Tribute > Oscar Niemeyer (1907 – 2012)

 

“Here, then, is what I wanted to tell you of my architecture. I created it with courage and idealism, but also with an awareness of the fact that what is important is life, friends and attempting to make this unjust world a better place in which to live.”

 

Architect Oscar Niemeyer, one of the last remaining Modernist design icons who were educated and rose to prominence in the early to mid-twentieth century, has died in Rio de Janeiro aged 104 years.

The centenarian designer was revered around the world and especially in his home nation of Brazil as a cultural force who will be best remembered by history for designing an entirely new capital for the country in the 1960s at a remote grasslands site, Brasilia. Among Lucio Costa’s master plan for the new city, Niemeyer designed a series of administrative buildings that adhered closely to the prevalent International Style of the time. That architectural movement’s emphasis upon strict functionalism and rectilinearity was expressed previously in the UN Headquarters in New York City, a project from the late 1940s that was based upon a preliminary concept by Le Corbusier but fully realized after Niemeyer provided significant contributions to the design.

Beyond his assistance with the UN Headquarters project, Niemeyer’s membership and outspoken support for the Communist party prevented him from further commissions in the U.S. even as his architectural prominence rapidly rose and East Coast design institutions were offering him teaching positions throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Niemeyer also collaborated with Corbusier on his first major project in Rio, the Ministry of Education and Health, above, which was completed in 1936 and contains all the Corbusian trademarks: building mass raised on pilotis, bries-soleil shading for the windows, and sculptural rooftop forms. Though he owed much of his early design influence and training to Corbusier, Niemeyer stood apart from many of his fellow modernists and gained widespread recognition for embracing the curve in architecture. In the 1940s, Niemeyer’s stature grew with the realization of a number of huge residential towers in Rio, such as the Edifício Copan, seen below, which employed a curvilinear concrete parti aggressively repeated to a dizzyingly tall and dense effect.

Niemeyer will be best remembered for his tabula rossa design of Brazil’s new capital city at Brasilia, a project spearheaded in the late 1950s by the nation’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, who specifically sought Niemeyer for the work. With the power of the country’s highest office behind him, Niemeyer designed a large number of administrative, residential, and ceremonial buildings within a span of months, all of which were to be operated and leased by the government on a previously uninhabited site located hundreds of miles inland from the country’s established urban centers along the Atlantic coast.

Conceived and completed in four years, Brasilia stands as a grand socialist experiment of spontaneous urban development in the midst of stunning isolation. Characterized by crisply modern administrative building blocks set far apart on grassy lawns but connected via wide, sinewy boulevards and bridges, the city cuts a stark profile on the barren natural landscape. Niemeyer offset the rigidity of these buildings with a series of hyperbolic structures that showcased his penchant for the curvilinear, based ultimately upon the shape of a woman that he found so irresistible.

The Cathedral of Brasilia is the sculptural centerpiece, a building composed of 16 hyperbolic, 90-ton concrete columns, said by Niemeyer to be representative of hands opened upwards toward the heavens. Completed in 1970, well after the rest of the city had been constructed, the religious project designed by an outspoken atheist was not immediately consecrated by the church but nevertheless cemented Niemeyer’s place in the architectural canon, widely admired for its evocative columns and their daring stance towards the sky.

Exiled to Europe because of his communist viewpoints as revolutions took hold in Brazil in the late 1960s, Niemeyer continued to work out of design offices in Paris and Champs-Élysées throughout the 1970s and 80s, focusing on smaller residential and commercial commissions throughout the European countryside. Well into his nineties, Niemeyer eventually returned to Rio and maintained an active role in his design practice, with the saucer ship Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum, standing atop a prominent seaside perch since 1996 and representing the best project from the twilight of his architectural career.

Though he maintained his communist allegiances even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, his work has found admiration in newer generations of designers from the world over, for whom the social and structural upheaval of the mid-20th century is nothing but a faded part of history. Oscar Niemeyer was an architect and educator to the very end, teaching and giving interviews as recently as 2010. His utopian vision will live on in the audacious curvature and monumental concrete blocks of Brasilia and beyond, testaments to his lifelong infatuation with the curve and with the important idea that “form follows beauty” rather than function.

-MJC 

Role Model > Shigeru Ban

 

“We don’t need innovative ideas. We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly. A house is a house.”

When the northeastern coast of Japan was devastated in March 2011 by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunamis, imagery of the destruction was broadcast in real time and continuously replayed throughout the civilized world. The apocalyptic scale in which numerous coastal settlements were wiped off the map by unrelenting walls of water soon made the natural disaster Japan’s greatest tragedy and loss of life since World War II, and prompted a huge outpouring of support from well-heeled government and private aid organizations.

To date, Japan has tallied over 13,000 fatalities and the total loss of over 45,000 buildings, with hundreds of thousands more standing but significantly damaged. In the immediate wake of this calamitous physical loss, I couldn’t help but think of the acclaimed Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who is internationally known for his work with paper architecture and its implementation in the aftermath of numerous disasters around the globe. As the leader of a successful architecture practice with offices in Tokyo and Paris, Mr. Ban has designed a wide array of permanent residential and institutional projects in addition to his portfolio of paper works. In 1994, Ban first made his name in disaster aid by deploying a design for temporary tents to shelter Rwandans displaced by that country’s civil war.

Presenting a low cost and low impact alternative to aluminum or wood structural supports, Ban was able to build fifty paper tube and tarp shelters to temporarily house a portion of the war’s displaced, his first chance to evaluate the paper architecture system in practical use. Sixteen years later, Ban also employed a similar design for fifty relief structures in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, which is still reeling from the devastating earthquake of January 2010 and coping with a refugee population lingering in the hundreds of thousands.

After proving that his paper housing prototypes could be deployed with minimal cost and effort, Ban furthered his expertise with relief architecture after a January 1995 earthquake devastated the city of Kobe, Japan. The temporary shelters that he designed for occupation by disaster survivors there consisted of a beer crate and sandbag foundation, 4mm thick paper tube walls with waterproof sponge tape for insulation, and a tensile fabric roof. By deploying common and easily recyclable materials to their maximum effect, Mr. Ban’s prototype for a dry and sturdy 170 sqf home cost under $2000 and took a matter of hours to build. The comfort, expedient fabrication, and low cost of these paper relief structures caught the attention of many in the architecture and disaster aid fields, and soon helped establish Mr. Ban as architecture’s preeminent designer of temporary relief structures.

