Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

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The SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, features two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most prominent, non-residential designs: The Administration Building (1939) and the Research Tower (1950). LIFE magazine said the office was “the shape of things to come” when it opened in 1939. All images provided by SC Johnson unless otherwise noted.

There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the open-plan office, especially considering the constant flux found in modern workplace design. But far outside the corridors of high-tech industry and startup spaces, one company headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, still provides a dashing vision of the modern American workplace, despite having recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. The SC Johnson Administration Building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, eschews business clichés: workers are greeted by a streamlined, muscular exterior made from ribbons of glass and brick, more campus than corporate, before entering a light-filled interior, with rows of organic, curved columns creating an abstract forest surrounding the secretary pool. Open for tours, including special bus trips that coincide with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, these landmark structures still offer a singular view of the office (and look fresh after undergoing a recent eight-year, $30 million restoration). The soft lines and cathedral-like air inside suggests that, if the office furniture was removed, it would feel less like a place of work than one of contemplation and reflection.

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The Uhlmann Residence in Phoenix, designed by Al Beadle. The photo was taken during the Arcadia House Tour in 2014, after the stucco front had been restored. All images courtesyModern Phoenix.

“I’m known as the steel and glass man. I won’t deviate from that too much. People come to me saying they want aBeadle house.”

Phoenix architect Al Beadle wasn’t mincing words during a 1988 interview with Carefree Enterprise, a local paper serving a small town in Maricopa County, northeast of Phoenix. He wasn’t someone who had use for flourishes, turns of phrase or wasted time. The architect, then 61, was somebody who valued the complexity of achieving simplicity, who followed a code of careful, deliberate design: “simplicity taken to an extreme, is elegance,” he said. When you look at his boxy, modular buildings sprinkled around the Phoenix area, orderly modernist homes nicknamed “Beadle Boxes,” it’s clear he never stopped searching for that idealized structural simplicity. A midcentury Phoenix designer who has little to no national profile—despite participating in the illustrious Case Study program—Beadle has been rediscovered over the last decade or so by architecture fans entranced by his unique take on desert modernism.

“When you look at Al Beadle’s drawings, they look super simplistic,” says Alison King, an expert on modernist architecture in Phoenix who runs the Modern Phoenix website. “It’s a grid, it’s modular, it’s a box on stilts. But when you get inside, it’s an entirely different thing. I suspect he was designing from the inside out.”

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Kim Bixler (right) and a childhood friend outside the Wright-designed Edward E. Boynton home in Rochester, New York. Image via Kim Bixler.

“Some people restore classic cars, I happened to restore an old home.”

Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than 500 completed buildings, forming a canon of architecture that few can match. Even if one judged his legacy solely on his private residences and commissions in Oak Park and Chicago, Illinois, it would still be a one worth elevating. But there’s a lot more to Wright’s architecture than touring the homes turned museums that have become icons and tourist draws. Literally hundreds of Wright’s designs are still in private hands, and the current owners experience aspects of these unique buildings that docent-led tours can’t showcase: repair, renovation, upkeep, and even the occasional die-hard architecture fan knocking on the front door all make the experience of living in a Wright home different than the norm. Curbed spoke with owners of a half-dozen Wright homes to learn what it’s like to live inside one of the architect’s designs.

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Curbed

December 2, 2015


The flexible performance space at National Sawdust. All photos by Floto + Warner, courtesy Bureau V.

During a recent tour of National Sawdust, a high-tech new concert hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a lone musician was seated behind a piano, playing the haunting theme song from Twin Peaks. Normally, that would be the cue for some surreal Lynchian visual to begin. But after wandering inside the performance space to see where the song was coming from, it was immediately apparent that the music was actually the most normal thing about the intimate venue. For a space devoted to audio performances, it offers quite a striking visual. A beautiful, beguiling series of black lines and white shapes, metal panels delicately inlaid with kinetic patterns, run across the walls, a design scheme that suggests Zaha Hadid imagining the future of wallpaper. The “stage,” as it were, is just a flat surface, with a balcony looming above. It looks nothing like a traditional concert space or chamber hall. According to Stella Lee, a principal of architecture firmBureau V, and Raj Patel, principal of the acoustics division at the engineering firm Arup, that was by design. Given an opportunity to reimagine what a concert venue can be in the 21st century, the architects and engineers literally redesigned it from the ground up—which, considering that they had to contend with a subway line a block away, is as much a statement of fact as a cliche.

