Field Notes


Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies

Jane’s Walk is just around the corner, and we are hosting a session! Join me on a self-guided tour of your neighborhood where we’ll explore different examples of NYC street furniture during Jane’s Walk 2021, on May 4th.

Check out our event page, Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies:

Municipalities are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground, but are the manifestations of our public policy: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life. This is an activity simultaneously hosted on Zoom, while attendees can also go on a self-guided in-person walk, starting wherever, and encounter pieces of street furniture, and hopefully share what they are seeing, listening, hearing, and smelling with the group. It would be on public sidewalks, hopefully near transit.

For those who wish to go on a walk while tuning in, I recommend joining via the Zoom app on your mobile device.

Zoom information:

Topic: Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies
When: May 4, 2021 11:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Register in advance for this meeting:
https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJEsf–hqDgtHtEEgjDfnLBIFW5SLXkK5pH_
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

About the Project

A lot of attention is paid to the big moves of the city and great work has been done, from Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, to Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, to the most iconic example, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. These are big overarching books well worth your time. 

But they miss the smaller details of urban living. Municipalities – Cities, villages, urban and suburban areas – are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life. They help keep us moving safely about our day by deploying signage and traffic lights; hold our newspapers before and after we read them; street furniture protects us with bollards and separated bike lanes; and street furniture brings us joy with trees and art.

I envision this project to be similar to another seminal, if controversial book: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Perhaps these are the smaller-scale patterns which flow from the objects themselves. I can only be so presumptuous. This website endeavors to present a wide cross section of communities, taking into account varying densities, geographic location, community age, and mobility mix, allowing wider insights. 

Read more about the project

Roosevelt Island Master Plan

I spent the weekend playing around Roosevelt Island, the tiny island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It’s an amazing place, which feels like another world. Accessible by the F train, Tram, ferry, and car you can get to it, but it isn’t easy.

At the southern end is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park designed by Louis Kahn in 1974, but only brought to life in 2012.

But what’s always special is the urban design of Roosevelt Island. It’s decidedly 1970’s in many ways (both good and bad): there are giant colored tubes, lots of concrete, and a failed idea to keep vehicles off Main Street. The master plan (PDF) is by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and it’s grown on me.

First, let’s take a moment and acknowledge how problematic Johnson is. He was an outright supporter of Nazis, an apparently unreformed fascist, and surrounded himself with the most unseemly of characters. So let’s acknowledge his horribleness while we look at the spaces and urbanism he helped bring to life.

The urban plan is basically a single mainstreet down the spine of the island with apartment buildings branching off, with pedestrian space on the riversides. This creates a narrow canyon of compression in the middle, with release by either going under, through, or besides buildings to the riverside. I can’t make up my mind if Main Street is too narrow or just right.

Increments of Neighborhood by Brian O’Looney

Increments of Neighborhood

Neighborhood and building typology are a scale higher than we deal with here. So I’ve been having a great time reading Increments of Neighborhood by Brian O’Looney, recently released by Oro Editions. I’ll have a full review on the website soon, but this is a great book for those interested in urban typologies – both residential and commercial.

Each type has nice big photographs, site and aerials, floor plans, and missed opportunities. This sort of deep detail really connects with my inner typologist.

Highly recommended.

Increments of Neighborhood entry
Increments of Neighborhood entry detail

A layered history: interview with Mari Kroin

History is what we make of it, and these are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who explore the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.


My name is Mari Kroin – I am a 90’s kid, born and raised in New York City. I went to Fiorello H. Laguardia High School for visual art (ed. note: the FAME school), during that time I delved deeper into an inherent interest in Architecture. Growing up in NYC I was immersed in an endless treasure trove of history and creativity, it has alway served as a source of inspiration in my work. Not wanting to leave the city, I chose to attend Pratt Institute for my Bachelors in Architecture. Here I explored crossovers in visual art and architecture and began to define my own form of representation. I became obsessed with the layering of color and potentials in physical transparency. This interest has carried over into my work at Yale, where I am getting a post professional degree. I would describe my work now as somewhere between the  state of waking and dreaming.

Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns

In Spring of 2020 I was lucky enough to take a seminar called “Polychromatic Reconstruction of Architecture” taught by David Gissen (@davidgissen). We talked about the loss or fading of color in ancient and classical architecture over time, the qualities of a ruinous state, preservation, and chromatic reconstruction. He asked us to investigate a case study or area of interest in relation to the reconstruction of color in built forms. I couldn’t help thinking about the beaten edges of subway columns, which reveal a long, layered history of repainting. I have always tried to bring elements of NYC into my work, it seemed like the perfect subject for this project: Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns.

The subway column paint chip is a nostalgic thing for many New Yorkers. While working on “Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns”, a lot of childhood friends reached out to tell me they still had paint chip collections. It was very exciting. Depending on the station, the chips can reveal a wide spectrum of colors. A painted tree trunk of sorts. Typically, columns are never fully stripped of their previous layer of paint, creating a thick build up. The texture changes over time, edges grow less defined, and debris between layers becomes increasingly visible. 

Train stops with heavy traffic have endured more coats of paint; the 23rd street E/C station is a local stop with moderate foot traffic. Seven unique color phases were found. The progression is investigated through a historical, visual, and tactile lens.

The project initiated with the collection of paint chips throughout the station, around the time COVID-19 first hit the city. These were dissected to analyze the thickness and texture of each layer and to establish a clearer color matching process. The colors were matched with acrylic paint and applied to identical column maquettes, mimicking the full-scale painting process over time. With each progressive column a new portal to the layer(s) below is revealed. I found myself getting sentimental simply mixing the colors, friends of mine noted my nostalgia particularly for the dark forest green. It’s amazing how our senses can be entwined with the memory of color.

In addition to color matching, I did some investigation into the history of the MTA’s chromatic and graphic language. The history and intention of coloring station tiles is incredibly interesting. Moreover, the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual (containing the work off Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda) gave me some insight into the progression of station graphics. While both the tiles and manual spoke to my area of interest, I did not find much on the progression of column paint colors. I therefore had to ask a few enduring locals from the west 23rd street area to recount upon their memory of station cleaning and renovation. Establishing a timeline of color phase duration, I had to do a lot of guessing too and used paint layer thickness to estimate span.

For the final project David suggested making identical maquettes to show the color timeline. I just ran with that and made it my own, creating new reveals with each column. I had wanted to make them out of metal and at a larger scale, to mimic the actual columns but we were in the beginning stages of work from home culture and I had to adapt. All of the art supply stores were closed so I made them out of scrap chipboard, used my dining room table as a work space, and made a little photo set up in the corner of my living room. I never really got a chance to display them to the public outside of my home but I enjoy looking at them on my bookshelf.

What is the one surprising thing you have learned while making this project?

I think it is incredible how color is tied to nostalgia.

Necessities in infrastructure and utility and the tactile everyday elements in the world around you play a huge role in individual and collective memory. I love when New Yorkers tell me subway stories after seeing this project. I think this is the first project I have worked on that consistently encourages sense-based recollection. The subway is something that ties New Yorkers together, particularly people that grew up in the city. It is exciting to feel a sense of community through memory.

On typology, and the city

In the case of the “Wet Paint” project, I think of typology as elements which form a collective, or parts of a whole entity. I see a city as a body or organism, something that evolves and tries to adapt to greater forces but distinct because of its elements, its organs and the parts that give it life.

As designers I hope we never shy away from color. I think there is a comfort in black and white lines and existing in monochrome but color is one of the greatest tools we have, and a fascinating and significant lens through which to examine history.

If you had to choose: Peter Eisenman or Christopher Alexander.

Neither.

I might get in trouble for this one! Eisenman is quite a presence at Yale. You have the Eisenman die-hards and people, like me, who might gravitate towards up-and-coming architects/theorists or just in a different direction in general. I really try not to venerate architects too much and I tend not to follow media accounts like NextTopArchitects, it puts pressure on ideals. I do have a lot of respect for certain thinkers and collectives and definitely refer back to some more than others… Boullée, Lina Bo Bardi, Miralles and Pinós, Barragán, Frei Otto, Ant Farm, Haus Rucker, E.A.T., Ando, Kenzō Tange, Kazuyo Sejima. I am half Japanese so I draw a lot of inspiration from architecture in Japan both past and present.