In the nearly two decades since these early relief projects, Mr. Ban’s expertise has been utilized to shelter disaster victims in places like Turkey, Sri Lanka, China, and Italy. The latest of these projects in the town of L’Aquila, Italy, which was struck by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in April 2009, infuses Ban’s signature paper shelter template with a civic and artistic component.

Completed in May of 2011, the Temporary Concert Hall is a simple circular structure surrounded by a square peristyle, with four sides of operable window walls providing enclosure from the elements. This scheme of a rectangular columned perimeter enclosing a circular interior partition creates a transitional zone defined simply by the paper columns and their shadows. A similar design has also been employed in other paper projects of Mr. Ban’s without a disaster relief function, such as the Paper House in Yamanashi Japan, seen below.

Outside of their capacity to simply and quickly house the newly homeless, Mr. Ban’s paper structures have also been utilized as temporary schools, theaters, architecture studios, exhibition pavilions, and even an arched bridge. By arranging slender tubes in a rigid triangular space frame, Ban pushes their ability to constitute a variety of arched and planar shapes and reveals the capacity of paper architecture to embody a more complex and poetic function than is required from simple relief shelters.

Demonstrating remarkable dexterity across a range of budgets and clients, this year Mr. Ban’s practice has simultaneously completed work on a boutique residential project in burgeoning West Chelsea, Manhattan while also providing design services for the temporary housing of northern Japan’s quake and tsunami victims. As opposed to the freestanding and afield tube structures seen in Rwanda and Kobe, in this instance many Japanese refugees are being sheltered for months at a time in large gymnasiums or stadiums until they can be moved into temporary government housing. Mr. Ban was tapped to design simple paper tube and canvas partitions in order to subdivide the open plan of these facilities and give families a variable measure of privacy among their neighbors. The contrast between these simple partitions and the automated metal shutters in his luxury Chelsea project epitomize Ban’s flexibility with a diversity of project scales and budgets.

With the impending completion of his Chelsea condos and a new 12,500 sqf. art museum planned in Aspen Colorado, Mr. Ban’s reputation and portfolio continues to grow in stature. Though these permanent projects help to bolster his status as an internationally recognized designer, Shigeru Ban’s greatest contribution to the architectural canon will surely be his innovative paper structures and their repeatedly successful deployment for humanitarian purposes around the world.

For more on the wide variety of architectural and logistical responses to major disasters, follow the jump.

-MJC

Role Model > Zaha Hadid

As the bravest and boldest designer to shatter architecture’s glass ceiling since Julia Morgan, Zaha Hadid has been called a diva more than a few times. This kneejerk sexism is an unfortunate result of architecture’s waning but persistent domination by men in practice. While my own architecture class and faculty was pretty evenly split along the gender line, many firms at the highest levels of practice are still lingering in a boys-only era. In the century since Julia Morgan first broke barriers into the profession, few female architects have solely achieved a level of success and renown in their field such as Zaha Hadid can claim. The first female Pritzker Prize recipient in 2004, Ms. Hadid stands out among a generation of architectural designers who reject pointless classicism and rigidity for orthography-eschewing plasticity, reconciling form in a world where the perpetual constant is change.

Hadid has risen steadily up the ladder of elite architectural education and practice. She was born in Baghdad and studied math at the American University of Beirut before attending the Architectural Association in London, where she was taught by the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Leon Krier. After school she went on to work for Koolhaas at OMA London, and had her first major burst onto the scene with a series of paintings for the Peak Leisure Club competition (1983) in Hong Kong. The vibrant, sharply textured composition of objects in her works defy quick recognition in lieu of nuanced comprehension, and helped provide an early visual justification for the emerging deconstructivist movement of the time.

The crux of Hadid’s anti-orthagonal philosophy is that the line – the geometric construct between two points, upon which all of architecture relies – is inescapable from its orbital roots within the body of the individual. Advancing the idea that modern space is borne entirely of optical perception, Hadid views the universe as a series of vortexes rather than a static grid, comprised of “fields of distributed tension where things are poised to erupt”. By emphasizing the spherical and tangential over the rigidly symmetrical, Hadid’s built works seek to place the eye back into the body of the individual and radically trace their velocities within and throughout a collection of static spaces.

Vitra Fire House, Weil am Rhein Germany

The Vitra Fire Station (1994) in Weil am Rhein Germany is one of Ms. Hadid’s first permanent projects. This tiny lightning bolt of a building contains a modest program of garage and basic support spaces for the firefighters, housed neatly within a series of subtly canted and offset concrete walls. These shallow vertical obliques are anchored by a a sharply angled overhang springing out above the garage door, which dominates the approach composition and choreographs the movement of fire trucks into and out of the station. The daring design for this firehouse proved to be so popular that within just a few years of completion, the building was converted into the Vitra Design Museum and now houses a comprehensive collection of chairs and other industrial design pieces.

Another small but potent project of Hadid’s is the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck Austria (2002), whose main function as a  ramp is supplemented by sports support facilities as well as a cafe and viewing terrace. I imagine that Ms. Hadid relished the chance to design a facility for a sport whose inherent velocity and defiance of gravity suits her own fixation with movement and speed. As she has said, “I almost believed there was such a thing as zero gravity”, a concept that all ski jumpers can probably relate to. In this vein, the peak of the ski jump spirals around 180 degrees and cants upward into a sleek steel box containing the public program and support requirements, propped atop a slender stair and elevator core. The asymmetrical profile and height of this skybox cuts a distinctive profile in the alpine sky while giving occupants panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Bergisel Ski Jump, Inssbruck Austria

By the early aughts, Hadid’s bravado and well-established reputation among the architectural elite began to result in a growing roster of realized buildings, characterized by increasing scale and prestige. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (2004) is Hadid’s first permanent work within the United States, and was hailed by Time Magazine upon its completion as one of the most important American works of architecture to be built in decades. Although the CAC’s oblique arrangement of monolithic concrete masses and glassy interstitial volumes was a huge leap forward for Cincinnati’s architectural pedigree, the design is comparatively tame when viewed alongside Hadid’s subsequent projects from overseas.

Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg Germany

The Phaeno Science Center and BMW Central Building, both located in Germany, give an idea of Hadid’s potential when working with a grander program and budget. The Phaeno Center is comprised of a generously scaled, horizontally slung exhibition space perched above ground level on a series of vortically cast structural piers. The main exhibition volume is enclosed by a subtly faceted concrete perimeter wall, punctuated by an erratic pattern of rounded windows that evoke futuristic starship imagery. Another daringly angled building is the BMW Central Plant, whose design is deliberately evocative of the sleekness and speed of the machines manufactured and housed therein. With a cascading, overlapping sequence of metallic and concrete bands that define paths of circulation for people and product alike, the sharp composition of this factory provides a suitably avant-garde setting for the luxury carmaker’s production and delivery activities.

MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art, Rome

Bolstered by these well-admired and publicized projects, Ms. Hadid has entered the new decade on an increasingly upward trajectory. Capitalizing on her success in architecture, she has branched into other design fields and brought her cutting edge aesthetic to a variety of product lines, ranging from furniture to interior fixtures to personal accessories. While raising her profile and reputation among denizens of the haute fashion world, Hadid’s architectural portfolio has simultaneously been amplified by the realization of two huge projects, the MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art (2009) outside Rome and Ghangzhou Opera House (2011) in China. The former is a nearly 100,000 sq. ft. museum conceived as a “field of buildings” rather than a monolithic art vault, with “major streams” for gallery spaces and “minor streams” for their interwoven connections. Exploiting an L-shaped site, Hadid’s composition of flowing circulatory paths and undulating structural joists creates an energetic gathering space for users moving within and between exhibition spaces.

Still undergoing its finishing touches as of this writing, the Ghangzhou Opera House is a 70,000 sq. ft. project containing a main auditorium, black box theater, rehearsal support spaces, and a large public park. The interior of the main opera hall is lined by a system of rippling parabolic panels that conceal the connections between adjacent balcony trays, while a similarly swoopy foyer encloses the ancillary black box theater. As with her other projects, Hadid’s emphasis on movement and the act of traveling between different programmatic zones drives the design, with spiral ramps and undulating escalators providing links between different levels and a large plaza and park. Connected to the opera house by paths running alongside a large reflecting pool, this park gives the building an indelible social purpose in a previously impressive yet generic business district on the outskirts of town.

As we head into a new decade, Zaha Hadid’s portfolio and stature among the circles of influential, globe-trotting architects is only poised to grow. Next year, her London Aquatics Centre will be completed and take center stage in that city’s hosting of the Summer Olympics, followed by a number of institutional, educational, and civic projects in many different corners of the globe. It is truly exciting to witness Ms. Hadid’s ascendancy into a highly male-driven field like architecture, and I count myself as one of the many young designers who are awaiting this diva’s next stateside project with open minds and sketchbooks.

-MJC

Architecture > High Museum

After graduating from undergrad, I decided to break free of Boston and the northeast region for the summer and resettle myself somewhere completely new for a change. Megan and I ended up in Atlanta due to the influence of our good friend Bobby, a native Georgian and frequent booster of all things ATL. Convinced that we could at the very least meet new types of people and understand life in this country from a different perspective, we decamped in the heart of Atlanta’s thriving Midtown neighborhood for nearly three months, subletting a spacious old apartment on Juniper St. from some Georgia Tech students who had relocated to California for the summer.

Our location in Midtown and proximity to the Highlands and Little Five Points placed us strategically among the most vibrant of Atlanta’s residents. The neighborhood’s identity as a leading arts district for the southwestern U.S. is summarily expressed by the Woodruff Arts Center,  a collection of museums and theaters that run along Peachtree St. NE and constitute the inner city’s most architecturally significant area. Anchoring this cultural district is the High Museum of Art, a complex of several buildings whose centerpiece is the 135,000 square foot, Richard Meier-designed museum which opened in 1983. In August when my ATL days were numbered, I made the short journey up Peachtree by bike to check out the city’s leading cultural institution and admire Richard Meier’s pristinely white  artifices under a blistering summer sky.

original axonometric

Richard Meier is an avowedly rationalist architect whose design aesthetic springs directly from the stripped down functionality popularized by modernist forebears such as LeCorbusier and Mies. Known particularly for his purely white geometries and familiarity with the art museum typology, in the past three decades Meier has garnered commissions for civic and cultural buildings throughout the world, with the Getty Villa in Los Angeles arguably being the most well known among them.

The High Museum predates the Getty by a few years, and began its life as the Atlanta Art Association in 1905. In 1926 the High family, who had been major donors to the Art Association, donated their home on Peachtree St. to house the group’s growing art collection, which eventually moved into a separately constructed museum building in 1955. By the late 1970s, as Atlanta was growing in population, economic vitality, and cultural significance, the High Museum saw it necessary to expand their facilities to adequately reflect the city’s growing importance as the unofficial capital of the southeastern United States. With $20 million to cover the cost of the new building, the High Museum’s fundraising efforts were matched by a $7.9 million grant from who else but the president of the Coca-Cola company, Robert Woodruff.

site plan

I imagine that the trickiest part of designing a museum is figuring out how the building’s tectonic form will communicate with the two and three dimensional artworks inside of them. While traditional museum design has encouraged visitors to enjoy the spectacle of the architecture as much the art, in some recent projects like Sanaa‘s New Museum on the Bowery, architects have taken deliberate steps to simplify their compositions and try to focus visitor’s attention away from the buildings themselves and back onto the exhibitions housed within. In the case of the New Museum, the designers were working in a highly dense urban context with long-established artistic bona fides. Such was not the case for the High in Atlanta.

Meier understood the High Museum’s importance as a cultural focal point for Atlanta, developing his design as “a series of architectonic responses to context in the broadest sense, understood to include not only functional, programmatic, and typological concerns, but also the physical, social, and historical context of the city”.  Recognizing the site’s unique location in a pedestrian-oriented section of a notoriously sprawling metropolis, Meier began with a simple parti of four quadrants or cubes. One of these cubes is carved out to distinguish itself from the other three and form the monumentally glazed quarter-circle atrium, with four levels of ascending ramps acting as the circulatory crux of the whole composition. This grand atrium is oriented towards Peachtree St. and connected to its sidewalk by a long ramp that diagonally bisects a verdant front lawn.

Although most visitors ascend this triumphant ramp and begin their exploration of the High in the grand atrium, I actually entered through a courtyard off to the right side, through the more recent Renzo Piano additions. The most remarkable aspect of Piano’s portions of the museum are the qualities of light created by his spherically coffered ceiling planes, found in the new lobby as well as the top floor of the additional galleries. These ping-pong ball negatives glow softly with indirect daylight and cast the galleries in an even and natural light, ideal for art viewing and preservation. Piano’s circular coffers at the High are a less explicit but more elegant solution to light diffusion than is found in his recently opened addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, where rows of tilted white blades rest simply atop a trussed glass ceiling to block strong southern rays from entering the gallery spaces.

