Entries in Architecture (4)


Andres Lepik: Moderators of Change - Socially Engaged Architecture

Last Thursday we conquered the pouring rain once again to meet at the  Guggenheim Lab  in Prenzlauer Berg to hear a talk by Andres Lepik. 

Andres Lepik  is an art historian, curator, author and speaker on civic engagement in architecture. 

His recent book Moderators of Change presents contemporary examples of social engagement in architecture on a global scale and explores various strategies for how design can actively influence underserved communities. Andres’ research focuses on three main areas: rural neighborhoods in developing countries, informal cities and new stategies for shrinking cities.

The talk was given in the outdoor presentation area, with 2 English translators and very cool ear-pieces that we put in to listen to his talk while watching the big screens that projected his images. We actually didn't realise that the lecture had already begun and were sort of dawdling around the cafe area so we missed the first 5 minutes or so. Anyways we jumped in at the point where Andres was talking about  Corporate Social Responsibility.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) refers to the practice of having a set of ethical processes built into your business model, in an attempt to take into consideration not just shareholders, but 'stakeholders' (anyone who has an interest in your business or whom your business will impact). The environment is one example of a stakeholder.

Andres used the example of McDonald's: The Ronald McDonald foundation provides camps and schools through donations and from part of the profits of eating a big mac. This is sometimes referred to as  'Ethical Consumerism,'  where a consumer is given a choice between buying one product or buying a similar product that will directly or indirectly help solve a problem. Starbucks does this with their Ethos water, Tom's does this with shoes. Almost all of the time the basis of this ethical consumerism is philanthropic: to provide a service for someone else while giving the consumer a sense that they have done something good by purchasing your goods. 

One of the criticisms of ethical consumerism is that, as Andres put it, you are f*$%ed if you think there is a positive relationship between your purchase and the well-being of another person or situation. The water you buy at Starbucks comes from somewhere, and maybe money from your purchase goes into a "relief fund" but in all likelihood it is doing nothing to help relieve draught in Africa.

The same with Tom's shoes. You could just give $10 to a foundation directly instead of purchasing the overpriced, somewhat crappily made version that Tom's sells. But Tom's is seen as giving a service: shoes for children. The problem is that this is a service that is not needed. There are plenty of shoes available at the markets in the countries that recieve free Tom's shoes. By bringing in free shoes, the Tom's model is undercutting the local trade which ultimately has negative consequences for the locals.

What's better? Bestowing free shoes or empowering and engaging locals?

That touches on a major criticism of foreign aid in general, which is that foreign aid boils down to white people coming in to give solutions to problems that don't exist or that they don't understand. 

The point of this segue was to point out that while there is some attempt at 'social responsibility' in the business world, there are no ethical codes for architecture. Architecture has no conscience: if hired to clear out slums to build a luxury hotel, that is what architects will do. Thre are many cities where the borders between the informal and formal worlds (e.g., slums vs. luxury condos) butt up against each other. There is often a literal wall between these worlds. What can be done to abolish this wall? 

Segue again into a very publicized project by  Haas & Hahn;  Jeroen Koolhaas (the son of Rem Koolhaas) and Dre Urhahn. The project was called Favela Painting and the purported effect was that by painting the facades of favelas in bright colors, it would bring local pride to the neighborhood and teach locals 'professional painting skills.'

Inhabitat:  "Brilliant Favela Paintings Energize Neighborhoods!"

Not socially engaged: Haas & Hahn

Andres criticises this project for creating an image of happiness for the New York Times rather than the people who live here. What remains for the people after the photographers leave? Nothing. There is no real service here, the brightly colored facades exist almost purely to bring smiles to rich Westerners and leave them with a glowing feeling that they have done something positive for this place when in fact they have done nothing.

Architecture can do more than color the misery.


Andres introduces a list of criteria to measure so-called ethical projects and evaluate if they will have a long term positive impact:

1. Local Value

refers to the use of local knowledge and insight into the conditions and social context of the project, and how it will impact the area financially. 

2. Engagement Value

architects are used to waiting for people to come to them with commissions but it doesn't have to be like that, we can look for our own projects that are closely involved with our communities.

3. Social Value

what we build is for the users and the workers who make it, not for a theory or an aesthetic ideal in our heads.