Thank you to Mari Kroin for their time. To see more of their work, check out their instagram @marzcargo and see more about Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns.

More Interviews

Feminist Architecture: a new way with Grace Thomas

Grace Thomas Empower rendering

Hello, my name is Grace Thomas and I am a third-year undergraduate architecture student in the UK. I fell in love with architecture after walking around the Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. I was inspired by how much detail and meaning building parts could have and the effect a building has on people’s thoughts and feelings. 

When I fell in love with feminism is a little hazier, I think I have always been a feminist.

When I came to university that my ‘feminist agenda’ changed. Instead of working to combat micro-aggressions thrown around at a boy’s school, I wanted to put feminism in architecture. It was at the beginning of my second year when I started to consider this: we had to try and define our style of architecture and feminist is exactly what I wanted architecture to be.

To be honest, I did not know if feminist architecture could be accomplished.

Grace Thomas School axonometric

My feminist architecture

Feminism is the ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes’. I believe architecture is one of the discourses that can show that feminism isn’t just a theory.

Architects can be the action that rebels against the patriarchal built environment that we currently live in. Incredible books such as Living in a Man-Made World- Gender Assumptions in Modern Housing Design by Marion Roberts and Feminist City by Lesie Kern are brilliant at demonstrating how architecture has been used to oppress women and keep them trapped. 

My feminist architecture is about creating buildings and spaces that are built for everyone. I don’t design just for the six-foot male and I try to include everyone’s needs in my specifications: an accessible stair, an increased number of accessible bathrooms, and trying to reduce crime on the site by 24hr programming of the building. 

I think it is imperative to clarify that feminism does not and has never meant anti-male. Feminism (and any of its discourses) aims to dismantle the patriarchy and the system which disadvantages women. Patriarchy also disadvantages men in many ways – feminism aims to support men as well. Men get less time off work for paternity leave and are not encouraged by their peers to display their emotions, contributing to higher rates of suicide in males than females. 

Therefore, in my work I try to design for everyone. That is what feminist architecture is for me. Designing so that everyone has equal opportunities for success. Furthermore, in countless parts of the world feminism is still considered taboo and people get shamed for calling themselves feminists. Thus, it should be no wonder that I am trying to promote the movement that gives half the world’s population a voice and that tries to achieve gender equality. 

Your projects is centred around education and the local context. How is this important?

Rules for Feminist Architecture

Globally there is a lack of women in STEM and in Margate where my project was set, there are not many great post-16 centres let alone specific STEM ones. As a result, to add to the feminist goals of my project I opted for a STEM college for women. Looking back the programming did help to market my building as feminist. But there are so many ways you can design in a feminist manner that does not involve specifying that the building to be for women only!

Every piece of architecture must be built into the local context. If there is not sufficient prior knowledge of this then I strongly believe that is one of the main factors why buildings do not work or are not received well by the community. Therefore, I took multiple site visits and scoured the internet and online books for as much local history and views on the current situation of the town as I could. This enabled me to focus on what the town would need from my project and how previous architectural builds such as the Turner Contemporary have been received. 

Grace Thomas Girl in STEM poster

Who will tell your story?

So much of the canon of architectural history is (for lack of better terms), old white dudes. How does that affect feminist space/architecture?

During my first year, the only architects we looked at or were told to look at were old white men. I think that to design feminist spaces, architecture students must make the conscious effort to explore other architects and how they have designed for equality or have they? It should also be a big focus of architecture schools to radicalise their teaching and include more of the forgotten architects. These include those who are female, black, from ethnic minorities, marginalised communities, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and more. We also need to be teaching our future architects how to design for the specific needs of these communities, just having one day about designing for people in wheelchairs is not enough by any means. 

I will be completely honest and say I have not researched the decolonization movement yet. I understand that I need to and I have started to broaden my feminism to practice intersectional feminism. Can We All Be Feminists? – Seventeen Writers on Intersectional Identity and Finding The Right Way Forward for Feminism By June Eric Udorie is a fantastic resource that introduces and discusses the different intersections that feminism needs to start covering. I will use this book as a jumping-off point to look more into the issues of colonialism and how it affects the built environment. Moreover, I am looking to see what I can do to ensure what I design in a way that does not repeat the mistakes of history. 