While natural light plays an indirect role in Piano’s new galleries and lobby spaces, it is front and center in Meier’s spectacular quarter-circle atrium. Stepping into the ground floor of this space and viewing the stacked ramps immediately evokes the continuously spiraling ramp of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Meier deliberately sought to reinterpret the virtues of the Guggenheim while avoiding its excesses, namely the fact that circulation and gallery functions are not separated in Wright’s design and that those continuously curving walls, while beautiful, are famously difficult for hanging paintings.

Separating gallery and circulation functions, Meier’s atrium is almost completely free of artwork, serving instead as a reverent gathering space directly lit from above. The natural light that pours through this glass ceiling falls over a radial arrangement of structural beams and smaller mullions, casting the atrium’s white walls in an intricate play of light and shadow that changes with the sun’s position throughout the day. The walls that define gallery edges are clearly supported by a regular post and lintel system, but project into the atrium at irregular angles and distances, affording those on the ramps a constantly shifting perspective into the exhibition spaces and artwork.

When the museum first opened in 1983, its design was a huge step towards putting Atlanta on the American cultural map, and was praised by architecture press as “undeniably a jewel and Meier’s finest work to date”. Considering that Richard Meier won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, just a year later, this glowing assessment appears to be accurate. Although it has since expanded and Meier has gone on to better known and grander museum commissions, the High Museum continues to be a major draw for admirers of art and architecture alike, with a monumentally modern building and grand atrium forming the definitive base for Atlanta’s growing artistic caché.

-MJC

Music > Sleigh Bells

What is it about Brooklyn bands lately? While the neighborhood and NYC at large has long been a breeding ground for popular musicians, in the last decade there was a decided surge of great music being made by a slew of bands that all happened to have come together in that storied borough. Among them my favorites are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, Dirty Projectors, Panda Bear, Grizzly Bear, Chairlift, and the list goes on.The most recent entrant into my roundup of Brooklyn music is the up and coming Sleigh Bells. This guy/girl duo released their first full-length album Treats last May, and I have been playing it on repeat very often since discovering them over Christmas, when the band’s name seemed very seasonally appropriate.

Starting strong with the single Tell ‘Em, prepare your ears for an assaulting, full force guitar riff and gunfire percussion backing up a paced snare drum snap and the repetitive, oddly sweet vocals of singer Alexis Krauss. Derek Miller is the guitarist and songwriter, formerly of the progressive hardcore band Poison the Well. Krauss has a background in music that started with her joining an all-girl pop group at the tender age of thirteen. In an interview with BlackBook, she talks about her early start in the music industry and how she grew to become disillusioned with the discrepancies between what she liked to listen to and what she was performing as part of the curiously unnamed girl group.

In early 2010, thanks in large part to film director Spike Jonze’s discovery of their MySpace page, the band came to the attention of M.I.A., signed to her label N.E.E.T. Recordings and were soon performing together, giving them exposure to her huge hipster audiences. In March of 2010 they played their biggest festival to date, SXSW, alongside the increasingly divisive Sri Lankan MC. Their rising cache among musicians and listeners is well deserved and legitimized greatly by gushing reviews from alternative online music press like Pitchfork.

While Tell ‘Em is definitely a highlight of Treats, I have also grown to love Rachel and Rill Rill, both of which comprise the album’s midway pièce de résistance. The first few seconds of “Rachel” is desperate breaths right into the microphone, which repeat incessantly behind a throbbing synth rip and Krauss’ gorgeously obtuse cooing about some girl named Rachel. Not all the songs have such cryptic lyrics, with the great line in “Rill Rill” (wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces/what about them?/I’m all about them) sung over piano and percussion that is remarkably lo-fi among the album’s other intensely loud tracks.

On top of the innovative sounds on Treats, the cover art is a delightfully creepy photograph of some 80s cheerleaders with freakishly distorted faces. Viewing it while hearing the contrast in Miller’s thrashing chords and Krauss’ soothing vocals, the hairs on the back of your spine might stand up. This is an impressive debut from yet another Brooklyn band, definitely the most exciting album of the year for me so far.

-MJC

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Sleigh Bells – Treats [N.E.E.T./Mom&Pop; 2010]

Perception and Memory Architecture

The perception of built space is an integral consideration for the designers of inhabitable environments across a range of scales. In his book Points and Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City, architecture theorist and Princeton design school chair Stan Allen describes buildings and cities as a composition of individual elements that combine to make singular wholes. From the tiles that line a subway platform, to the windows in an exterior facade and street wall, to the infilled blocks that define neighborhoods, cities embody and consume fantastic amounts of energy to support the shared pursuits of many.

While informed architecture considers individual buildings as part of highly interdependent systems, design intelligence recognizes that architecture, infrastructure, transportation, and natural landscape are not to be siphoned into distinct spheres of action but are intrinsically tied to and informative of one another. Today the successful realization of building projects and urban planning strategies is dependent not on a single master-handed designer but rather a consortium of concerned interests. The architect’s job among all these players is to understand the goals of each and distill them into a product and artifact that not only satisfies programmatic functions but also imparts users with symbolic meanings and somatic responses.

In his discussion of perception’s importance to an individual’s experiences within built and natural environments, Allen establishes a binary distinction between smooth spaces and striated spaces. The former is defined by a standard that is explicitly organized and overwhelmingly apparent in its expression, while the latter stands in contrast, defined by complexity and ambiguities in every direction. The dualism between smooth and striated spaces is manifest physically in two prime examples, the ocean (smooth, infinite horizon) and the major cities of the world (striated, hectic) which have a seemingly infinite scope of vertical striations and unique permutations within them.

Smooth seas or deserts are composed of a dominant line where water or mountain meets the sky, while striated cities are a great multitude of temporarily fixed and ever shifting points, the perception of which induces the sensation of parallax within the individual. The effect of this phenomenal accumulation of objects shifting constantly around us gives big cities their own frenetic energy, whereas the overwhelmingly simple dichotomy of water and sky in nature has the opposite effect, inducing feelings of serenity by reducing surroundings to two pure planes whose sheer scale assures their immutability to human intervention.

Due to the alleged immutability of nature, civilizations have continuously relied upon buildings and sculptures as memory objects. In his book The Art of Forgetting, Adrian Forty describes the power of physical objects to preserve shared memories, citing the 20th century as an era of cataclysmic social upheavals, whether by world wars, genocides, or natural disasters. Architecture’s seeming permanence and role as historic symbol gives buildings a prominent role in shaping the memories of such events for future generations. In recent history, memory architecture has resulted in a great variety of museums and monuments being erected around the world, the commissions for which have become prized goals for architects and artisans alike.