4. Strategic Value

architecture is rooted in the local situation but it has an impact on the work of other practitioners.

5. Design Value

the project fosters aesthetic values.

Lepik then started giving examples of projects that meet these criteria.

1. Primary school in Burkina Faso, by Francis Kere

The entire local society was included in the design and construction of this primary school in Gando. It has an ecological and aesthetic impact that is much stronger than typical foreign aid schools that are made from concrete block and corrugated metal. This school reflects the local building culture of compressed earthen blocks that community helped to make. The roof is raised rather than enclosed, which brings in passive air flow and indirect light. The roof prevents sun radiation, so the building is the coolest place in the community. In the evening they use it as a meeting place.

It is one of the most successful schools in the country, the students do exceptionally well because all the best teachers want to teach at this school. This is because of the well-considered ventillation and passive cooling techniques. It is also aesthetically very beautiful inside, with great light conditions. 

In the typical foreign aid schools, if it is 40 degrees Celcius outside it is 50 inside. That is because there are no breaks between the corrugated metal roofs and the concrete blocks. It creates a terrible interior atmosphere. They also have a problem building the schools because as soon as they deliver the materials to the site, people will steal them for their own homes. There is no sense of ownership or local community in a pre-packaged school kit. They are far less successful. 

2. The Inner City Arts Project - Skidrow, LA, by Michael Maltzan.  

Every brown building in this image is part of skidrow, where there are 4-5000 homeless people and the poverty rate is 40%. In California they abolished arts education in the public schools to save money, so this arts center was initiated by Michael Maltzan, formerly of Frank Gehry Architects, to ensure that youths still have the opportunity to get an arts education. This is a private center (meaning, not funded by the government) that is free for all youths from all over. 

Initially the arts center was based in a garage building, and over the last 15 years it has expanded to all the white area you see today. The entire block has been developed and 40, 000 school age students have the chance to get arts lessons. The project has had an impact on the entire community and you can tell that the community accepts it, as there is absolutely no graffiti.

After the success of the arts center, Maltzan joined with the skidrow building trust to build homes for the homeless. Not just a homeless shelter, but a place where the homeless can live and keep an address. There is an inner courtyard with a communal kitchen, bathroom, and meeting rooms. Because these projects are based on inclusiveness with the local community, they are successful where other attempts at design have failed. 

3. a) Metro Cable for the Favelas of Caracas, by Urban Think Tank

Favelas of Caracas, Venuzuela

Favelas / slums are one of the most prevalent housing typologies on earth. They are prime example of 'informal' housing - unplanned and unco-ordinated with a main city plan, sewage, or electrical grid. One of the main issues with favelas is that they are so isolated from important services such as education and healthcare, and that creates a pretty grim future. There are no planned roads or access points to get to the main city. 

Urban Think Tank, a New York based firm, worked with 2 local architects to build a funicular system. The idea was to give access to the city without having to walk or drive. People who live here can now access schools and hospitals and so the metro-cable cars are a vehicle for social change. 

3. b) Quinto Monroy Housing - Iquique Chile, Elemental Architects

This project by Elemental provides residents with informal structures completed to 50%. The residents finish the structures themselves. The buildings are built for $5, 000, given as a loan to the residents. The logic of barrios in Chile is to grow further, and now the vacant gaps are being filled. These houses are an economic investment in the poor, because as they finish their houses (using materials they would be using in barrios anyways), they can rent out a part of their house to help pay off their loan. Once they pay off the loan they own their home and can start businesses there legally.

The whole project scheme works on the principle of assisting the residents out of illegal living, providing capital, and becoming part of a legal economy. 

4. Tour Bois-le-Prêtre - Paris, France, Anne La Caton, Jean Philippe Vassal & Frederic Durot. 

Outside the ring-road of Paris are the suburbs that no tourist ever visits. These suburbs have been subject to many discussions and plans for how to solve the problems of unemployment, racial tensions, and poor living conditions for the mostly immigrant populations.

One of the most popular techniques for 'solving' the problems involves demolishing Modern period apartment buildings that are seen as impediments to proper social integration. This project takes the opposite approach and says that people have built up social networks within their neighborhoods, and the answer is not to demolish the buildings but to improve them. 

