STICKS & STONES
James S. Russell on architecture
Monday, March 29, 2004
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
Zaha really raises some hackles. John Czarnecki, a former colleague at Architectural Record, now an editor at John Wiley, makes a connection I failed to. It's a big deal that Zaha is the only contemporary woman architect to arrive at the highest rung of the architectural status latter. At the same time she does what most of the big name artist/architects do, which is employ phalanxes of youth at rock-bottom wages.
I think that says a lot about the root of why architects are not compensated as they should be. Another sad commentary on how the "profession" treats its young. So much for progress.
City Comforts (scroll to march 26) holds a debate on both Zaha’s merits and the language her supporters use in promoting her cause. Zaha’s luscious but hyper-abstract renderings do seem to invite rhetorical excess.
This from Nicolai Ouroussoff in the Los Angeles Times (on The Peak, an unbuilt project that brought Zaha early fame.).
The design’s audacity stemmed from its refusal to treat the club as an isolated object. Instead, Hadid’s paintings represented a radical reinterpretation of the entire city, one in which the traditional urban grid was replaced by a landscape in a constant state of motion.”
I can sympathize with those who would not regard this outcome as an unalloyed good.
In The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp is snapping his synapses as fast as he can. In three separate “appreciations” or “critic’s notebooks,” or whatever they are—the streams of consciousness are the same in all—he quite predictably conflates several unrelated pop-culture/high-culture references in his efforts to erect a rhetorical house of cards in support of Zaha’s greatness. (Other critics usually settle for variations on the theme of “I like her, so you should.” Herbert buries you in babble.) Last Sunday’s Times Magazine found him comparing Zaha’s work to the “extreme geometries” of Rome’s baroque churches and to the work of fashion designer Emilio Pucci. What it is that compellingly links these talents is left to your imagination.
Zaha does drive a lot of people to distraction because she seems to challenge the deal architects make with the public. Whether its paid for with private millions or not, architecture remains a public art and still is capable of enriching and being enriched by its place on the street and the fact that people use it rather than just admire it on the wall of a museum.
She’s not alone, however. Coop Himmelb(l)au, Morphosis, and Rem Koolhaas are among several prominent architects whose work challenges orthodoxies about buildings in relationship to the public realm, in relationship to use, and in relation to what might be deemed a public consensus about what buildings are supposed to do and what they are supposed to represent. The highly sculptural designs are often so uncompromised that they only marginally serve their original purpose. (Zaha's been called a martyr, but she chose her path, one that she knows as well as anyone limits the client pool considerably. Do not feel sorry for her.)
People love Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum because it so embodies the tragedy of the Holocaust’s loss; people hate it because its own rhetoric upstages everything that anyone has yet to attempt to put inside it.
For myself, I tend to prefer architects that engage more directly with the real issues of the day: what kinds of places we make in the inchoate megasuburban landscapes that surround us, for example. Historic models don’t suffice, but I don’t see contemporary models emerging either. A great deal of so-called progressive work is retreading failed post-war concepts like megastructures (although draped in the fashionable drag of topographic landscape/buildings). I admire the focus on flow and movement, but that is suitable for little more than airports and rail stations (why Zaha's Strasbourg bus-station project—however modest—is successful.
These are not small-scale issues and they do deserve debate, especially when so little of America’s GNP is devoted to anything that might remotely be deemed an inspiring or publicly oriented architecture. I'm with the Zaha-bashers (which should, in truth, extend to the colleagues that tread similar paths) to the extent that great talents like this should be expected to deliver more than glamorous sculptures.
Friday, March 19, 2004
“I don’t like Zaha Hadid,” a friend said to me on hearing the news that the Iraqi-born British architect had received the signature honor of the Pritzker Prize. I’ve already forgotten the nature of the slight that generated this comment, but no doubt Zaha had acted badly.
She was condescending and opaque at an American Institute of Architects convention panel a few years ago. She was engaging, wrapped in an orange, form-fitting designer gown of mind boggling complexity as she talked to Columbia students in their shabby Wood Auditorium. She was imperious at a Yale Architecture school jury I attended, but she knew in detail what every student had done and she had worked their rear ends off—to truly impressive effect. In Vienna, they are thrilled to have her at their architecture school. And Columbia seemed at one time prepared to move heaven and earth (both of which would have been required, I understand) to get Zaha to be the dean of the architecture school.
