Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Tree. Person. Bike. Person. Person. Tree. Anya Domlesky, ASLA, an associate at SWA in Sausalito, California, rattles off how she and the firm’s innovation lab team train a computer to recognize the flora and fauna in an urban plaza.

The effort is part of the firm’s mission to apply emergent technologies to landscape architecture. In pursuing the applied use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the research and innovation lab XL: Experiments in Landscape and Urbanism follows a small but growing number of researchers and practitioners interested in the ways the enigmatic yet ubiquitous culture of algorithms might be deployed in the field. Read More …

Guiding the transition of San Francisco’s Presidio from military base to national park may be the standout accomplishment of the landscape architect and parks administrator William Penn Mott Jr., who assumed the helm of the U.S. National Park Service in 1985, but it’s a little “monster” from early in Mott’s career that has received renewed attention.

In 1952, when Mott was parks superintendent for the city of Oakland, he commissioned the artist Robert “Bob” Winston to create a unique play structure on the sandy banks of Lake Merritt. Sculptural and organic, the chartreuse green piece was known as the Mid-Century Monster. It was one of the first designs in the United States to depart from conventional swings or slides and celebrate imaginative play, and from its opening, children climbed on and hid inside the Monster’s many haunches and niches. Read More …

Dimensions of Citizenship, the theme of the US Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, co-commissioned by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and the University of Chicago, challenges architects and designers to envision what it means to be a citizen today. As transnational flows of capital, digital technologies, and geopolitical transformations expand, conventional notions of citizenship are undermined. How might architecture, then, express, and engage with today’s rhizomatic and paradoxical conditions of citizenship?

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“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 …

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 …

IN THE DAYS following the 2016 election, as a percentage of the US population partied and another reeled in disbelief, a flood of poll data poured in. Analysts and journalists sifted, categorized, and created slick infographics coded in blue and red. A trend emerged: the polarization of urban and rural America.

The Washington Post reported that “[t]he majority of counties with populations greater than 500,000 — where roughly half of Americans live — swung further to the left.” (Even in stalwart red states like Texas and Georgia.) Small and midsized counties, on the other hand, shifted right. Yes, despite our digital interconnectedness and the seeming ubiquity of globalized commercial culture — a.k.a. a Starbucks on every corner — the city and the country are still divided, splintering the American Dream. Read More …

Bastions of culture and keepers of knowledge can often be imperious, even aloof. But the regime change in the U.S. has galvanized them to pursue quick action.

In June 2015, at the start of an almost halcyon summer compared with our last, President Barack Obama described the slow pace of democratic change to comedian Marc Maron. “Sometimes the task of the government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that ten years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were,” he said, suggesting that a 50-degree turn was unmanageable. Fast-forward through a vicious election season, an unnerving inauguration, and a hot rash of executive orders, and it feels like not only has the ocean liner turned 50 degrees, it’s capsized.

While individuals can take to the streets, the phone, or social networks to voice their political views on a furious host of contemporary issues, cultural institutions are like ocean liners, stately and slow to turn. (Some are careful not to upset their donors or nonprofit status by taking a stance.) Increasingly, though, museums, journals, and universities—as agents of curators, editors, and faculty—have quickened their pace. Rather than pledging allegiance to the new administration (ahem, AIA), these organizations are making super-relevant programming that sheds light on the complexity of worldwide political, social, and economic issues.

Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) produced perhaps the most rapid response with a conversation series, “The First 100 Days,” which kicked off on January 20 with a live stream of the presidential inauguration. Day 27: architecture and grassroots organizing. Day 64: reflections on the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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When photographer Lynn Saville was a child, her parents had a cabin in rural Vermont. Fascinated by the dark, she’d stand on the back porch and stare into the dense woods. The bright pool of light created by a single porch light would gradually fade into the trees, until darkness eclipsed the view. “To see the one light source was … a refuge,” she recalls.

Today, Saville roams cities on foot between twilight and dawn in search of the perfect shot. Equipped with a couple of digital cameras (a Nikon and her new favorite, a Sony mirrorless A7r II outfitted with a Zeiss 28mm lens) that she tucks under her loose-fitting jacket, she searches for the uncanny quietude and sense of wilderness that comes overnight, when most people are asleep. Read More …

In early January, I visited the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University in Houston, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA), on the first day the new building opened for classes. Students searched for their assigned rooms as the final stages of construction unfolded around them. An orange traffic cone in front of a pair of glass doors signaled the entry to the 52,000-square-foot building.

It was a quiet afternoon for this self-proclaimed “transdisciplinary lab for creativity,” which will be far less subdued when it opens to the public on Feb. 24. The Moody Center is a hybrid, both in its mission and its architecture. An education space (with 4,000 square feet of classrooms) and maker spaces (including wood and rapid prototyping shops), the building will also be a cultural arts hub, with a theater and galleries. “Academia has gotten quite siloed,” Alison Weaver, the center’s executive director, told me. “How can we cross-pollinate again? Our goal is to be less a cabinet of curiosities and more a conversation.” Read More …