The idea behind this tower was to have a dry construction element; to build a shell around the entire building. This shell acts as a double facade, bringing more light and space into the apartments as well as lowering heating costs and allowing the residents to stay in the building the entire time the shell was under construction. Once the shell was constructed, the former outer walls of the apartment building could be removed, giving each resident floor to ceiling views over Paris. The residents had influence in their flats and the goverment saved a lot of money by not demolishing and rehousing. 

5, 6, 7.... I don't have the time to go over every example that Andres talked about. I will provide the links to each instead:

5. Passage 56 - Paris, France, Atelier d'architecture  - An unused lot was transformed into a self-sufficient community plot.

6. Penzberg Mosque - Penzberg, Bavaria - A local Imam and local Priest use participatory design to build community support for a multi-functional mosque / religious center.

7. Haushalten e.V. Leipzig - Bringing creative locals together with a building preservation society to renovate and use abandoned buildings. 

The closing remarks are that:

Architects need to do more than just build. 

There needs to be a focused attention on a specific problem or opportunity rather than rebuilding, reselling, or simply demolishing. This focused attention can totally change the community. 

Questions from the audience:

1. Why don't government aid societies use Francis Kere's approach of working with the locals to build rather than the concrete boxes they propose now?

The Kere version is a real investment in the community and the people are involved with the whole process rather than just given something. Aid agencies do not have the quality control or the motivation to invest in the local community and to keep costs down they use a 'one-size-fits-all' approach. 

2. Is there any similar situation like Haushalten e.V Leipzig in Berlin?

Not yet.

3. How can educators change the way architecture students are educated so that they understand architecture is not just about building iconic museums or fantastic forms?

Some Berlin schools are in touch with Burkina Faso and have done more work there, such as teacher's living quarters and a library. They develop a long term relationship with a place and the people. Schools that do that will have a very good head start in helping their students realise the potential of architecture as a community development tool and not just a path for personal glory.

Rural Studio and Auburn University  work directly with the community as a design/build school. Any school that provides the opportunity for design/build workshops as a basis will produce architects that go on to do meaningful projects. 

Final Thoughts

I loved this lecture because it showed examples of architecture that is truly admirable, not just pleasant to look at. There are many people in the world who think that "good / interesting architecture" looks like this:

> lots of majestic swoops and swirls

> some kind of fantastical form that's never been done before

> funny shaped sky scrapers

> anything that falls under the category "well that's different"

Or, even worse:

> What I like to call "frankenstein" architecture - most often manifested in custom homes.

That is, in a way, the point of all this discussion. Architecture has mainly been a rich-person's pursuit, something that is commissioned to serve a stylistic whim and delivered with no question of what effect it has on the surrounding context. There are many who think the goal of architecture is to do something new and unique, but lack the taste to moderate the aesthetic. You can argue that taste is relative, but you can't argue that any of the images directly above will have any real positive impact on the places they are built. They are simply 'painting over the misery', just like the colorful favela painting project.

To make meaningful places I think the world has to let go of its perception of architecture as a series of showstopping icons that try to one-up each other from year to year. Good architecture is rarely showy, but often beautiful in a way that speaks to the real daily needs of the users.  

My hope is that more and more practices arise where placemaking and context is just as important as aesthetic form, where the client is only one voice in a group, and where the community and environment are involved in the whole process rather than 'gifted' a piece of architecture that they may not want, need, or use.


Urban Gardening in Berlin + Berlin Mauer Gedenkstaette

As I've mentioned, we started volunteering at the Prinzessinnengarten this month in the hopes of learning something that we probably should have learned in school in order to be qualified to do our jobs. Also to meet people and make cool friends, since we are not into the whole 'dancing to deep, raw techno in drug infested squats until 8am' thing.

Deep.... Raw.... Techno.


On Saturday, we went to see what could be done and discovered a set of containers waiting to have their dead Persian Mint removed, the dead roots removed, and new soil added in preparation for some healthy plants. We first examined the containers for any small living mint seedlings and transplanted them into pots, then commenced with the last funeral rites of the deceased Persian Mint.