A major challenge for those who seek to memorialize a more recent tragedy is how to properly enshrine events that have only begun to be considered within the wide arc of history. Memorial architecture is especially pertinent in 2011, as one of the most painful memory projects in history is opening later this year. The National September 11th Memorial, designed by architect Michael Arad is set to be completed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of that epoch-defining day and memorialize the people who died in the World Trade Center in 2001 and 1993.

The design and construction schedule for this hallowed urban space, the hole in the city’s heart, has been a huge source of media coverage and consideration over the past decade. As designed by Mr. Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial will consist of a leafy public plaza at street level, surrounding two sunken pools that occupy the tower’s footprints. Waterfalls will cascade over the edges and thirty feet down on each of the four sides of the pools, settling into a smooth and contemplative surface before falling again into another central absence, forming a closed loop system. Taking a cue from Maya Lin’s seminal Vietnam Memorial in Washington, the names of the victims will be etched into the four walls that define the edges of these two sunken pools.

Although commercial and institutional functions are to follow in the form of a museum and new tallest skyscraper for New York and the country, the memorial pools and plaza have been designed and timed as a solemn dedication to the men and women who died there on September 11th 2001. With only nine months to go until the nation recognizes the 10th anniversary of its darkest day, it will be truly remarkable to witness the completion of the memorial and the continuing stages of rebirth at the World Trade Center site over the coming years.

-MJC


Update:
As the 9/11/11 date approaches, the memorial is nearing completion with the etching of thousands of names. For more on the finishing touches of Michael Arad’s design for this sanctified urban space, follow the jump.

Movie Review > Black Swan

I have been ruminating on the movie Black Swan since seeing it last Sunday, with my friend Emma who had already seen it the previous week. Aside from all the hype surrounding this Natalie Portman film on Twitter and Facebook, the fact that Emma was willing to go again just a week later to see it in theaters convinced me to sit through a movie entirely about the New York City ballet company, not exactly my forté.

But my low expectations for entertainment were truly blown away by Black Swan, as I found myself completely drawn into Portman’s stellar turn as Nina Sayers, a talented but timid member of the esteemed New York ballet company whose devotion is rewarded in the opening scenes by landing the coveted role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Vincent Cassel plays the brilliant but chauvinistic company director Thomas Leroy, who only rewards Nina with the part after he gets to steal a kiss and test her sexual boundaries in the privacy of his all black and white (absolutely no color) office.

Once the main ballerina storyline has been established, the movie’s true identity as a psychosexual thriller becomes apparent as we realize the line between Nina’s frightening dream sequences and real life is ambiguous at best. She lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who has channelled her failed shot at ballet stardom into a creepy obsession with her daughter’s career that borders on imprisonment.

Anyone who has seen Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain knows that Aronofsky is not one for intimation in his visual approach. In Black Swan he stays true to form, repeatedly zooming into the nitty gritty details of ballerina life:  busted toes, filthy silk shoes, and astounding skinniness brought on by intense training regimens and a little bulimia too. The scenes where Nina’s mother is furiously clipping her daughter’s fingernails recalled for me the rapid-fire drug use scenes from Requiem.

The ballet storyline follows a very typical arc, centered on company rehearsals and gradually building to the climax of opening night. Along the way we witness the unraveling of Nina’s sanity as the evil black swan begins to take over, manifest in her curious connection with the wild west coast ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) and frighteningly so in the black feathers that start to peak through her shoulder blades as the story progresses. Portman portrays her sheltered and sexually numbed ballerina so entirely well that even at the most extreme and briefly gruesome moments, you never catch her acting.

Once the film reaches the final breathtaking scene of Swan Lake’s opening night, Nina has been transformed from the spineless second ran into the main attraction, the lustrous black swan. It’s hard to adequately capture the excitement and beauty of this climax, all I can say is that you should run, not walk, to the nearest theater this holiday season and check out the performance of Portman’s career.

-MJC

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Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Runtime: 108 minutes.

Case Studies > Semester Reflection

After a semester of graduate school and a case studies course that critically examined the current state of architectural practice, I have learned that to be an architect is to be a leader of teams. From the get go, it was made clear by our instructor Daniel Hewett that Case Studies was not actually about specific buildings or details of design, but entirely devoted to how architecture is realized as actual built form, the delivery of designs today and throughout history.

To better understand the professional atmosphere into which we are about to enter, the course initially focused on individual horror stories from professional practice. Many of these tales of frustrated principals, unmet deadlines and late night CAD binges cite the lack of effective communication as the main reason for office hiccups. A group case study presentation on a series of canonical works of architecture followed these early conversations, and laid the groundwork for a more ambitious project for the rest of the semester, a proposal for revamping the current AIA Case Study format into an online database called Nucase.

The Nucase project ultimately stems from the need for architecture as a global practice to adapt to a new age of energy limits. Thinking beyond the operational energy of an actual building, the logistics of project delivery represent a substantial consumption of resources. To streamline the process of building delivery by reducing wasted fuel, raw materials, money, or personal design talent are implicit but vital means of making the construction of buildings a less environmentally destructive endeavor.

The purpose of Nucase is not only to provide the professional design community with a global forum for architecture case studies, but to address the wider implications of building and urban design in greater society, emphasizing the leadership role that architects play in complex collaborative endeavors.

To someone considering architecture as a high school graduate, as I did, I would say that you have to love a good challenge to make it through an architecture program. Rigorous surveys of architectural history, the physical and spatial complexities of structural design, the creation of clearly understood two and three dimensional representations, the ability to reconcile two opposing goals in your head at once, the exact amount of time it takes for the elmer glued joint of a model to dry. These are all challenges that you will confront in architecture school projects, but the reward for getting through them (and yes, missing out on some nights of sleep) in terms of new knowledge and skills is well worth the struggles it takes to realize them.

-MJC

De-Architecture

We just marked the tenth anniversary of September 11th here in New York and around the country. I remember watching the day’s events play out on TV as a high school freshman, astonished as the situation morphed from bad to worse and forever affected by the grim moment when the first of those two behemoth towers came crumbling to the ground. As that surreal day progressed into an eerily plane-free afternoon and evening, I remember thinking how removed and fictively catastrophic the whole day seemed in the immediate aftermath and beyond. After a tumultuous decade reflecting and reacting to that era-defining day, last week 9/11/11 arrived to the nervous anticipation of a nation whose institutions and attitudes have been forever changed by the attacks of that clear Tuesday morning.

