.

“The Living Architecture (LIAR) project, funded by the European Union among others, is a fruitful effort to create showcases of semi-permeable design. For instance, the project aims to transform bathrooms, kitchens and commercial spaces into environmentally sensitive, productive sites. …

“The LIAR project is still in a prototype phase. Quantitative inputs and outputs have not yet been formally established. But project leaders expect to see integrated bioreactor wall systems in real homes within the next 10 years.” More at Aeon, here.

All I can think of right now, having recently experienced a week of below zero Fahrenheit degrees, is, “Will the solar properties be enough? Can buildings turn off the permeability?”

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