Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Brutalism has its charms

May 5, 2014

Washington, DC is a city of many, many museums. However, most are closed by the time the working day is over, and none are usually open at night, except for movies or performances. For the daily comfort and pleasure of the average working resident, museums matter a lot less than streets, public spaces, and buildings.


HUD building 1

One prominent, even historically significant, building is the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. From the neighborhood of Southwest, you see it brooding over the highway that divides that quadrant from central Washington.


HUD building 2

Designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968, it’s ugly and forbidding in a way that’s all too common among federal buildings of that era. Some of the ugliness derives from the Brutalist exterior: slabs of stained and weathered raw concrete. Mostly, though, it’s simply an ugly, awkward design.



HUD building 3

However — also like many buildings of that era — it has a saving grace, from a pedestrian’s point of view: you can walk under it.


HUD building 4

Pretty much the entire sidewalk level of the building is a giant arcade. An ugly, dark, and severely utilitarian arcade, but in a city of hot summers and frequent precipitation, any shelter is better than none.


HUD building 5

One unintentionally comic touch, in the plaza facing 7th Street, is a cluster of donuts or flying saucers. Originally, Breuer left this plaza completely bare of seating, shade, or any other amenity for pedestrians. These elements were added in the 1990s with the intention of providing something for people to sit. In my anecdotal observation, they are never used.


HUD building 6

The building does yield one pleasant secret, however. On the west side, tucked in between it and the next building over, is a small green park-like area that should provide a bit of relief from the summer heat. Such spaces are too rare in Washington. This one is even accessible to people with limited mobility.



National Museum of the American Indian

April 7, 2014



NMAI exterior

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC is housed in a large, impressive building on the National Mall.


NMAI exterior detail

The “sweeping curvilinear architecture,” according to the NMAI website, is meant to help give visitors “the sense and spirit of Native America.”


NMAI atrium dome

The interior is dominated by a soaring atrium that, whatever its Native associations, puts me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.


NMAI atrium floor

As in the Guggenheim, the atrium floor has lots of space for sitting down, stretching out, and/or attending a lecture or performance.


NMAI cafe

Unlike at the Guggenheim, with its gently sloping spiral ramp, visitors at NMAI have to change floors using either the stairs or the elevator. The first floor is dominated by the restaurant/cafe.


NMAI gift shop

On the second floor, the first thing you see is the large museum store.


NMAI gallery 1

Thanks to the dominance of the atrium, the galleries are relegated to the back half of the museum. In terms of visitor experience, they are nothing to write home about.


NMAI gallery 2

The permanent exhibitions include a standard mix of images, (lots of) text, electronic media, and life-size or semi-immersive exhibit components.


NMAI gallery 3

Traveling and temporary exhibitions tend to rely on traditional vitrines and wall displays.


NMAI wall text

Generally speaking, text is reasonably accessible — large enough and high contrast.


NMAI text 2


One very enjoyable feature of NMAI is that there are lots of places to simply sit, relax, and reflect…

NMAI sit space 1


NMAI sit space 2

… Many of them looking out a window, offering valuable relief to the eye and the spirit.


NMAI window

On the plus side, there is lots of natural light. On the minus side, there is lots of wasted space — empty areas that add nothing to the visitor experience.


Since the museum opened in 2004, much has been written about how successful NMAI is or is not in presenting the “American Indian experience” (if such a thing can be presented in a museum) — not to mention the Smithsonian’s vast holdings of Native objects. Speaking personally, I leave disappointed every time I visit. Too much space, too many bells and whistles, not enough objects, not enough tribes represented. For all the good will that went into its creation, there should be more.

The Monetization of Golden Gate Park

August 20, 2012

Exposed as it is to the fog and cold winds of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is not, on many days, the most comfortable public space on the planet. But it is a major urban park–an attraction for visitors and a refuge for residents.

Over the years, more and more areas of the park have either increased their entry fees or started charging for the first time–without adding in any way to the quality of the user experience.

The California Academy Academy of Sciences, which had been a charming, low-cost, and engrossing natural history museum for generations, re-opened in 2008 after a total renovation with a swanky Renzo Piano-designed building…

…and a radically higher price structure. As of this writing, it’s $29.95 for each adult, and $24.95 for teens, students, and seniors. It’s obviously geared primarily for out-of-towners as a “wow” experience, to be visited once and (quickly) forgotten.  Compared to the old, low-key Academy, which was worth revisiting again and again, it’s a ripoff and a real loss.

Across the concourse, the de Young Museum charges a relatively modest $10 (!) per adult–but charges extra for special shows. Moreover, the fancy-schmancy Herzog & de Meuron-designed building, which opened in 2005, is not holding up well. The copper facade, which was supposed to (according to the museum’s website) “assume a rich patina over time that will blend gracefully with the surrounding natural environment,” has become merely stained and shabby-looking. And the asymmetrical tower is simply intrusive in a park setting.