I am, as my sister would tell you, probably the blackest thumb this side of the Atlantic. But I have hope that plants hardy enough to survive random volunteers can also survive a Stephanie handling their delicate root systems. 

Our final staycation event was to return to the Berlin Wall Memorial and go to the documentation center. Gardening made us hungry, and we decided to return to Noodeli which is an awesome pasta take-away place in Mitte. We found it on our way home from Future Shorts on Friday night, and it was so damn good we had to go back. The concept is simple: You choose one of three kinds of pasta, choose a sauce, and choose a topping. I don't know why it hasn't been done sooner. 

I was touched by the noodely appendage on this very spot.

We biked up Ackerstr. to the documentation center and Berlin Wall Memorial area. The documentation center itself is kinda blah, but it does have very good information. You can also view the whole memorial area from a viewing platform 6 stories up.  

An enclosed, preserved chunk of the wall area. What surprised us was that it wasn't just a single wall, but an entire swathe of dead space in the city... complete with dog runs, mines, and 'shoot to kill' orders. It is actually insane to think about, that this distance seperated a city for 28 years.

The preserved area is enclosed by even higher wall.

Jed just freaked out because I'm using his photo. 'Did you credit me? HEY? THAT'S MY PHOTO! YOU PHOTO STEALER... I did not freak out, that's a lie.' Direct, live quote. Ladies and Gentleman, if you hadn't guessed, this is Jed's photo (doy, since I'm walking next the wall).

One of the even cooler things we discovered about this site is a new chapel made from rammed earth / packed clay.... by Peter Sassenroth! He taught building tech at Dalhousie, and dang me if I totally forgot he was German. If I'd have known he could do such awesome architecture, I probably would have tried to listen to that one lecture he gave back in B2.

When the wall was built, many parishoners were cut of from their respective churches. On this site, this church was demolished by the GDR in the 70's. After reunification, the chapel was rebuilt, but totally redesigned. Originally the architects intended it to be concrete and glass, but the residents said that concrete reminded them of the wall, and asked for natural building materials instead. The result was... incredible


This building and the memorial park gave us hope that good design can exist in Berlin. 

Final pics from the end of the memorial area:

Inside the preserved death-strip.

Memorial to those who died attempting to escape East Berlin by climbing the wall.

All in all, this was probably the best week I've had in Berlin so far. We got to visit districts that we've never really been to before, saw great design, had fantastic weather, and drank a lot of amazing coffee. It makes me want to try even harder to learn German [in spite of the fact that we complain constantly about the utter stupidity of the grammar] and try to get our visas extended so we can stay in this awesome city.


historic reconstruction and second-hand English books in Berlin.


We went to see an apartment in Neukoelln near Weserstr. I, as usual, am in love with it and blind to any faults. The only *real* fault is that there is no internet, and a slight lack of furnishings in the living room which is used as a painting studio right now. The good parts of the apartment: 2 cats!, balcony, 3rd floor facing the street, lots of light from both sides, great area, 10 mins closer to work....

While we were wandering around we saw a nice cafe to stop in at for a mid afternoon cup. No real surprises though, considering this area is rife with lovely cafes.

Ivanhoe turns out to be a seriously enjoyable classic and makes me yearn for the times when people said things like 'thou hatest not thine wine.'

The next pursuit of the day was the Neues Museum, which I had been to before but Jed hadn't. The museum was renovated by David Chipperfield Architects and apparently caused quite the uproar because he restored AND reinterpreted through new design.... and the Germans would have preferred that he just restore an exact replica of the previously existing building.

Let's not be hasty here though, it wasn't as if David Chipperfield was suggesting a completely different interior. He painstakingly went through the debris and picked out every useable, original piece, including bulletholes in the bricks and smoke damaged columns, and where parts of the museum were completely destroyed he used the proportions from the original architect.

There is a problem with those who make decisions about Berlin's architecture and design projects though (and maybe this is throughout all of Germany...). They don't want to be reminded of what happened in the wars. They want either brand new, but extremely boring, design, or they want things to be reconjured to their original designs, as replicas of how the city was in say... 1928.