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An overhead view showing progress on the Cottages at Hickory Crossing development, now set to open in March. Images via Keith A. Ackerman.

Next spring, on a three-acre strip of land near the intersection of two Dallas highways, just south of the Deep Ellum neighborhood, Keith Ackerman will help kick off a radical experiment in helping the city’s homeless population. Currently under construction, the Cottages at Hickory Crossing development, which will eventually consist of 50 tiny homes measuring 400-square-feet each, looks and sounds like a miniature subdivision, exactly what Ackerman, the executive director, aims to create. But there’s a lot more to it than placing cute buildings and manicured lawns near a crook of land between I-30 and I-45. The former social worker and therapist sees this project, a collaboration between area non-profits, a socially, morally and financially sound investment. By creating a model community that offers round-the-clock, on-site care to the neediest of the city’s homeless population, many of whom struggle with drug addiction and mental health issues, it’ll provide space to recover and thrive, all while saving the city a considerable amount of money. An area of town once known as a “shooter’s gallery” for heroin users may become a model for helping some of those addicts recover.

“By putting people into a housing environment where they have case management support, they will no longer resort to county services at the same volume,” says Ackerman. “We’ve done a case study that shows it’s going to cost less. The goal—and I don’t mean to sound morbid—is for people to be able to die at home, to give them a place to live so their last chapter is much better than the previous few.”

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Illustrations by Paige Vickers.

Alumni visits don’t get much more high profile than Ray Eames’s brief return to Cranbrook Academy of Art in May 1980. Half of the dynamic design couple whose grabbag of inventive projects became synonymous with post-war Modernism, Ray, who had been widowed a little less than two years prior, was then living by herself in the trailblazing Case Study house she built with her late husband Charles. Known for its pioneering layout and polychromatic interior, the home, decorated with the vast quantity of objects, artwork, and collectables accrued by the couple over nearly four decades together, must have been a potent source of memories.

But Ray’s trip to speak at the Michigan arts school where she met her husband in 1940 proved a similar catalyst for nostalgia. A Detroit Free Press article from that summer says she was “smiling continuously.”  During a discourse that covered all manner of design topics, she often “wandered into memories.”

“It was an extraordinary time when we were here,” Eames is quoted as saying. “There wasn’t a degree involved, only people who were here to learn.”

The legend of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and its role as a prewar petri dish for American modernism, revolves around the brief period of time from roughly 1937 to 1941. Ray, Charles, and a host of future architects and designers crossed in and out of each other’s paths, studying and teaching at the wooded campus roughly 25 miles north of Detroit. But Cranbrook’s singularity didn’t just stem from its collection of talent. An experiment in education by founder George Booth, a wealthy industrialist, his wife Ellen, and Eliel Saarinen, an eminent Finnish architect who designed the campus and served as the first president, Cranbrook was a new institution, a modern arts colony that reflected the times. The philosophies that Ray and her classmates picked up there could be considered the DNA of modern design: cross-disciplinary thought, organic forms, and a fidelity to experimentation and research.

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Curbed

November 20, 2015

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A Michigan Urban Farming Institute farm in Detroit. Photos by Michelle and Chris Gerard.

What would you do with 21 square miles of urban space? To put that in perspective, consider receiving an area roughly the size of Manhattan to build upon as you please. That vast tract is equivalent to the total amount of vacant, developable real estate available right now in Detroit, according to Data Driven Detroit (D3). If the search is widened to include parcels with vacant buildings, the plot expands to 30 square miles.

It’s a fantasy plot of land, of course, and can’t capture the complexity of urban planning and land use in Detroit. In reality, the developable land is non-contiguous and has come to be vacant through a history of blight, white flight, and government action (or inaction). Detroit also faces an historic foreclosure crisis: 26,406 properties were affected by tax foreclosures last year, according to D3, more than three times the number recorded during 2009. A Detroit News investigation earlier this year discovered that over the last decade, the number of foreclosed homes in Detroit was equivalent to the total number of homes in Buffalo, New York.

Still, amid weed-filled lots and crumbling facades, the sheer amount of land available to be turned into community space, housing, small businesses, and even urban farms is unprecedented in a modern American city. Against the backdrop of a so-called Detroit renaissance that’s attracting more development and activity, mostly in specific neighborhoods such as Midtown, scores of artists, activists, nonprofits, and urban farmers are finding creative ways to tap into the land’s potential. They’re activating vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and foreclosed homes, working in the wake of dedicated community activists who have long pushed to transform these spaces to benefit their neighborhoods. Detroit faces a thicket of challenges right now, but many see the potential of this vacant land to catalyze Detroit’s future growth.