Fast forward to today and me writing this entry as a recently entitled Master of Architecture and New York City transplant. Witnessing the epic failure of two iconic skyscrapers at a young age certainly factored into my considerations of what I wanted to be when I grew up, a designer of buildings. Every time I see the 1WTC tower rising in the distance as I go about my day, I’m reminded of the integral role that skyscrapers have always played in the life and identity of any major city.

Written in 1975 when the twin towers stood brand new and wildly out of scale in Lower Manhattan, sculptor and architect James Wines‘ essay “De-Architecturization: The Iconography of Disaster” is a critique of urban renewal projects successfully propagated by architects and planners of the era in which the World Trade Center was created. Building upon an argument brilliantly voiced by Jane Jacobs a decade before, Wines’ essay criticizes the “diversionary utopianism” utilized by politicians and planners alike to sell the public on a wide range of urban renewal projects throughout the 1960s and 70s, based ultimately upon Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse concept from the early modernist era.

Citing the proliferation of disaster films like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake as an expression of people’s wariness about living in cartesian skyscrapers, Wines believes these movies served as both entertainment and psychological compensation for a public that was resistant to the changes wrought by historic neighborhood clearance and subsequent high rise development. Claiming that the subversion of form to function makes architecture the “inadvertent chronicler of a dehumanizing autocracy”, Wines strikes a populist tone in his critique of cold and monotonous skyscrapers going up in place of low-rise, human scaled settlements. There is a clear connection between Wines’ ideas about urban renewal and early reactions to the twin towers of the World Trade Center, briefly the nation’s tallest buildings.

Wines felt that the purgative power of calamity and ruin was the only force capable of eliciting a broad and predominant reaction among a mostly preoccupied urban population. Considering the destruction and communal despair wrought on 9/11/01, Wines’ ideas about “monolithic institutions crumbling under their own weight” and missing parts acting as the “humanizing questions to replace intransigent answers” are an eerie portent for the absence of the twin towers as a part of the NYC skyline in the years since their abrupt, calamitous removal.

Though not a residential project, the World Trade Center stood as a reminder of what happens when a revitalization project is pushed to a dizzying scale by designers and developers. Featuring a prefabricated system of perimeter columns rising 110 stories up and enclosing over 10 million square feet of open floor space, the twin towers stood for nearly three decades as triumphant evidence of function coldly dictating form. De-Architecture subverts this routine design dogma, defining a condition in which some element or quality of architecture is deliberately removed in order to challenge ideas about the two.

Wines’ concept of de-architecture found its greatest expression in a series of stores he designed for the now-defunct Best Products company between 1971 and 1984. Operating through a design organization he called SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), Wines took a pervasive but oft-overlooked building type, the retail box, and infused it with a series of simple and subversive gestures that upended traditional concepts of retail architecture and served as an early signal of Post Modernism’s obsession with surface manipulation.

The first of these nine projects was the Peeling Facade showroom in Richmond Virginia, featuring a veneer whose shape evokes a giant brick sticker, an ambiguous gesture that literally stopped passing motorists in their tracks. The Indeterminate Facade of Houston Texas came next, followed by my favorite, the Notch Showroom of Sacramento, with an irregularly cut corner on automated tracks forming the entryway and sole relief to an otherwise monolithic black box. Said Wines in a recent interview with Wallpaper magazine: “We were trying to take the basic dumb materials like brick and block and invert their associations. For me, the highest compliment we received was when customers said that they had never thought about architecture before visiting a Best showroom.”

The eventual failure and liquidation of the Best Products company in 1997 also spelled the demise of most of these fantastic retail projects, though one building, the Forest Showroom, still stands today in Richmond as a Presbyterian church. Fortunately these projects and Wines’ concepts have enjoyed a worthy afterlife in textbooks, exhibitions, and design magazines the world over. The eventual razed fate of these buildings seems appropriate to Wines’ subversive approach to architecture and its inherent links to destruction, as laid out in his manifesto. The physical evidence may be long gone, but the ideas will always remain.

-MJC

Update: NBC News visits 1 WTC in April 2012 as the building is set to reclaim the title of New York’s tallest:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati Transit

I was born outside of Chicago but grew up in two very different neighborhoods in the city of Cincinnati. Before me and my mom and brother made the move from the sprawling Chicago suburbs to this humble Ohio metropolis, we drove diagonally across Indiana several times to get a feel for the so-called “Queen City”, nestled cozily among the foothills of the Appalachians. On one of these first tester trips, I recall driving through a darkened downtown Cincinnati, stores and restaurants closed, nearly no one on the sidewalks, and thinking that the city reminded me of a large LaGrange, the small suburb right next to where we were living at the time and where I’d been born, Western Springs. It didn’t seem like a real city to me. Certainly the scale of Chicago, where you can see the tops of Sears Tower, John Hancock and other Loop high rises from forty minutes away on the clearest of days, simply doesn’t compare to the cozy confines of Cincinnati. This was an adjustment, the first of several in our initial years living just north of downtown in the hillside neighborhood of Mt. Auburn.

The downtown basin of Cincinnati is comprised of a street grid that dates back to 1789, with primary North-South thoroughfares originating at the Ohio River and ending at Liberty St., running along the base of Mt. Auburn. Immediately north of the central business district, separated once by the Miami-Erie canal and now by Central Ave., is the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Initially settled by German immigrants who built great and successful breweries along Liberty St. in the late nineteenth century, OTR is well known for being the largest intact urban district registered with the National Register of Historic Places, with 943 buildings counted.

Despite the neighborhood’s beautiful concentration and variation of late 19th century brick and stone row houses recalling other immigrant districts such as New York’s Greenwich Village or Lower East Side, many area residents are still too stigmatized by neighborhood’s lingering reputation as a ghetto to live in or even consider visiting the area. Their opinions were cemented by a few days of rioting that occurred in the spring of 2001, in response to the killing of a young, unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas at the hands of the Cincinnati Police in a darkened OTR alleyway.

In the wake of this unfortunate civil unrest, what had been a remarkably successful effort to revive and renovate much of the neighborhood’s architectural assets in the 1980s and 90s fell mostly apart. Demand for apartments disappeared, galleries closed, and some businesses had to relocate because customers refused to even drive into the area. We ourselves relocated from the tony but still urban Mt. Auburn to the even tonier first ring suburb of Hyde Park, located about three and a half miles east of downtown. The riots were not the only factors that precipitated this move, but they definitely hastened it and tellingly coincided, for we had relocated by the time I graduated from Middle to Upper School in June of 2001. I was now living very close to my eventual alma mater The Summit Country Day School, whose campus spreads out atop a plush riverside hill with beautiful views to the pocket city in the distance, the canary yellow Big Mac suspension bridge in the foreground.