I happen to think prestige awards like the Pritzker (you get $100,000, and you get to be feted in St. Petersburg in May, among other perks) are best given to those with talent that is obviously prodigious (which Zaha’s is) even if arguably undeveloped (she hasn’t built very many buildings). When you’ve “arrived” and everyone with a spare $50 million or $100 million is breaking your door down, who cares about a lousy $100K? For Zaha, who employs several dozen youths in today’s version of indentured servitude (acolytes—especially those with trust funds—work cheap) it can do real good.
Clay Risin pompously declares that she shouldn’t have got it because she hasn’t built enough. The jury was seized by political correctness, he adds. The fact that Zaha is a woman is part of the fun. By busting into the most prestigious echelons of practice—and being the only woman ever to get there . . . well, EVER, she reminds us of how appallingly unappealing a profession architecture remains for women and for an awful lot of people who are sex-, race-, and pedigree-challenged.
Also enjoyable is the discomfiture her selection creates in the UK, where they build the most outrageous things, but can’t quite find a place for Her Zahaness. (The Telegraph called her a martyr. What could be better?) She has only lived in London 30 years—and they can’t find anything for her to build? OK, she did a little thing within the doomed Millennium dome—which was delicious.
I love what Zaha does (and I love the diva veils and the whiskey-Brit voice) yet I can’t dismiss the skeptics. You do not hire Zaha if you expect walls to be vertical and floors to stay underfoot, where they belong. Hers is a painterly and spectacularly sculptural sensibility and you give into it or you go elsewhere. Zaha hasn’t built much because such an uncompromising approach too often turns out to be quite at odds with humdrum utility. Her unbelievably gorgeous proposal for an opera in Cardiff, Wales, was a bit short on the kind of specifics that would help ordinary people understand whether the thing would actually work—or as the Telegraph writes, “Many in Cardiff felt that an alien, incomprehensible building was being foisted upon them.”
Philistines? Well, not entirely. Even her Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati, a pretty tame design by Zaha standards, is quite demanding curatorially with its idiosyncratically shaped galleries stacked over many levels. And yet the coiled energy visually embodied in the exterior’s blocklike shapes shows she knows how to excite the urban nerve endings in a wholly new way.
More takes: Nicolai Ourroussoffof the Los Angeles Times—often not my favorite—gives us a sensitive overview. If you can figure out what Herbert Muschamp is raving about in the New York Times, could you let me know?
Hadid has a bunch of projects on the boards, completion of several of which I’d rate as iffy. (Fugeddabout Italy, but await the Wolfsburg, Germany, museum, and the BMW Central Building, Leipzig.) May she find the clients that can tame that unbounded talent and innate good will.
Monday, March 15, 2004
Megaburbs and Neocities
Most American urbanized places look pretty generically suburban, but many are in fact morphing into new kinds of urban entities that we haven't really begun to come to terms with. If you are in Manhattan and want to learn a bit about these patterns, come hear an informal talk I'm giving at Columbia University on March 24th.
Titled “Megaburbs and Neocities: The New Face of Urban America," the talk will explore emerging but little understood new patterns of urban growth and change. Neocities are rural enclaves that are suburbanizing in spite of a broad desire to remain “authentically” unique. Megaburbs are the suburbs and cities and far flung urbanizing fringe realms that are becoming a new urban entity of very large size and unfathomable complexity.
The work I’ve done on this relates to the book I’ve been working on, After Suburbia (more on this at my website) and, of course, some of the issues have come up on this blog. I’d love to see you there.
Wednesday March 24
Room 114, Avery Hall
116th and Broadway
Tuesday, March 9, 2004
He's the MAN
Why do I feel Tyler Green is baiting me? I shouldn’t succumb to such narcissistic paranoia (ed: in your case, aren’t the terms oxymoronic?) since he’s only said nice things about my blog. But I’m from Seattle, which means I know passive-aggressive behavior when I see it.
