Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

If you design a different type of medical school, will it produce a different type of doctor?

This question is at the heart of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, which opened its doors in July 2020, smack in the middle of the pandemic. The 50 students in the inaugural class are, by default, part of an experiment that hopes to integrate an education that highlights well-being and holistic care, an emphasis on social justice, and a new vertical campus that embodies these approaches.

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La carretera que conduce a Palm Springs es una salida polvorienta y complicada de la autopista transcontinental 10. Un ejército de gigantescas turbinas eólicas a ambos lados de la State Route 111 en California domina el paisaje desértico, con sus hélices cosechando diligentemente energía para la red eléctrica. La grava y la arena hacen remolinos sobre el asfalto de la carretera que rodea la base desmoronada del monte San Jacinto. Ésta es la puerta de entrada (nada prometedora) al valle Coachella y su afamado centro turístico, y, como la señalización de la carretera anuncia, a “otras ciudades del desierto” con nombres que evocan al místico y árido Oeste: Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Bombay Beach.

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Frank Gehry is arguably the world’s most famous living architect. At 92, does he even require an introduction? Pritzker Prize winner. Iconoclast. Angeleno. His buildings are sculptural and controversial — cultural flash points and crowd-pleasing favorites. Last year, Frank Gehry: Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings Volume One, 1954–1978, edited by historian Jean-Louis Cohen, was released by Cahiers d’Art. The first of what will be eight career-spanning tomes, the book focuses on early works — designs that predate the titanium and computational dexterity that mark Gehry Partners’ best-known architecture. The 1950s through the 70s were a time of wild growth and experimentation for the architect, from his diploma thesis at the University of Southern California (1954), with its midcentury aesthetic akin to the Case Study Houses and rife with Japanese influences, to Gehry’s own residence in Santa Monica (1978), which exploded any conventional notions of home. The abundant sketches and drawings in the Catalogue Raisonné reinforce an understanding of Gehry as a processes- based architect: iterative and intuitive, rigorously searching for form in what others might see as the arbitrary — methods, perhaps, not dissimilar to those practiced by the cohort of East and West Coast artists he ran with at the time.

It was a summer of outrage and pain. The weeks after the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black men and women, was a moment in the United States when veil that hung over the racism and white supremacy was ripped open and all the grief and anger tumbled out into the streets in mass protest. A history of oppression and a present heavy with generational burdens of inequity was laid bare. For Black and Indigenous, Latinx and Asian Americans, this is lived experience. For many white Americans, it was mirror held up to a country that is a democracy only to some.

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Billed as ‘the first NFT house in the world’, the Mars House is a tenuous entry into the architectural cannon. The project by Toronto-based digital artist Krista Kim is one of an increasing number of ‘non-fungible token’ works of art made to be bought, sold and collected online and authenticated via blockchain technology.

A home that will never be lived in, Kim’s NFT offering is a moody visualization rendered by Mateo Sanz Pedemonte using the video game software Unreal Engine. It depicts a structure sitting in an otherworldly landscape of supposedly Martian red mountains. We are given the barest hints at possible enclosure: a rectangle of digital glass impossibly transparent with no depth or reflection. The ghost façade bears the fingerprints of all vitreous abodes that came before – Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Pierre Koenig, etcetera. A thin, abstracted roof evokes Ed Ruscha’s Burning Gas Station (1965-66). The swimming pool is Hockney blue. The water ripples to a soundtrack composed by Smashing Pumpkins’ Jeff Schroeder.

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Las Vegas plays so much better on the page than in person. In concept, Vegas is an escape, a desert playground, but reality can never match the fantasy. Prose lubricates, distances actuality, and forms a glow around dubious experience in the same way that three miniatures of Southern Comfort loosen up a seatmate on the 45-minute flight from Burbank to McCarran International Airport. Writings arch towards hyperbole in an attempt to capture decades of spectacle that rise on the Strip, neon-trimmed, already pulsing with lurid symbology: spires, pyramids, Venetian canals. 

A text, even Learning from Las Vegas with its embrace of populist architecture through modalities of analytical abstraction, shields a reader from the perfume of weed, vomit and tropical air freshener in the back of an Uber. The actual experience of Vegas is an exercise in searching fervently for some kind of authenticity, some kind of fun, only to be frustrated, haunted and impoverished by the tawdry glee of nickel slots and an all-you-can-eat buffet.  

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To see the American landscape through the lens of Victoria Sambunaris’ 5×7-inch field camera is to see beauty and majesty—the stuff of patriotic hymns—held in contrapposto with the destructive acts that fuel the nation’s so-called progress: extraction, expansion, exclusion. Mining pits. Railroad tracks. Border fences. Her photographs ask a viewer to meditate on the impact of development on vast parts of the country that largely go unseen. And, in making them visible she shows us what is at stake and what has already been lost. 

Sambunaris has an intimate relationship with these panoramas. Every year since 1999, the year she graduated from Yale with an MFA, she’s embarked on a months-long journey to document transformation across the country. Currently, she’s driving through California and Nevada, seeking out sites critical to water resources in the West—places, that in these drought-prone states are long victim to what she describes as “hucksterism and speculation.”

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On 8 January, just days after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, architecture critic Blair Kamin announced on Twitter that after nearly three decades he would step down from his role at the Chicago Tribune. Some, whose minds were previously reeling from the events in Washington, suddenly had a new fixation: who would replace him?

Kamin refrained from playing favourites, preferring to honour his Pulitzer-winning predecessor Paul Gapp, who served as the paper’s architecture critic for 18 years. In that vacuum, speculation erupted in tweets and on backchannels. Names were floated then caught in what seemed like a vortex but was really just an eddy compared to national events.

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On a weekday in early December, the United States surpassed 3,000 daily deaths from COVID-19 the same week that vaccines began distribution in the United Kingdom. In the afternoon, I masked up to go to the pharmacy, stood on a patch of gummy duct tape demarcating a nominal six feet between me and the next customer on the linoleum floor, and picked up my prescription through a hole in a scuffed acrylic barrier. The new normal, as they say. Banal aesthetics just one step up from ad hoc.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, most of us have become armchair epidemiologists who can weigh the risks of dentist visits and outdoor brunches. Months ago, in the late spring and summer when it was thought that the worst might be behind us, many architects and designers took it upon themselves to produce tool kits and manuals analyzing scientific research and medical guidelines, and visualizing that material in the design of safety protocols for workplaces, schools, streets, housing, and museums. London architecture firm IF_DO even went so far as to create PDF manuals for safer food banks, youth clubs, community centers, and libraries—typologies that have received far less attention than nursing homes and restaurants.

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Architecture photographer Wayne Thom lived at the Bonaventure hotel for a week in 1977 as preparation for taking one of his most iconic images. To shoot the sculptural elegance of John Portman’s building, Thom woke at 4 a.m., positioned himself on the offramp of the 110 Freeway and readied to catch the sunrise. In the resulting photograph, the hotel’s cylindrical forms rise Oz-like from downtown Los Angeles, the curved facades reflecting the colors of dawn.

“I light the building with sun behind it, which illuminates the clouds,” Thom said when asked how to capture the dazzle of mirror glass. Retired and living with his wife, Aesook Jee, in the San Gabriel Valley community of Rowland Heights, 87-year-old Thom still approaches his craft with well-honed technique and poetry in equal measure. “You are photographing the reflection, not the building. The building is just a frame for the reflection of the sky.”

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