Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

As busy, busy people who move through the world and occasionally need to sit still, we have a tacit understanding that furniture should be, if not comfortable, at least neutral — ready to accept the buttocks of any size, gender, race, or orientation. Beautiful designs tempt us into repose. However the conceit of universal design is upset when we are forced to recognize that not all bodies fit in or are supported by the most elemental of objects. So when, earlier this year, Hunger and Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay was fat-shamed for requesting a chair sturdy enough to support her frame and outcry ensued against this affront on body acceptance, I was also shocked by how a simple function — sitting — could be weaponized against bodies. It’s with Gay’s incident in mind that I approached maneuvering my wide hips into the dimensions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barrel chair. Low ceilings are generally cited for the architect’s famous disregard for bodies other than his own, his sense of scale being modeled on his (alleged) 5-foot-8-and-1/4-inch height. Designed in 1907 as part of the custom furniture of his Gesamtkunstwerk, Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, the Barrel chair is one of his most popular designs, often replicated in its nearly circular geometries. Settled into a reproduction of its oak corseting and obliged thereby to adopt a morally good posture, I imagine other people, other soft bits, shifting uncomfortably against the constraints of universality, yet comforted by the allure of an icon.

“Armrest” appears early on in The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion (Actar). The encyclopedic volume by Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore with Riley Gold (plus contributions from a host of architecture, urbanism, and planning notables) begins with “Accessory Dwelling Unit” and ends with “Youth Curfew,” but it is the armrest placed on a public bench to ward off unsanctioned sleeping that most efficiently summarizes what’s at stake throughout this 459-page book: access, control, and space.

As the three partners of Interboro—a Brooklyn-based architecture, planning, and research collective—Armborst, D’Oca, and Theodore are well versed in the contentious history of urban design and policy in U.S. cities. They manage to strike an editorial tone that is forthright but not strident. If anything, it is a bit self-effacing in regard to the legacy of urbanism’s discourses past and present. “For many nascent urbanists, this is where it all begins, with an excerpt from Mike Davis’s City of Quartz and an ensuing epiphany about space and power,” they write in a sidebar to the “Armrest” entry, all too aware that their example could be, in their term, “hackneyed.” Still, the trio stays with the lesson. Read More …

Images of the havoc that natural disasters wreak upon the built environment are part of our cultural consciousness. They have been since the birth of photography. Yet the past decade or so has seen a worrisome convergence: the parallel increases in the ubiquity of media technology and the number and severity of devastating storms, which are arguably linked to climate change. Katrina: drowned New Orleans freeways and neighborhoods (the latter re-created in Beyoncé’s 2016 “Formation” music video). Sandy: a darkened Manhattan shot by Iwan Baan. Harvey: Houston’s graybrown floodwaters captured by drone photography. Irma: cell phone footage of a battered port town in the British Virgin Islands.

The degree to which the two are connected—and the importance of that link—was most acute when Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, cutting out power and destroying telecommunications infrastructure. The Washington Post even attributed the Trump administration’s delayed response in part to not seeing the wreckage. Read More …

When Robert L. McKay, the architect best known for designing and founding the first Taco Bell, died in early October, news of his passing spread nationwide on the AP Wire. The Los Angeles Times ran an obituary, as did Fox Business and news outlets in Kansas and Nebraska – places that were unlikely to have flocked en masse to hard shell tacos before McKay opened his doors in 1962.

In 2015, McKay’s original building was moved from the Los Angeles suburb of Downey to Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. Images from that migration reveal his early vision for a hacienda-type fast-food eatery: mission-style arches across the facade, red Spanish tile roof. Riding down the freeway – doublewide on the back of a flatbed truck – the lowly taco stand merged dogged American entrepreneurism and classic Mexican design. Taco Bell is not on the curatorial checklist of Found in Translation, an exhibition on view until January 2018 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) about the design influences between LA and Mexico, but it could be. Or, given how a fast-food restaurant best known for stoner Meximelt binges and questionable slogans – “Make a run for the border” – transmitted Mexican design imagery across the country, it should be. Read More …

The Guggenheim Bilbao marks a temporal point as much as a geographic one—more so than Richard Meier’s Getty Museum, which opened in the same year, or any of the works by Sverre Fehn, who won the Pritzker in 1997, Gehry’s museum embodies a moment where architecture moved from a local to a global condition. This is true of both the strategy of the kunsthalle-like space deployed into an undervalued urbanism with hopes of sparking renewal, and technique—early CATIA-generated forms soon to be a benchmark for expressive architecture. Looking back at this moment in time, I wouldn’t say that the Guggenheim was part of the zeitgeist, but rather it actually presaged 21st-century conditions as it fused technology and globalization.