No, even this is too strong. OK, I’m envious. After all, he’s got the blog thing so down. His stuff is short, to the point, and linked to all sorts of cool sites that I would find only in my dreams. I’m so much a print guy that I can’t Google. I must Lexus/Nexus, which is such an unattractive verb. But I will worship at MAN until I learn The Way.
And I will not resist, offering intermittent takes on his provocations:
Re: “Architecture Rules the Day” (scroll to March 4). Architecture is a hot topic (which it has not been in America for about 110 years) because a few clients are building a few buildings that make people look at them and go “Wha’ th hell is THAT?” In supplying the answer, editors get to run pix that make even more people go “Wha’ th … ” And so on. Even I, who benefit from this trend, recognize that it is a bit thin. People think architecture other people pay for is cool . One day rich people will catch on that this is a racket. I’m still not convinced that people want to pay their hard earned money through tax dollars for public placesthat express public values. That will be the true measure of architecture’s staying power in a nation that expects you to pander as fast as you can.
There’s another reason for architecture’s ascendance. $75 million will buy you one Van Gogh—or a very nice museum addition to put it and a few hundred other works of art in. So architecture, for the high-end collector class, remains a BARGAIN.
And keep watching MAN for his wise words (scroll way down to Feb. 11 stopping along the way to read about Rick Joy) on the unfolding fiasco at the Barnes Foundation I was going to blog on this subject but I can’t improve on MAN.
Sunday, March 7, 2004
What’s Wrong With A Carnegie Knockoff?
First things first:
I am belatedly correcting an error I made in my earlier post on concert-hall design (scroll down to February 19). Karen Ryan of the Grant Park Music Festival kindly wrote to let me know that the acoustics of the outdoor orchestra pavilion in Chicago’s Grant Park were designed by the Talaske Group of Oak Park, Ill. The system is very sophisticated, I am told, and not only will amplify the sound for the open-air audience but will actually calibrate the way it is delivered to emulate a concert-hall experience.
Now to a question often asked:
If getting great concert-hall sound is so difficult in modern halls, asks Drew McManus, maestro of Adaptistration here in AJblogland, why not just build new halls just like the great old ones?
Paul Scarbrough, of Akustiks (acousticians on Nashville’s new hall) fielded this one for me.
The question about copying does come up fairly often. There are a number of factors that make it difficult to exactly copy old halls. In a nutshell, the most important are:
1. Building codes have changed dramatically in the last 100-120 years. You could never build Boston or Vienna exactly as they are today. Fire-exit standards, requirements to accommodate disabled patrons, and other code issues dramatically impact how we shape seating layouts, exits and other key features.
2. Audience expectations of seating comfort have changed. The seats in old halls like Boston or Troy, New York are the originals. They are narrower than modern theater chairs and tend to be set on a tighter front-to-back spacing. The ones in Troy still have racks on the underside of the seat for your collapsed top hat! This has a dramatic impact because the area devoted to seating (which in a concert hall is the major source of sound absorption) goes up for the same seat count. To compensate, you have to add more cubic volume to a room and risk reducing overall sonic impact.
If you were to reseat one of the old halls using contemporary standards, you would dramatically drop the seat count. For example, Boston, which currently seats 2,625, would drop to around 2,150-2,200 seats. It’s not surprising that the BSO has avoided replacing the chairs.
In the 1960s and 70s, many American orchestras pushed the envelope with respect to seat count. At Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and in many other cities, they went for seat counts in excess of 2,500. Although the designer of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and Avery Fisher Hall will tell you that they modeled these on Boston, it’s hard to imagine how this is true. Both are wider than Boston, not as tall as Boston and feature three tiers of seats in lieu of the two in Boston. All of these differences make the acoustics of the newer rooms dramatically different from the supposed model.
That great sucking sound, as Ross Perot so eloquently put it in another campaign season, is white-collar service and tech jobs leaving the U.S. Design and construction would seem to be immune from this trend (you can’t hammer nails in Omaha from Bangalore . . . ), but it offers a useful lense to examine a problem that can’t be swept under the rug.
\P>Architecture is one of those innovation-driven service businesses that’s supposed to have ungirded American wealth creation, and is supposed to be immune to outsourcing, but lots of architects tell me they’re getting pitched by foreign companies who offer to do the grunt work: the computer-generated working drawings and specifications that contractors use to build architects’ designs.
