10 December 2011

SFMOMA's expansion

I read that the expansion of SFMOMA will now include removing the dark stairway that dominates the Mario Botta-designed existing lobby. Botta designed a bank in Basel - I saw it by accident once while visiting that city - that is essentially the twin of SFMOMA. That's a tactic he shares with Arata Isozaki, who relentlessly exploits a formal move over a series of projects until he grows tired of it.* It's harder in the age of maximal documentation to get away with this kind of replication. The joke with Botta was his desire to realize the conceit of placing a ring of trees high up above the entry to these buildings. I think the Basel bank does this, but I'm not sure. He proposed it for SFMOMA, but it was turned down. (My friend Andrew Rabeneck, a former editor of AD in its heyday, called this, "Pussy in the Sky." He may have been quoting someone else.) I've always had mixed feelings about the Botta museum. It was taken up by Allan Temko, and Botta was briefly the man of the hour, but his moment has faded. In scale, it's good - it fits well in an odd context. Now that it's flanked by the dreadful W Hotel, it looks even better by comparison. Yet I wonder if SFMOMA shouldn't bite the bullet and let Snohetta have at it - redesign the entire building. They're clearly up to it. The result could be amazing.

*: Isozaki is much more formally inventive than Botta, and his variations are sharper.

06 October 2011

Farewell to a difficult man

Steve Jobs reminded me of the only modern architect I’ve known personally who rivaled the Victorian ones in the totality of his vision, realized down to the tiniest details. (That architect is George Homsey. His partner Joseph Esherick said to me once that “it takes someone as pigheaded as George to do anything good." Norman Foster, whose HSBC Building in HK was described to me by Tunney Lee as "the last Victorian building," is another architect who resembles Jobs.) 
    Jobs had many accomplishments, but what may stick is the understanding he gave us that anything good takes hard work. Much of what he did built on the germs of ideas that others attempted first. Jobs never attempted anything. He got it done. His failures seemed to fuel his desire to put his vision across. They also seemed to enlarge his vision.
    From the beginning, he saw that technology needs creativity to find its spark. SFMOMA has an exhibit of Dieter Rams’ work for Braun. That body of work is a precedent for Apple’s products, as are iconic “driver’s machines” like the BMW 2002. But there was always more to the story with Jobs, because after all he was an entrepreneur. The products are gorgeous, but they’re usually portals to content that Apple controls. Control may end up being the weak point in Apple’s strategy. It’s why Amazon and Google, both committed to openness, are its main rivals.
    Ever since it was announced, I’ve had reservations about Apple’s proposed headquarters, the design of which Foster generously attributed to Jobs. It perfectly embodies Apple’s culture, but this is not necessarily what it should do. To compete with its rivals, Apple may need to open up. Jobs' crystal palace may allow this, but it’s so singular - and insular - that it could end up feeling like a mausoleum. It will take real courage on Apple’s part to question it, but they should. One way to do this is to imagine a very different company, then ask if this is the building it would choose.

09 September 2011

Dialogue Hits #20

In 1999, my then-colleague Helen Dimoff and I had the idea of doing a magazine that would straddle the line between Gensler and its clients. Twelve years later, the 20th issue of Dialogue rolled off the press. Most design firm magazines die a quick death. Their sponsors underestimate the effort and cost involved. Editorial vision and the availability of suitable content are also a challenge. When we made our pitch to Art Gensler, he said that his goal for it was "to show our clients what we do." Gensler works across the world economy, so Dialogue achieves Art's goal by discussing the trends and issues that drive design in the different economic sectors the firm serves. We've never lacked for content. The Dialogue above is sitting on the laptop on which the magazine is edited in final form. If you'd like to see the issue, you can download a PDF of it. (The link takes you to the "Viewpoints" page on the Gensler website, where you'll see the new issue posted.) It's a work of many hands. See the masthead for the credits.

27 July 2011


Several years have passed since work began on Trace, an online journal that emerged from dissatisfaction with a previous one with less-than-supportive institutional ties. After various fits and starts, two younger collaborators joined. Their presence has been a huge help, and Trace is finally nearing its soft-launch. The focus, as with its predecessor, is the San Francisco region. While design is the main lens, there's a desire to address cultural and political issues, too. The previous regime was wary of controversy, so now we are independent. Our next step is to attract contributors and find an audience - a parallel effort, of course, as the first writers have to imagine a readership as well as help create it.

22 June 2011

Writing again

I have shamelessly neglected "Writing & Design" of late, but I am resolved to pick up the thread again. Something which interests me now is "writer process." I attended a panel on "design thinking" sponsored by Toronto's Rotman School of Business. I'm wary of design thinking, because it seems to fall into the traps that Horst Rittel pointed out about design methods in the 1970s, taking a naive view of problems and engaging in "magical thinking." (Rittel used to refer to that step as "the creative leap.") What interests me is the leitmotif of failure that runs through the design thinking discourse as the shadow side of the creative process. (Several on the panel noted that it's problematic to reward failure and that it can end in tears for the people involved.) Writers, especially novelists, deal constantly with failure. A novel is a real undertaking, so of course novelists are often quite invested in what they're writing. Yet every writer, to be any good, has to be prepared to start again (while, if they're smart, saving every scrap). I want to explore this, and I'll do so here (among other places, probably).

25 February 2011

Grudin on digital photography

 Robert Grudin: view from a Maui deck

The humanist Robert Grudin recently gave a talk on "Digital Technology and the Imagination," identifying five major forms of meaning applicable to digital photography:
  • Analytical: concentrating on visual details that form part of a larger whole
  • Graphic: Capturing a vivid experience in a single moment in time
  • Elemental: Expressing what's distinctive about an object or living thing
  • Narrative: Implying that the subject is involved in a story
  • Allusive: Conveying a sense of the symbolic that refers to other topics.
A photograph can have more than one of these attributes, he added. Grudin helpfully put an illustrated summary of his lecture on the web. It includes some practical suggestions about how to realize them with a digital camera. (He uses what he called a "bridge" camera that is in between a point-and-shoot and an SLR in cost and features.)

17 February 2011

Book received

Two copies of New Airports by Giulio De Carli arrived from their publisher, 24 ORE Cultura of Milan. The book was published in record time just before the holidays. Gensler has four projects in it. The quality is better than I anticipated. Given what we were receiving by email in late November, I wasn't expecting much. Knowing how hard it is to assemble consistent metrics, etc., though, I'm impressed by how much they accomplished. The texts are simple - these aren't really case studies - and the image quality varies, but this reflects what they got from the participating firms. Given the short burn, a pretty good effort!

05 February 2011


I've been working on Dialogue 19, an issue focused on Gensler's design research program. Number 19 continues the collaborative editing approach that we began with Gensler's 2011 Annual Report. Vernon Mays developed the issue's outline and identified the outside respondents to be interviewed for the "roundtable." He and Matthew Richardson also oversaw several articles by other writers. Their own contributions were collaborative, too. Vernon used a second interviewer and Matt based his on a white paper that Vernon originally edited from a draft by a Gensler practice leader. We call this process the "editorial scrum." Of course, the gods weigh in, shaping the issue as they respond to it - first as text, then as an evolving design. As it neared its print date, coordination became crucial. With two designers and lots of moving parts, keeping it all straight was a challenge. We're looking at software to help ensure that the layout file stays current - it sometimes got away from us. Despite this, collaboration is the way to go - it keeps the project moving and leverages a virtual team that has other things to do.