Ed Rosenthal grows weed. He has for decades. The Oakland, California-based horticulturist, author, and activist is the go-to expert on home cultivation. He’s written more than a dozen books on the subject and the policies that surround medical marijuana and legalization. Their titles fall somewhere between what you’d see in your local nursery and your corner head shop: The Big Book of Buds (volumes one through four), Marijuana Garden Saver, and Marijuana Pest & Disease Control.

“Growing is addictive,” Rosenthal says with a laugh, and then quickly clarifies that the drug is not. “Given the right conditions and a sunny backyard, marijuana can be grown almost anywhere in California.” He speaks poetically about marijuana’s diverse morphology: It has male and female plants. Some are tall, some wide, and there are different strains like indica or sativa that range in color—like heirloom tomatoes—from absinthe yellow–green to maroon and deep purple. To cultivate cannabis for its THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and psychoactive properties, only the female plants are grown. The male plants look a bit like wild mustard; the female plants are the ones that produce buds for consumption. “With humans and cannabis, the female is considered more beautiful,” he explains. “I have a bunch of marijuana plants growing, and they all look different, like six different varieties of a dahlia. Each plant is an individual.” He compares homegrown marijuana to homegrown tomatoes. “The person who grows the best marijuana is the person who is growing at home. Everybody loves their own produce.”

It’s a vision of cannabis production that is far different from what the public imagination associates with marijuana: the resource-heavy hydroponic “grow house,” which makes high demands on labor, energy, and water. Or the news reports of thousands of plants seized and destroyed on illegal grow sites on U.S. Forest Service land. Read More …

I’m not going to define history. No matter how heavily that word weighs on the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opened last weekend. Neither will artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee; although they provocatively titled the second iteration of the event “Make New History”, a phrase borrowed from the title of an artist book by Ed Ruscha.

In remarks to the press, they pointed to the many works displayed in the Chicago Cultural Center as explanation. And if these works are to be trusted, then history is not the dark angel haunting philosophers and historians, but rather something lighter: a shiny treasure trove of references – called forth by Google image search – to be appropriated and stylised.

Deadpan Ruscha understood the irony of his slogan. With three simple words he poked fun at the impossibility of escaping our past. An edition of Make New History sits on the shelves of Johnston Marklee‘s office (or so says editor Sarah Hearne in her introduction to the biennial catalog). Read More …

Sometime in the early 1980s, Reyner Banham looked out across a stretch of Arizona landscape—a dry wash and long mound of earth scattered with trash. “[A]mong the chollas and cacti there are areas of burned ash, holes containing broken porcelain insulators and what may be pieces of toilet fitting, broken china and other domestic detritus; and areas of compacted ground that might have been the sites of small  buildings,” he later wrote in Scenes in America Deserta as the opening to a chapter entitled “Frank Lloyd Wright Country.” Read More …

At the heart of Exhibit Columbus, a biennial-like exhibition of 17 architectural installations and pavilions that runs through November 26, lies the question: “What can architecture do for a community?” The community in question is Columbus, Ind., known as the birthplace of Vice President Mike Pence, the home to diesel engine manufacturer Cummins, Inc. (the region’s largest employer), and, most prominently, the site of industrialist and philanthropist (and former Cummins chair) J. Irwin Miller’s experiment in municipal modernism. Read More …

Leave it to technology to burst my Suitaloon of memory. Old emails tell me that I met Dennis Crompton — architect, Archigram founder, and the group’s de facto archivist — on a spring day in late April. We sat for more an hour on a bench in Cooper Square while he graciously considered my adoring questions.

The six-member British group — Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, David Greene, Ron Herron, Michael Webb, and Crompton — produced some of the most revolutionary designs of the 1960s and early 1970s, thumbing their collective noses at the precepts of modernism and embracing the excesses of postwar pop culture. It befuddled Crompton that they were occasionally dubbed The Beatles of architecture. “We didn’t know the Beatles at all,” he said that day, nixing any hopes for intersquad comparison. Still, there I sat, fangirl posing as journalist. Read More …