The spring riots of that tumultuous, defining year for the city and the nation set Over-the-Rhine’s brisk redevelopment back a decade. The aftermath of the looting and arson coincided unfortunately with the expiration of many longtime OTR residents’ federal housing contracts from back in the 1960s, and in the five years immediately after the riots the neighborhood’s population shrank to historic lows, with pervasive squatting, crime, and general malaise. Even worse, the Cincinnati Police, in the wake of the heat they were receiving for their pattern of brazen, racially-tinged actions, reduced their patrols of the area. This only perpetuated the neighborhood’s slum state and reputation, which was canonized in the Oscar-winning film Traffic. Remember when Topher Grace leads Michael Douglas to his drugged out, naked daughter towards the movie’s end? She was in OTR.

Over the past decade, as the wounds of what happened in Over the Rhine in April 2001 gradually started to heal, Greater Cincinnati saw remarkable development along its interstate corridors and riverfront, particularly along the other banks of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Architecturally, Cincinnati has tried to keep up with its cross-river counterpart through a new tallest tower for the city, Gyo Obata‘s recently completed Great American Tower at Queen City Square. This wholly unremarkable office tower, with its glowing tiara top “inspired by Princess Diana” (because it’s in the Queen City – get it?) surpassed the art deco Carew Tower as the city’s tallest building, a distinction the Carew had held for the better part of eighty years.

This new skyscraper overlooks Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds MLB franchise, as well as the highly touted Banks redevelopment – still currently under construction. The shift of cultural and leisure activities across the river to Covington is epitomized by the contrasting designs of Obata’s staid, safe office tower and Liebiskind’s daringly avant-garde Ascent Tower, completed in 2008. In contrast to the humungous auto-oriented developments on the Kentucky banks of the river such as Newport on the Levee and several glassy condo towers, the historically dense and pedestrian scaled parts of old Covington offer an excellent example of what OTR is gradually becoming: a diverse and compact urban district with beautifully restored residential and commercial building stock, lively sidewalk life, and the most crucial ingredient, the young creatives.

Set to open in 2013, the Cincinnati Streetcar is a multi-phased mass transit system with great implications for the city’s economic and social future. Citing the success of surface streetcars in cities like Portland and Memphis, Mayor Mark Mallory, a majority of city council, and many Over-the-Rhine and Downtown residents and business owners are eagerly anticipating the system’s construction.

I am happy to report that in spite of the defeatist intentions of some intractable suburban and state political figures, Cincinnati is in the earliest stages of building the system’s first phase, running through the heart of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, linking the two neighborhoods with a dedicated public transit corridor for the first time since trolleys roamed the city’s streets and ascended its adjacent hills over seventy years ago.

It will require just under $100 million dollars to construct the streetcar’s first phase, consisting of a loop between the northern confines of OTR and Fountain Square. The project’s initial capital cost of $125 million was recently parsed down to $98 million by removing a planned section that would have connected streetcars to the nascent Banks development and stadiums along the river. This last minute alteration to the Phase I route is due to the short-sightedness of the state’s new Republican governor John Kasich, who has a trendy Tea Party aversion to the price tags that come with mass transit projects. Over $30 million dollars in TRAC funds that were previously set aside for the streetcar project have suddenly become unavailable, even though the project received an 83% approval rating from the state transit board, far surpassing many other state transportation proposals.

Since constructing Paul Brown Stadium for $403 million and Great American Ball Park for $290 million, city planners and regional developers have been touting The Banks riverfront redevelopment but currently the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (by Boora Architects of Portland, OR) stands alone on the site, with nothing but asphalt lots and parking garage pylons to keep it company. This is due mainly to the fact that land rights and air rights for the site are split respectively between the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, creating a huge logistical and bureaucratic headache for redeveloping these prime riverfront parcels into a new urban residential district. The willingness among some area taxpayers to help pay for intermittently used stadiums for barely winning teams but not a modest, pragmatic, job-growing transit line is the worst kind of hypocrisy leveled by the system’s detractors.

My excitement about the Cincinnati Streetcar is tempered by a note of caution, for the city has a history of starting transit projects only to give up on them. Underneath the streets of downtown are about two miles of subway tunnels and four subway stations. The abandoned (or incomplete?) Cincinnati Subway was constructed in the early 1920s with the intent of carrying passengers around downtown and to adjacent suburbs on a rapid transit system modeled after those built in Boston and Philadelphia during the same era.

When the automobile’s swift rise in prevalence coincided with the city’s depletion of its allocated funds for building and running the system, they simply abandoned it, demolishing long suburban portions of tunnels and using their right of ways to make room for the Mill Creek Expressway (I-75) and Norwood Lateral (I-285) highways. Just below the feet of pedestrians and the tires of cars at street level in downtown sits an impressively well preserved series of subway tubes and station platforms that have never seen a single train or rider, used only sporadically since for rations storage and bomb shelters during the second World War.

Stairs leading from street level at the abandoned Race St. station

Would you want to spend a night in an abandoned subway?

Rendering of the proposed streetcar system, with Cincinnati Public Library and Kroger Co. headquarters in background

Due to the same auto dominated development patterns that killed a nearly completed subway system and displaced tens of thousands of poor and lower class from the West End neighborhood, the Banks and the two sports stadiums are frustratingly cut off from the city’s central business district by Fort Washington Way, an entrenched eight-lane highway that is mostly open air, only spanned from above by bridges that carry the city’s main north-south streets (Walnut, Elm, Vine, Race). Large portions of the city’s historic riverfront settlements were cleared by the 1950s to make way for this connection between I-75 and I-71. Since being effectively separated from the city’s largest employment center by the span of an entire block, the riverfront area has long struggled to find an identity outside of its role as occasional sports venue and parking lot.

Nevertheless, the city sees its competitive priorities rising across the river, and thus has focused heavily on making Cincinnati’s riverfront district a worthy competitor to Covington. In the meantime a couple miles north, hundreds of beautiful, existing buildings dating to the city’s faded heyday have sat in vacancy and occasional squalor. The potential for redeveloping existing building stock immediately along the streetcar route has engendered a wide basis of support among city residents and civic leaders, but streetcar naysayers such as Governor John Kasich oppose the project on the basis of its capital and operating costs, claiming the money could be better utilized elsewhere in the state’s budget. The streetcar’s projected operating cost of $2 million annually will be funded by tax revenue from a new casino development on the city’s storied Broadway Commons site, which has long been a vast and underutilized asphalt parking expanse situated in a strategic urban location.