From the NY Times just after the museum was reopened:

Germans who complained over the years about “ruin nostalgia” (they were the real nostalgists) said that the country, by association with such a symbolic site, shouldn’t continue to be held hostage to the worst episode in German history. Better, they argued, rebuild the Neues Museum as it originally looked, from scratch, without all the bullet holes and rotting columns, along the lines of the fake 18th-century Hohenzollern Stadtschloss on Unter den Linden, the city’s central boulevard not far away, which, if Germany ever comes up with the nearly $1 billion the building will cost, is now on the drawing board.

Hopefully as the years have gone on and David Chipperfield has won the German Architecture Award for this building, critics have reconsidered their position. But from what still gets picked in competitions... I would say the vast majority of the design decision makers in Germany still favor the 'let's not do anything new here' approach.

New central stairway with preserved brickwork and friezes

Second floor corridor

I think this is a world-class building renovation. Antiquities tend to bore me after one or two rooms because they are often curated in a haphazard, incoherent fashion. Not here. I almost could have learned my first semester of art history in one audio-tour through the Neues Museum, though that wouldn't have been as fun as hearing Prof. John Stocking discuss the giant purple clay dildo of the cult of Dionysus.

Since I lack photographic evidence of what we did after the Neues Museum, I'm going to assume we went home... nope, nope, we went to Prenzlauer Berg. Right.

I am on a constant mission to find good second-hand English books. I thought Berlin would be the ideal place to get cheap literature, but it turns out that used books cost more here then in Copenhagen. How's that for a shocker? I bristle at paying more than half of the original sticker price of a book, especially if said book is a classic or older than 10 years. I cannot get past the 5 euro mark without feeling slight resentment towards the reseller, even if the reseller is a bright and chipper expat who serves brownies and coffee. 

Shakespeare & Sons has both new and used books, but the used books occupy a mere corner of the store. The books are marked up, either reflecting the area (Prenzlauer Berg being known as the yuppy / expensive part of Berlin) or the cost of importing English books to Germany. Either way, the new books were totally out of my range and the used books were somewhere between 6 and 12 eur. I really don't care how 'carefully' the books were selected based on their condition and renoun... I don't want to pay more than 5 of any kind of currency for used books.

Having now visited Another Country and Fair Exchange in Kreuzberg, I only really have to go to East of Eden in Friedrichshain and Books in Berlin in Charlottenburg to get a full sense of the offerings. So far, Fair Exchange is my favorite.

Next up: Potsdam.


Making a Visual: sketch to design in photoshop

As promised I wanted to post about how I go from a sketch to a finished visual using only photoshop. 

This probably won't be interesting for most of you blog readers right now, but eventually I am going to sort out the whole 'what part of my blog is going to be public' thing when I have time and don't work until 9pm on Sundays.


Making a visual requires that you have a few different skills, but with practice I think everyone can make a decent looking image.

Basic skills required: hand sketching, photoshop, sense of composition and perspective, ability to understand space from plans and sections.

It really helps if you have a library of images to work with for backgrounds, textures, and trees / people. This takes time to build up. I've been gathering images, cutting out trees and people, and scouring the internet for free photoshop brushes and actions for 2 or 3 years. One day I will post a list of links to all the websites I check for good free materials and textures.

Okay. So your boss is like 'we want to build a park over yonder and need to convince the vulgarians, er, I mean, local residents, that our design is much better than what is currently existing. Therefore we need some sparkly beautiful perspectives that will seduce everyone into choosing our firm even if all we're doing is trimming some unruly overgrowth and planting long grasses. Also, we need these visuals by noon on Wednesday. It is Monday afternoon. We don't have time to 3D-model or render anything and no one has taken site photos. Can you build a perspective from scratch and have it on my desk for review by tomorrow morning?'

'Yes boss. You will soon be blown away by awesome. You will feel light headed with joy once I'm finished with your perspectives.'

Step 1: Sketch

Make a sketch. Show it to boss. Get approval.

Step 2: Develop the background.

For this kind of visual, it was supposed to be in a painterly / sketchy proposal stage of design. Well, that's what they told me. As it turned out, what they actually meant was they wanted the visual to look painterly / sketchy, but the details of the design were to be precisely executed to an almost annoying degree. 

In the background, you will see some sky, a building, maybe a street. I got the street image from a screen shot on google streetview. God bless google. I swear I wouldn't be able to do anything without google maps anymore.