There are clear advantages for firms if not for staff: you offload what is the costliest part of the design process and what also is the work that clients (naively) think least deserves to be paid for. Win/win? Nope. Well-prepared “contract documents,” as they are called, establish the quality of what’s built, and it takes a great deal of skill to communicate that quality. Great detailers and great spec-writers don’t get much attention but when you see a new building that’s sloppily made, or in which the AC doesn’t work, or where the leaks seem incurable, it’s because some detailer didn’t do their job or some contractor couldn’t or wouldn’t read what the specifier asked for. (Credit them when the building is beautifully built for a job well done.)
Worse, in America’s litigation-happy culture, the pile of drawings and specs rises to ever-greater heights as designers try to anticipate every lawsuit-generating contingency. Wasteful, yes, but as long as we're stuck with the current sysem, can you trust the CAD jockeys in China or India to possibly understand the byzantine complexities of today’s working drawings, however well-educated and hard working they may be?
Quality, however, is not what outsourcing is about. It’s about saving money no matter what the consequences to the customer. In my experience, outsourced tech support stinks. Outsourced texts in online so-called “knowledge bases” are incomprehensible. Outsourced order takers know nothing of the product they are processing. If people accept the low quality of ourtsourced services for, perhaps, a lower price, the trend will certainly become even more widespread. Lose/lose.
My sister, a job-seeking victim of the dot-com bust, is not crusading for closing borders or greater protectionism. She is resigned to the idea that the trend is pretty much unstoppable. The people who started all this outsourcing, she says, are the immigrants that came to the U.S., did well in the American tech business, and took their skills home. And they left in droves once the Bush Administration made the free movement of these citizens and their families virtually impossible. For more on this, see "Creative Class War," and/or my take on it here. Which raises two questions: Are we wise to permit such a brain drain? And why aren’t we doing what they are doing? Why aren’t Americans crawling all over India and China and elsewhere trying to figure out what Indians want and what it will take to serve them?
That my sister is the only person I’ve heard ask this question shows how insular Americans have become. In most of what we sell outside this country the underlying premise is that what we want in the states is what you will want wherever you are: hamburgers, Friends, Coke. This arrogance certainly has something to do with America’s huge trade deficit.
Architects, at any rate, are getting out more. It seems no firm larger than a handful of people is not in China these days. “Wild west” is the metaphor you hear most often. But Americans must compete with architects from every developed country. It sounds incredibly tough.
Some say China looks like what the states must have looked like to Europe in the late 19th century as the growth of industry catapulted America to the dominant economic power in the world. Will China manage the same feat? I don’t know, but it is a riveting spectacle. For a view, have a look at the China panorama my colleague, Clifford Pearson, has masterminded for Architectural Record’s March issue. (Randi Greenberg, Record’s webmistress, has mounted a tantalizing web version. One of the things you see is that the Chinese may have already discarded the architectural Gucci-izing of their cities with shiny skyscraper baubles, seeking to build instead at the most sophisticated international level. (If you want to get in on the action, the website also offers information on an upcoming China Summit, sponsored by Record’s parent company, McGraw-Hill.) /P>
The China phenom raises some deeper issues for America. China is plunging mind-boggling sums of public money into physical infrastructure and the educational infrastucture. The investment may propell the nation quite rapidly beyond its current status as a platform for cheap labor. With exceptions, America too rarely makes such investments. Can we afford not to? More on that soon.
Wednesday, March 3, 2004
Chicago II: Making Little Plans
Catching up. Some additional thoughts from a recent trip to Chicago:
Driving south on the Dan Ryan Expressway, I saw a public-housing tower that demolition crews had taken a seven-story bite out of. Once such towers had lined three miles of the expressway. The one I saw is one of the few not yet demolished in an enormous project to undo the planning catastrophes of the past.
It had seemed for a few years that the radical , 20th-century Modernist esthetic, born in Europe out of the death of the ruling classes and the ashes of World War I, would find its most potent realization on the endless prairie edges of Chicago, for so long America’s most entrepreneurial city. What could be more Chicago than the wide stripe of the highway headed into the wide, endless horizon, counterpointed by a neat row of sky-piercing spikes? Of course political expediency transformed this simplistic diagram into a grim line of brick fortreses pushed up to the edge of the roaring, smoke-belching expressway.