Can we all agree that Ray Eames and Denise Scott Brown totally get overlooked? What forces need to change to bring equity and equality?

Oh yes, we can 100% agree on that. Amid all my male-centred architecture teachings I did have one professor who talked a little about how much more of the credit should lie with the female behind some of the big male names. So that was very refreshing to hear.

I would maintain that it is the architecture schools who need to make the most change. If we keep teaching about the same white men all the time then future architects won’t know how much wonderful diversity is out there. That will be a big factor in bringing about equity and equality, especially in the future. For now, we need more appreciation and celebration of the roles that women played in designing the current built environment.

Let’s spread awareness of what happened to Ray Eames and Denise Scott-Brown or even Marion Mahony Griffin or Eileen Gray or Lily Reich or Charlotte Perriand. The list of over-shadowed women goes on and these are the most famous of the group. Think about how many women’s stories we just don’t and will never know about. 

Typology and the city

Modern housing design and typologies since the 1800s in the UK particularly, have consistently reinforced the need for the nuclear family with the man as the breadwinner. It was the housing policies set by the government that unapologetically forced anyone not married into low-quality housing and slums. Even what the government would classify as “the deserving poor” had to be families who did not drink and smoke, and had a loyal, clean and tidy housewife to maintain the property. Single women and other minority groups were priced out of decent standard council houses by design. 

The housing boom in the 1950s to the 1970s further reinforced these patriarchal ideas and now this is the housing stock we are left with today. So, whilst the archaic policies are gone, the framework from a male dominant society is still there. Furthermore, we need more diversity in our policy-making rooms so that marginalization and discrimination in the housing market never happen again. 

To bring change to the profession we need to step outside our comfort zones. Whilst it may be easy to copy elements from precedents that have seemed to do well in the past, we need to think: who are these building schemes benefitting and are they as great at the predominantly white male architecture profession claim to be? We need to ask a more diverse range of people their opinions before trying to fit a square shape through a circular hole, so to speak. 

Farnsworth House – photo by Typology City

If we look at Mies Van der Roe’s Farnsworth house. This is a celebrated historic design and one I got told in architecture school was a brilliant example of modern housing. But if you ask the owner and resident of the house Edith Farnsworth, we see a very different side to the story. She said that she did not like the invasion of privacy she got from all glass walls and always felt like she was being watched, a feeling most women know too well and do not want to feel in their own homes. In an interview, she said

“The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night (…) Mies talks about his ‘free space’: but his space is very fixed. (…) Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray.” 

Thank you to Grace Thomas for their time. To see more of their work, check out their instagram @thefeministarchitect and see their final year presentation – they also gave us further Reading for anyone interested in feminism or feminist architecture:

More Interviews

Observed: Outdoor dining yurt village in Williamsburg

Outdoor dining yurts in Williamsburg

We were out and about Brooklyn yesterday and we encountered one of American Express and Resy’s 13 Yurt Villages across the US, designed to support safe outdoor dining during COVID-19:

The Yurt Villages are a new covered, heated outdoor experience available exclusively for American Express Card Members. The collection of custom-designed tents will serve as miniature private dining rooms in a range of sizes holding four to six people.

Yurt Village press release

I was surprised how much I liked them. I’m a sucker for repeated multiples of the same shape and object. I’m sure that the experience at night is nice. The village concept is what I love about the work of Jan Kattein Architects – the human-scale of the yurts sitting on the sidewalk bulb-outs was pleasing, and well proportioned.

I still wouldn’t eat outdoors at a restaurant until after we are all vaccinated, but my risk tolerance is different than other people, and this is totally on brand for American Express.

Crisis 2020

Fire Hydrant

The last 10 months has been honestly hard to manage work, life, and if this project has any value compared to the world altering crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. More often than not, I have erred on silence and focusing on family and the daily crisis of finding balance in an imbalanced world. So may these random photos of fire hydrants remind us that the worst bits of history become lifesaving devices.

We hope you and your family are safe, healthy, and the end of this year has been restorative. We will resume posting new field notes and taxonomies every week for the next 52 weeks.

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