The nearby Conservatory of Flowers was free until 2003, when it reopened after a four-year renovation following severe storm damage. It’s an important historic structure, and well worth preserving. Yet I still remember the night of the reopening. Beth and I were walking in the neighborhood and noticed fireworks over the park. We learned the next day that there had been a grand reopening gala–a private, invitation-only party for donors and VIPs, at a public facility that had previously been free to all. Since then it’s mainly been a tourist attraction.

The Japanese Tea Garden, which charges five bucks for SF residents and seven for non-residents, was also free once upon a time. (If you hustle, and you don’t have to be at work like most people, it’s still free during the first hour of business on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.) However, it at least provides a high-quality experience and a real sense of refuge from day-to-day cares, so you could say that it’s in the realm of being worth the money.

The real travesty is down the road at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, known for decades as the Strybing Arboretum. It was absolutely free until the forces of privatization–namely the SF Botanical Society and the current leadership of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department–succeeded in imposing an admission charge for non-residents while changing the name, all in the service of a vague and grandiose plan to create a so-called “museum of plants.” Since the fee was instituted in August 2010, residents as well as visitors have been staying away in droves, as you can observe on any sunny mild weekend day (we do have them).

On such a day, this lawn used to be packed. Something about the process of having to show ID at the (ugly) entrance booth discourages residents; the fee keeps out mixed groups of residents and visitors. In essence, a beautiful, quiet, car-free open space on public land has been taken away for–what? The overall plan and the economics that are supposed to support it are a mystery. What use is an admission fee if no one pays it?


Berlin, Germany: One street in a liveable city

March 23, 2012

On a recent visit to Berlin, we found ourselves on Lychener Strasse, a four or five block residential street in the Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. There’s nothing special about it – just a typical street in a relatively affluent but hardly exclusive area.

For me, it exemplified what makes Berlin such a liveable and enjoyable city. For starters, there are the residences themselves – the six storey apartment buildings that make up most of Berlin’s housing stock.

Somehow, they are proportioned to give a sense of density without blocking the sky. And behind each street-facing building is an inner courtyard and a second six-storey building, giving each residence an enclosed, sheltered space away from the street.

Then there is the kid-friendliness of Berlin. Playgrounds are everywhere, tucked in here and there, like this one:

The sheer variety of small businesses on this one anonymous street is impressive, at least for someone coming from San Francisco, where so many commercial blocks seem to feature nothing but restaurants, yoga studios, and nail salons. On Lychener Strasse’s five relatively short blocks, I noted these enterprises:

  • Furniture
  • Music
  • Children’s clothing
  • Photo studio
  • Adult clothing
  • Church
  • Groceries and sundries
  • Bicycles
  • Art studio
  • Physical therapy
  • Antiques
  • Unidentified office
  • School
  • Housewares and Gifts
  • Outdoor gallery and performance space

… Not to mention several cafes and restaurants — a variety typical of many Berlin streets on which I have walked. Not a one, from what I could see, was a chain store. Even if you’re not on the market for what these stores are selling, the varied looks of the storefronts make for visual interest, and a sense of commerce and community. And all those stores encourage pedestrian traffic, of course.

Berlin is dotted generously with parks and squares, and Lychener Strasse has Hemholtzplatz, which runs perpendicular to it for about four blocks:

Like most squares and public spaces in Berlin, it features not just walkways and benches but a couple of playgrounds, a ball court, and areas for picnics. These parks and squares are a pleasure to see and be in, any time of the year.

Finally, what makes for true urban liveability is the variety of nearby transit.

At the corner of Lychener Strasse and Danziger Strasse are a streetcar line, an U-bahn stop (elevated), and several bus lines, all connecting easily to the larger grid of well-maintained, generally on-time trains, buses, and streetcars that permeate Berlin and its suburbs.


Citigroup Center, Los Angeles: A respite from the cubicle

April 27, 2011

We didn’t evolve to sit in cubicles. Every hour we spend staring at a screen, surrounded by beige walls and taupe carpet and khaki co-workers, is a stress. We need green, open spaces in which to momentarily reconnect with our primate selves.

One of the more pleasant retreats for the office workers of downtown Los Angeles can be found at Citigroup Center, a the corner of West 5th and South Flower.

There’s a pleasant mix of open and closed spaces, closed corners and wide views, trees and sun. Plus the refreshing sight and sound of water.

Follow the steps or escalator down, and you discover that it is in fact a waterfall.

This area would be especially cool and refreshing on a hot, sunny, smoggy day.

I like this space not because it is special, but simply because it’s an area of very expensive real estate that was creatively and thoughtfully designed to make people comfortable while they take a break from their jobs. Yes, legally mandated to be set aside for that purpose, I know – but better than it has to be.