With Robert Bruegmann (scroll down to the earlier Chicago post), I cruised the vast avenues of the South Side. This part of the city not only witnessed an incredible slide to appalling poverty, but was especially victimized by big-idea urban renewal. Though the wide, largely empty streets are lined with wide, largely empty blocks, you still see slab-towers everywhere—some of them for housing, some of them for hospitals, or universities, or technical institutions—but all hooding their bronze-tinted planes of glass in projecting rectangles of dingy cast concrete. Inevitably, they drifted amidst scraggly lawns that no one seemed to find useful or worth maintaining.
Not even in New York City were such simplistic planning diagrams erected in such abundance. As appalling as it is, the herioc scale of what were once thought brave new urban landscapes started to get to me. In our NIMBYfied day, reworking a city block with a few dozen units of housing counts as a spectacular feat. The visual power of those slab-buildings marching for square miles away into the flat Midwestern horizon is actually unforgettable—and the source of their esthetic magnetism is not entirely nice. One thing architecture can express is raw power and that’s what these do, perhaps especially in their varying stages of neglect.
My feelings also are tinged with a not-altogether-altruistic nostalgia, since much of this 1950s, ’60s and ’70s urban landscape is disappearing. As the towers come down, the fancy brick and greystone facades that survived the urban-renewal demolition frenzy in Bronzeville are being restored, the gutted interiors refitted. Bronzeville, once Chicago’s answer to Harlem, is now designated a historic district, though there’s not much history remaining. Rows of abandoned houses have been demolished, seemingly at random. The main commercial strip has vanished as well as big chunks of surrounding blocks. Still, the neighborhood's rebirth is palpable. Even a few years ago, this would have been inconceivable said Bruegmann.
All over Chicago new street trees by the thousands have been planted. We see fussy new bus shelters; new faux-historic streetlights; road bridges redone with iron balustrades and cast-concrete pylons in a bowdlerization of Depression Deco style. The festivity is forced and the aspiration is inadequate to the task of bringing amenity or a sense of place within an urban landscape of such enormity, one that perpetually draws the eye to the endless horizon.
But it seems to be working. Unlike the 1970s, when federal grants underwrote theses kinds of street revitalizations, there is economic wind behind the sails of revitalization.
In a city where high-concept planning too often failed, the current Mayor Daley prefers low-concept, small-idea planning. It’s not the only city where the highrise public housing is coming down in favor of vinyl-sided townhouses ; where lawn is planted over blocks that once hosted dozens of abandoned houses. Chicago is fixing broken sidewalks where no one walks anymore and repaving the streets.
People want to live close in again and the commitment represented by broad capital investment helps people trust that their faith in the city will be rewarded.
Chicago and . . . .
Heavy deadlines have kept me out of weblog trouble, but I'll get myself in more soon.
I hope you can join me and some far more esteemed colleagues as well as our super-esteemed webmeister Douglas McLennan tonight at the Landmark Tavern, 11th Ave. at 46th Street, in Manhattan in the chic Hells Kitchen neighborhood. Talk blogging etc. From 6:30PM.
Just returned from a trip to Chicago, and I'll be writing a bit about that. There are, however, some great events going on now or soon:
Courtesy the press kit of Art Institute of Chicago:
April 3, 2004-January 16, 2005
Kisho Kurokawa Gallery
What would downtown Chicago be if the giant Civic Center proposed in Burnham and Bennett's 1909 Plan of Chicago had been constructed? Or, if Eliel Saarinen had been able to realize his 1932 proposal for an Alexander Hamilton Memorial in Lincoln Park, or if the 1992 World's Fair had been held in Chicago as well as in Seville, Spain? How different would the city's skyline be if the architectural firm of Skidmore Ownings & Merrill had built the planned 2,000-foot-high skyscraper in Chicago's Loop?
