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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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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“Reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays,” wrote Aldous Huxley in his 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, and the sentiment is acute nearly 90 years later. The pandemic has intensified and accelerated a digital drift, as culture turns to the virtual— to Zoom, Animal Crossing, or TikTok—for ways to escape and normalize current conditions. Going on a reality holiday, however, risks setting up a needless opposition between activities in our daily lives and our online interactions. The truth is that we are all operating somewhere in between—and it is this middle ground where a number of emerging artists, architects, and designers are staking out territory, using this nonbinary space to address questions of subjectivity and identity.

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I can’t stop thinking about refugia. In the years, months, and days before the COVID-19 pandemic, the term was confined to the literature and philosophy of climate crisis, referring to pockets of life that through geographic isolation or species resilience manage to hang on in spite of the environmental forces against them. Think of clusters of Pacific Northwest barnacles nestled high on coastal outcroppings to avoid falling prey to sea snails. Or old-growth forests insulated from rising temperatures in cool mountain valleys.

As self-quarantine set in earlier this spring, the word refugia, at least for me, expanded in definition from specific ecological condition to conceptual touchstone—a necessary leap to metaphor when faced with planetary crisis. The magnitude of this pandemic falls outside human comprehension, but for the luckiest of us, refuge is manageable: a place of relative safety, of sourdough starters and online Jazzercise classes.

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Envision an institution dedicated to making art. It is not a museum, nor is it a gallery. These are the spaces where art meets a public or, more crassly, where art meets its market and is given value. Instead, think of a studio environment. Can that same environment also foster in pupils the canny balance between creativity and pragmatism required to break into the art world today?

Artist Catherine Opie offers a hopeful yes, pointing to the new art center at UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, where she has taught since 1992. (She was named Lynda and Stewart Resnick Endowed Chair in Art this past December.) “Students are so incredibly vulnerable, and we live in a vulnerable time,” says Opie, whose work as a photographer often draws out the relationships between identity and place. They should feel that their studio building works for them, she adds.

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Lady architects, I see you.
Female architects, I see you.
Female-identifying architects, I see you.
Non-binary architects, I see you.

I see you in your hard hats or Nike kicks designing, curating, teaching, and writing. I see you helming firms and leading architecture schools.

I see you opening Rhino, crunching spreadsheets, and juggling work-life balance.

And I see you, like me, cringing with frustration when another well-meaning article asks: Where are the women architects?

I’ve had Lizzo’s fierce new album on heavy rotation lately. It’s an anthemic celebration of self-love and acceptance. So you’ll have to excuse me when I say: Bitch, please. We’re here. If we can’t see ourselves, who will see us?

Since the early days of the women’s movement, women in architecture have been tasked with answering the question of the numbers in their ranks. Though the percentage of female practitioners has increased over the years, moving from single digits to low doubles, the question persists. It’s no wonder that “Where are the women architects?” (WATWA), an inquiry powerful men defend as neutral, would be so triggering. Visibility, often manifested as tokenism, overshadows intellectual and creative work.

Despina Stratigakos, University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning professor and author of the 2016 book Where Are the Women Architects?, posed the question as a provocation, not as a kind of binders-full-of-women show-and-tell or call for statistics. “It’s erasure, not an absence,” she says. “I was realizing the richness of the history and the people, but I couldn’t see that world reflected in books and museums.”

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“Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space,” Mies van der Rohe famously wrote in 1924, putting forth a case for Modernism. His argument, like many of the era, sought to break with the stodgy past and its artisanal techniques.

While the oft-quoted line couples buildings and culture, later in the same text Mies mandates timeliness over timelessness, suggesting that design is subject to the forces and flows of the current moment. The art of building, he mused, “can only be manifested in living tasks and in the medium of its epoch.”

But what happens when architecture is subject not to its own time but rather to the ravages of time? Materials age and uses obsolesce. Curtain wall gaskets wither. Laminates come unglued. Architectures designed to propel us into the future are thus welded to the past. The strategic upkeep of Modernist buildings is the key concern of two ongoing and sometimes dovetailing programs: the Getty Conservation Institute’s (GCI) Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI) and the Getty Foundation’s Keeping It Modern grant.

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Last March, #MeToo finally came to architecture. While the specifics of the allegations of sexual misconduct against Richard Meier, white-haired lion of the New York scene, were indeed shocking, many in the discipline were wondering what took so long.

In the months between the accusations that brought down Harvey Weinstein and others in Hollywood, comedy, and media, women in architecture asked one another, “Who will be ours?” Via back-channel messages we speculated about prominent and charismatic figures with reputations for bad behavior. Which architectural heavyweight would be first to fall?

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The new book The Architecture of Closed Worlds: Or, What Is the Power of Shit? offers lessons for today by looking at Biosphere 2, 1970s ecohouses, and other microworlds.

Of all the terrarium-like experiments included in Lydia Kallipoliti’s The Architecture of Closed Worlds: Or, What Is the Power of Shit? (Lars Müller/Storefront for Art and Architecture), Biosphere 2 is the most infamous. A steel-and-glass structure baking in the Arizona desert, it represents the hope and hubris of re-creating Earth on Earth. The project was launched by an alternative living group with a taste for theater, and tanked by disastrous management by Steve Bannon (yes, him). As such, it illustrates the risky arc that courses through Kallipoliti’s 300-page volume—visions of utopia bending toward ultimate failure.

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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 …