The newly branded OTR Gateway Arts District

In addition to the federal level support for Cincinnati’s streetcar, just in the past several years there has been a concerted and corporate-backed effort to jump start OTR’s next chapter as a leading artistic district for the city and region, with the streetcar playing a huge role in Cincinnati’s ambitious goals for future inner-city settlement. The city is hoping to drive excitement and interest back to the OTR neighborhood for impressive urban character. The latest spark of investment and acquisition of once-vacant properties has been carried out primarily through the private stakeholder corporation 3CDC, an entity formed in 2006 by the city’s major businesses, whose offices and interests lie directly south of OTR in Downtown.

Backed by this influential organization and other developers, OTR has been receiving steady reinvestment and repair of its uniquely dense housing stock by a new generation of twenty and thirty year olds who are seeking an urban lifestyle without leaving southern Ohio. Cincinnati is anticipating a wide range of economic and civic benefits from the new streetcar system, hoping to renovate and populate at least 1,100 new housing units in addition to 92 acres of underutilized surface parking, whose adjacency to the transit corridor make them rife for residential and mixed use redevelopments. To help ensure this inner-city revival and re-densification, the city is seeking to establish a transit-oriented zoning classification for both Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, a critical step for reducing parking demands and maximizing the streetcar’s ability to catalyze development within its service area.

View north on Race St., near Findlay Market, a part of the Phase I Streetcar Loop

Cincinnati Music Hall, built 1872

Music Hall, home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and cherished annual events such as May Festival, has and will continue to be Over-the-Rhine’s primary cultural anchor. Soon to undergo a comprehensive renovation, the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Over the course of researching this post, I discovered that Music Hall was actually built upon a plot of land had been historically used as both an orphan asylum and then a mass burial ground for the itinerant and homeless populations of the city. Until 1872, thousands of people were buried in unmarked graves on the formerly detached site, at which point the Music Hall Association acquired the now strategic parcel in the heart of OTR to construct Music Hall, with Washington Park directly across the street. Not surprisingly, Music Hall has many stories of paranormal occurrences, and workers who have dug below certain points in the building’s foundation have repeatedly found extensive amounts of human skeletal remains.

Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, by Zaha Hadid Architects

To supplement the spooky, legendary Music Hall, a number of other influential arts institutions are now headquartered in Over the Rhine as well, including the School for Creative and Performing Arts (their best known alum: Nick Lachey), the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and ArtsWave. The latter two of these three organizations made deliberate, well-publicized moves in their headquartering from adjacent neighborhoods to embed themselves permanently within OTR’s artistically driven transformation and take a true stake in the community’s exciting prospects for reinvention.

While the standard bearing Cincinnati Art Museum remains in nearby Mt. Adams, since 2004 the Contemporary Arts Center has been housed in a Zaha Hadid-designed museum at the corner of 6th and Walnut Streets, her only built work in the United States to date. Hadid’s composition of solid concrete and black clad boxes hover atop one another, projecting into the streetscape and overlapping at a series of shallow, oblique angles. Visitors are drawn into the museum along an “urban carpet” that leads you from the sidewalk and through the lobby, then curves ninety degrees upwards to form the back parti wall for the corner building.

Outside of the University of Cincinnati campus, the CAC is one of the city’s most daring buildings to be realized in recent history, but represents only a sampling of the rich architectural and artistic character that will certainly draw more and more Cincinnatians to live, work, and play downtown in an energy expensive future.

For more on Cincinnati’s Streetcar system and future energy adaptation strategies, follow the jump.

-MJC

Role Model > Gwen Stefani

When she first found success in the mid 90s as the extremely photogenic lead of the ska band No Doubt, Gwen Stefani epitomized the Gen-Y southern California girl. More than just a gorgeous face for the album and magazine covers, over the course of four No Doubt albums she repeatedly proved herself as a rock/R&B singer with the vocal range, free styling ability, and outlandish stage presence to propel that group to huge success. I remember listening to Tragic Kingdom while growing up, and especially watching the legendary “Don’t Speak” video when MTV and VH1 played it seemingly every hour on the hour in the year of its release, 1996.

After the huge radio and TV success of Tragic Kingdom propelled No Doubt to the top of the pop/rock game by the close of the century, the band followed up with the less admired but lovably funky Return of Saturn in 2000. The video for its leading single “Ex-girlfriend” debuted Gwen’s new pink hair color, a look that was far more successful on Gwen then it was on her Top 40 stablemate, the too-literal Pink. Thanks to my dear friend Bobby (who is the ultimate source for all things Gwen) I later learned that the song’s lyrics “you say you’re gonna burn before you mellow / I’ll be the one to burn you” are a direct shot at her and boyfriend Gavin Rossdale’s tumultuous relationship.

Within two years of releasing Return of Saturn, No Doubt followed up with the wildly popular Rock Steady. The production of this dance pop/reggae fusion album was assisted by the Neptunes, finding inspiration from global dancehall musical styles and giving the it a worldwide appeal. Around the same time, Gwen began to capitalize on the established success of her band in order to break off and guest star on tracks with artists like Moby and Eve, the latter of which lead to the amazing “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”:

With the success of these guest spots, it was clear that Gwen was about to graduate from No Doubt into her own solo career. In 2004, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. was released, again featuring production assistance from some of the biggest names in R&B (Neptunes, Andre 3000, Dallas Austin) but also finding inspiration from new wave acts like New Order and Depeche Mode. Spawning six singles and inspiring a new generation of devotees, L.A.M.B. also marked the start of Gwen’s career as fashion designer and her newfound obsessions with eastern culture, epitomized by the Harajuku Girls. I will forever associate the song “What You Waiting For?” with my freshman year at Northeastern, with its incessant beat and parabolic vocals inspiring countless impromptu dance parties in the dorms.

The Sweet Escape followed at the end of 2006, with the leading single “Wind it Up” sampling The Sound of Music and further proving Gwen’s willingness to take risks with her music. The album’s titular track, with its Akon guest spot and earwig “wee-oooh” backup, was the definitive song of summer 2007. Besides these summery singles, my other favorite from TSE is the recently rediscovered cold weather jam, “Early Winter”:

In the years since her last album, Gwen has been busy raising a family with Gavin and re-joining No Doubt – which she never officially left – for a nationwide tour in 2009. Proving that you can go solo and return to the roots that made you a star, Gwen and the rest of No Doubt have reportedly been in production on their sixth studio album since May. This post is just a glimpse of Gwen’s musical trajectory thus far, and I excitedly await the results of her return to No Doubt and any future solo projects.

-MJC