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Curbed
December 17, 2015

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The United States has witnessed a sea-change in the visibility of the transgender community over the last few years. From the prominence of celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox to increasing acceptance of and accommodations for transgender youth, the fuller, more fluid range of gender identity is being expressed and welcomed in the public sphere more than ever. But in the midst of so many doors opening, there’s one, the bathroom door, that’s often awkward, unavailable, and occasionally risky to enter. A world where restrooms are typically broken down along a male or female binary (as opposed to just gender-neutral facilities) presents a privacy and safety challenge for transgender individuals, and a design challenge for architects and others.

“I usually go on road trips that go up north through Georgia,” says Haiden Baier, a 21-year old transgender man and a student at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “As a queer person, I get nervous going to certain bathrooms. As a trans person, I can scare people, which makes them nervous and aggressive. The whole trans panic concept“—claiming the victim’s gender identity is to blame for their attacker’s violent reaction—is still a legitimate reason to kill people in some places.”

Access has historically been a challenge for transgender individuals. A study of community members in Washington, D.C., found that 70 percent had faced discrimination when trying to use a gendered bathroom, and a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 26 percent of transgender students had been denied restroom access in educational settings. The situation doesn’t improve much in the workplace: 22 percent of transgender employees report a similar issue. It can be especially difficult for those in the midst of transitioning, who face embarrassment, discrimination, and occasionally violence in the course of addressing a basic human need.

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Curbed
Post
July 13, 2015

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Even by the standards of Mexico’s drug cartels, the weekend prison break of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was a ballsy move. The Sinaloa cartel boss escaped from the maximum security Altiplano prison via a 20-by-20 inch passage dug out of his shower—the only part of his cell not monitored by cameras—then absconded via motorcycle through a nearly one-mile tunnel, which ended up at an under-construction home in Santa Juanita in Almoloya de Juárez, west of Mexico City (some have theorized that the cartel may have purchased the home years ago, an insurance policy of sorts against the potential need for a jailbreak). Andy DuFresne wishes he had it so well. While the escape was shocking, the method didn’t come as a surprise to anybody familiar with El Chapo’s organization (or the notorious crime boss, who had previously broken out of prison in a laundry cart). A pioneer in the use of tunnels as a means of escape as well as a way around (or underneath) border security, Guzman has commissioned scores of elaborate passageways, some even boasting rail systems, to haul millions of dollars in narcotics into the United States. With these illicit feats of engineering becoming commonplace tools for his organization, the question is, who’s helping design and dig?

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Curbed
Feature
June 17, 2015

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Nearly a century since its completion, Eileen Gray‘s peerless E.1027 villa seems in motion while at rest. With a daring streamlined shape akin to a ship’s prow, the home seemingly slices into the Atlantic waters off Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, from its perch on the coast. It also continues to point forward.

Completed in 1929, the concrete cube is an uplifting vision of modern living, a unified artistic statement from an often-overlooked Irish architect and designer. Gray’s vision encompasses everything from the overall site plan to the smallest detail of every shelf. After decades of neglect and disrepair, the modernist icon only just reopened last month for public tours. One critic compared the thrill of visiting E.1027 to that experienced by“Howard Carter when he entered Tutankhamun’s tomb.”

 

Eileen Gray portrait_Aram Designs.jpgThe most famous shot of Eileen Gray, taken in the 1930s. Courtesy Aram.

A thoroughly modern woman created this paragon of modern design. Born into an aristocratic Irish family in 1878, Gray defied Victorian expectations by moving to Paris in 1907. She ran with a fast crowd, one which exemplified the kinetic energy of the French capital in the 1920s and ’30s, all while running her own design studio doing high-end furniture and lacquer work, an art form she learned from a Japanese master. Gray drove an ambulance during World War I, went ballooning with Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce, and dated whom she wanted, included nightclub singer Marie Louise “Damia” Damien. (The pair could be spotted driving through Paris in Gray’s roadster with Damia’s pet panther sitting in the back). But she sadly became the protagonist in two age-old stories—a lover scorned, and a woman’s talent overshadowed by male peers—making the story of E.1027 about much more than just an aesthetic accomplishment.

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