The sky is a blotch of watercolor that was a mistake or something when I was painting one day. I scanned it in and used a color filter to make it blue like sky. You can also just google 'sky' and you know. Magic will happen at the touch of a finger.

The big block of squares you see is the new building proposed by S + H architects, our collaboraters on the project. They did the building, we did the park. I didn't have any images of the proposed structure, so I had to take a photo of a scale model we had lying around at work. Good times.

Step 3: Add the ground layer (i.e. grass)

Oh grass. Sometimes I like grass. Sometimes I hate grass. The most important thing about laying ground is making sure that if you are using a variety of different images, that you color correct them so they have the same tone. This is where photoshop actions come in very, very handy. 

Tips for grass: look for images that show grass from an eye level perspective, looking off into the distance. That way you can get a realistic view of detail near the front of the image and small / blurred details at the back of the image. I always use at least 3-5 different pictures of grass. Meadows, golf courses, and fields all make for excellent sources of grass imagery. For this project, the grass closest to the paths was supposed to be like regular lawn grass, while the raised slopes were like long-grass meadows.

I layer the grass according to texture and color, it doesn't matter so much at this point whether it is all blended and looking perfect. I like to put blocks of grass over top of other blocks of grass, then use a big soft eraser brush to blend the edges. 

Step 4: Trees

My biggest pet peeve about architecture / landscape visuals is when people repeat the same tree over and over and over. Nothing looks more unrealistic than carbon copies of the same tree. At the very least you can flip it horizontally and resize it slightly, just for some variation. *grumble*

Depending on the visual, I might use between 3 and 8 different trees. The ones that are visible in front should be as close as possible to the actual species being proposed. In cities like Berlin it is often Plane trees, Limes, Lindens, Beeches, and Poplar. The odd Maple.

In this proposal no new trees were being proposed, pretty much all were existing so I just used trees that looked similar in terms of foliage, height, and shape. 

People go crazy for having trees framing the picture, I guess it completes their existence or something. 

I should mention that I often put the trees through the same color action as the grass, to get a similar tone. 

You might also notice the grass is changed. I went over it with a free grass brush I got on the internet in diferent shades of gold - green. Lots of blend modes and opacity changes were involved. I also made my own set of grasses back when I did my thesis, and I added some of those overtop of the base grass layers.

Step 5: Paving and People

Since this image was supposed to have a sketchy feel to it, I used non-realistic watercolor sketches of people from someone's sketchbook they published online. And uh, I should probably credit them or something, but I downloaded it way back in the day when I was too tired and anxious to record where I downloaded things from. Sorry, guy or girl who did them.

Most importantly about adding things: PUT SHADOWS OR ELSE I KILL YOU. You don't have to make elaborate shadows that are the same shape as the person or tree, but if you don't add some shadows, everything will look flat and wonky. 

I use the pen tool to draw in some basic level changes and paths, and change the shadows of the paving texture accordingly.

Isn't the puppy cute? We need more puppies in visuals.

Step 5: Light effects and general pimp factor-ness

What we all need in life is a vintage color filter to make everything look nice and purdy. I use an action called Vintage Film by.... Fallout 75. Go download it now. It will change your life.

I almost never use actions as-is, I always fiddle with the settings afterwards. This is where it comes in handy to have a basic understanding of layer adjustments, gradient overlays, and blend modes. It's really quite simple stuff though. I also use a free brush called 'light beams' at a soft white-yellow color, to bring some brightness and sense of light coming through the trees. 

Step 6: Show it to your boss and get about 60 quadzillion little revisions.

True story, I was once told to add water 'platschen' (splashing happily) in a water feature you could barely see at the very back of the image. Oh wait. That was THIS IMAGE. Now get out your loupes and tell me if you can see the water.... That's right. You can't. 

Finished image: Added a bus in the background, some more shadows on the grass slopes, a wood texture to the terrace, and some platschen water. Hurray for being done!

Time from initial sketch to step 5: day and a half, normal working hours. Time from step 5 to step 6: 1 day. (yeah, it takes that long to make tiny adjustments and get the checked over. I went through about 8 different print outs with minor changes between step 5 and 6.)

Wee, that was fun. Okay, Jed's making me go to bed now.