Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: architecture

Small Is Beautiful?

Do demographics drive design? With singles a third of the city and rents sky-high, New York launched a design initiative, AdAPT, to create micro-unit apartments of 250-350 square feet. The winning entry calls for a ten-story tower of 55 units to be built as modules and then hoisted into place.


Rendering from the nArchitects site

Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge of nArchitects created the winning design. Trained at Harvard, they left Boston for New York with the dream of starting their own firm – which they did in 1999. Like thousands of other city-dwellers working to launch a career, they spent their early years in a cramped, three-room apartment. Knowing how challenging life can be in a small space, they were well-prepared to design something better.


Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge of nArchitects (NYT photo)

Eric Bunge in the NYT: “We felt people should have more space than this. But that was before we understood that the alternatives out there are far worse. There are people living together in substandard apartments all over the city who would prefer to live alone but can’t afford to. So let’s make a humane small space where people would want to live.”

Their design calls for each unit to have a fixed bathroom, kitchen, closet and storage area with the remaining space open and flexible. Adaptable furnishings make it work, with Murphy beds and a table or desk that can fold up and hang on the wall. Tenants also share a laundry room, fitness room, and space for bikes and extra storage.

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Rendering from the nArchitects site

Each micro-unit has lots of natural light, a Juliet balcony and 9 foot ceilings to create an open, airy ambiance. I do like the architect’s innovative approach… using practical aesthetics to create an engaging habitat.


Rendering from the nArchitects site

New York already has a shortfall of 800,000 singles looking for a place of their own. Within the next twenty years that number will rise by almost 1 million more, as young people stream into the city. Is this their future – will they all be living in micro-units?


Drawings from the nArchitects site


Rendering from the nArchitects site

Studios in New York rent, on average, for more than $2000 a month. The micro-units will rent well below that… and being in Manhattan puts you right in the middle of the action. But can people thrive in such a small space?

For those young urbanites, it will be a challenge – they’ll have to be organized and embrace a more minimal lifestyle. I can see the appeal, but as we go through life, we also accumulate so much stuff.


Rendering from the nArchitects site

I’ve lived most of my life in cities, first in NY and now in DC. I love walking to the metro, restaurants, shops and even cultural destinations. Plus, it’s fun to just meander around my neighborhood and soak up the urban vibe. The trade-off, of course, is you’re sharing that with a lot of your fellow urbanites. But that’s what density allows, you share in the bounty and live in close-quarters.

There’s an exhibit on micro-units at the Museum of the City of New York, with their own full sized micro-unit that looks like this:


“LaunchPad” designed by Pierluigi Colombo and Amie Gross Architects. Photo by John Halpern, Museum of the City of New York

So what do you think, is small beautiful? Would it work for you? Leave a comment and let me know.

Capturing the Creative Spirit: Michael Graves

Michael Graves

How best to capture the creative spirit? In this case, how to understand the work of architect and designer Michael Graves, via two very different approaches on video?

Let me offer a little background to what I’m talking about.  Early on, as a film and video editor and later as a writer, I learned to “show it,” not “tell it.”  That means to do your best work, you have to put aside the explaining part of your brain and work with the feeling side to create moments with images and sound that really communicate.  You let the pictures and events tell the story.
Once you’ve given the video a visual style and structure, then you can add that other layer of meaning (the narration or voice over) to amplify the message. Or not, depending on what you’re going for. In essence, this is the original approach to documentary and also the basis for cinema verite. And even with today’s more content driven approach, the tension in the creative process is still about what drives the story: words or images. Telling or showing.

The Humana Building by Michael Graves

So, back to the challenge of capturing the creative spirit: how to describe an innovator like Michael Graves?  As an architect, his buildings give shape to city skylines around the world. He designs tea kettles and other products found in many of our homes.  And now that he navigates with the help of a wheel chair, he’s working to improve the quality-of-life for others facing similar challenges.

This image and most others from the Michael Graves and Associates Website

You could describe him as a man of genius, a visionary and innovator. Some call him the father of post-modernism, as you can see in this Portland, Oregon building that helped launch that phase of his career.  

from the Wikipedia site

Today, his body of architectural work is broad, deep and visually arresting. Just peruse his page on Wikipedia and scroll down the list of the important buildings he created.  Or check out his website to see what his firm has  been doing recently.  

But all of this is by way of giving you a little context for the challenge facing the two videos. Each explores the man, his importance and creative drive, but with two very different approaches. 

First up is a video I found on the site of Dwell Magazine.  

Design Icon: Michael Graves for Dwell | by Gary Nadeau from gary nadeau on Vimeo.

I like how this video is more impressionistic than informational. It explores the quiet beauty of his home and furnishings as a metaphor for Graves’ artistic and creative impulse. You can feel the influence of Italy and Europe as the camera meanders through its rooms and garden. The video is like a visual poem, enveloping you in an almost meditative quality. While his comments suggest his thoughts and themes, the overall effect is more of a moment shared, an ambience savored. Everywhere you feel Graves’ touch and sensibility and the images are visually engaging. 

Time Magazine called the Humana Building one of the 10 best buildings of the decade
From the PBS documentary

The second video is Architect Michael Graves: A Grand Tour 

 The half hour video was produced by PBS station WTTW and embraces a typical present-day documentary approach. I should mention it takes a little while for the piece to focus on Graves, but when it does I found it very informative. It also tells you how his work developed over time and the influences on his approach to design. 

St. Coletta School for children with cognitive and physical disabilities

But, overall, I found it more like a video history lesson with the visuals playing a secondary role. The content delivered via the narration and interviews drove the piece, and it was much less poetic. So you feel more detached from the person and what he was about.  Perhaps more intellectually satisfying, but much less emotionally involving.  And therein lies the key difference between the two approaches.  

And while I personally prefer the more poetic, visual approach, what I did put together from watching the two programs is that, along with huge talent and skill, Michael Graves also has a healthy dose of grit and determination.  His strength of character and ability to refocus his creative energy inspires me. And his story reminds me once again of what you can accomplish, once you put your mind to it.

Exploding Vision

D. Bailes

Last time I was in New York I visited the High Line.  If you haven’t been there, it’s a space transformed, now an elevated  walkway/garden/observation post, that transports you to a new vision of the city.  It’s a fully realized shift in view as it sets you apart from the every day urban street experience.  People visit it from all over the world.  And it’s quiet presence has served as a catalyst for any number of architectural innovations.  

HL23 Website
D. Bailes

Take, for example, HL23 by Neil Denari.  Here’s how he puts it:  “We wanted to make new architecture that honors the old in certain ways, but that stands as an elevated world, integrated with the High Line in a new way.”  Here’s what he’s talking about:

Renderings from HL23 Website
Michael Falco for NYT

Limited to a small footprint, HL23 grows wide as it grows tall.  And it shows us how to use space differently, covering the steel framing with glass front and back, bowing and curving out. The NYT calls it “sleek and muscular as an Italian sports car.”  I can only imagine how captivating your vision of New York would be if you were fortunate to observe the city from within its calmly elegant spaces.  


Michael Falco for NYT

And yes, HL23 was not designed to quietly blend into the neighborhood. Rather, it calls out for our attention.  And it does play well off the ever-changing  High Line.  I think it’s a great example of how the High Line serves as a catalyst for a bolder vision.  
If you want more, John Hill blogs about architecture on his Archidose site and has some great photos showing the High Line and it’s surrounds.  His site is a rich experience and you might want to spend some time exploring his take on architecture and design.