Unbuilt Chicago features approximately 90 drawings, plans, and models for major architectural projects in Chicago that never came to fruition. Based on the Department of Architecture's permanent collection, the exhibition will provide a cross section of projects from the 1870s to the present. Many notable architects from Chicago's past and present will be exhibited-including Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Alfonso Ianelli, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Harry Weese, Helmut Jahn, and Jeanne Gang. The Unbuilt Chicago exhibition space will be designed by Chicago architect Dan Wheeler of Wheeler-Kearns Architects.
Organizer and Sponsor: Unbuilt Chicago is organized by The Art Institute of Chicago's Architecture Department. The exhibition is funded by the Fellows of the Department of Architecture. Education programs are supported by The Albert Pick, Jr., Fund.
Curator: Martha Thorne, Associate Curator of Architecture, Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago
There's an Architecture Festival sponsored by the city government. Mayor Daley has arguably invested more in architecturally designed infrastructure throughout the city than any other American mayor. "Great Chicago Places and Spaces" will run from May 21-23. (the website isn't ready yet, but you'll find it connected to the city's official website.) It will include a panel on the Pritzker Prize and tours of the newly renovated Soldier Field (Wood & Zapata, Boston, with Lohan Associates), the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago (led by architect Lucien LaGrange), the new Millennium Park, featuring the Frank Gehry-designed Music Pavilion and Pedestrian bridge, the highrise housing Skybridge at One North Halsted (Perkins & Will) and State Street Village (Murphy/Jahn) at the Illinois Institute of Technology, among others.
In June, even more famous Chicago buildings will find themselves invaded by respectable looking people wearing arty, overengineered glasses and wielding digital cameras as the national convention of the American Institute of Architects comes to town.
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About James S. Russell
The subject of my 15-year-plus career in journalism has been architecture, but it is certainly not a confining one. I’m fascinated by the sociology of the workplace, the design potential of ordinary infrastructure, the politics of housing, the meaning of suburbia, the expressive conundrum of memory.
About STICKS & STONES
Architecture is hot these days—as well as curvy and glassy, frolicsome and intimidating.This frequently misunderstood and most public of arts is being talked about. That in itself is new. For better and worse, architecture entangles itself in the key issues of culture and urban life. S&S will dig into them.
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's ....
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Do dramatically architectural containers serve the art they display? Recently completed museums offer their own distinct take on this long-debated question.
Cincinnati: The blocky forms of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center appear ready to burst out of the confines of its tight downtown site. Inside, spectacular ramps criss-cross to access the unusually shaped galleries. Does this architectural bravura overwhelm the art or stimulate the visitor to appreciate it?
Beacon, New York: If only architecture could vanish, Dia:Beacon seems to argue (some images here). It speads over a vast space, converted from a package plant. The extraordinary collection, much of it Minimalist, frequently uses architectural means to artistic ends, and Dia didn’t want design to get in the way.
St. Louis: The architect, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, speaks of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as a "vessel." You know it’s there, but its purpose is to "prepare the visitor for the experience of art." Can an environment that is assertively unassertive succeed?
Fort Worth: Paired to Louis Kahn’s great masterpiece, the Kimball Art Museum, is the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, by the Japanese master, Tadao Ando. He built three pavilions as hushed reliquaries for art. Ando takes you on a journey, and you see what he wants you to see.
Dallas: Many think Renzo Piano strikes just the right balance between art and architecture. Though elegantly proportioned and authoritatively crafted, the exhibition pavilions at the Nasher Sculpture Center neither upstage the art nor the gorgeous garden setting they’re placed in (by landscape architect Peter Walker).
Conserving Everyone’s Energy But his Own
An oval that appears to droop woozily to the south like a melting ice cream cone may not be the average person's idea of what a city hall should look like, But this is approximately the shape the architect Norman Foster gave the home of London's new local government, the Greater London Authority.
The Mouse That Soars
Frank Gehry anticipated that the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles would be thought just another variation on the Bilbao Guggenheim theme. When one of the countless cost-reducing sessions in this structure’s tortured 16-year path to fruition resulted in the substitution of stainless steel for the limestone cladding Gehry had long desired, he correctly predicted that the building would be seen as "son of Bilbao."
Canadian Center for Architecture
The Slatin Report
The Great Buildings Collection
Van Alen Institute
Storefront for Art and Architecture
The Architectural League
National Building Museum
Heinz Center at Carnegie Institute
Twin Cities Design Institute
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