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


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May 2016


“Roots” remains a touchstone for its portrayal of an African-American family over generations; decades later, the miniseries’ themes, and artistic influence, couldn’t be more relevant.

A poignant, painful and ultimately empowering family story, “Roots” was the rare cultural event that combined unthinkable reach — around half of the 220 million Americans alive in 1977 watched at least a part of “Roots” — with incredible intimacy.

Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the show introduced viewers to Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George. The series showed African-Americans an example of their own family backstory and, on a broader scale, presented America with a story central to its past.

Declared “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America” by Vernon Jordan, former Urban League president, its powerful storytelling has made it a wellspring of cultural and artistic influence. With so much to say about identity and perspective, the multigenerational saga still inspires American art and society today.

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June 21, 2016

Like any good developer, Kyle Zeppelin sensed a trend, noticed undervalued property, and made his move. A Denver developer who grew up with the family business (and currently partners with his father, Mickey), Zeppelin wasn’t blind to the demographic trends reshaping cities and urban areas across the country: families wanting to live downtown, and young adults looking for a cool, authentic urban experience.

So unlike some developers pushing cookie-cutter luxury condos, the Zeppelin family began work on a development in a disused, riverside industrial park 16 years ago that has, through numerous additions, become an ideal urban village. One of the latest additions to the collection of mixed-use housing, commercial buildings, and office space known as Taxi (named after one of the buildings, a former taxi dispatch station) features affordable rental housing and townhomes meant for families.

“This stuff is very proven in Europe and Latin America,” says the younger Zeppelin. “It’s universal human values. It’s not everybody’s ideal, but some people want a version of urban housing that works for people throughout their lives. We just completed 50 units of family housing, and leased out almost immediately.”

The Taxi development, now part of the hip RiNo, or River North Art District, contains a child care center, maker’s studio, and community garden. It could be labeled peak millennial if it wasn’t so successful, so deeply considered, and so not meant for a single demographic. Zeppelin’s vision aims to be more sustainable and to support a lifetime of urban living.

“Everyone at these real estate conferences mentions millennials like 50 times, but the real estate market is slow moving and reactionary,” he says. “Developers are hung up on getting the most value per square foot. But for the people occupying it, it’s all about the value they’re receiving. A small footprint doesn’t matter to them if it’s, say, under $1,000 and gives them the amenities, functional space, and lifestyle they want. This campus-like setup offers people more of what they want, and more time to do what they enjoy. The American dream in the suburbs is overrated.”

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that millennials prefer urban living and the culture and excitement of the big, dense cities, want to be flexible and avoid owning a home, and if given a choice, would rent an apartment in a development like Taxi in a heartbeat. But as millennials age, and more marry and consider starting families, the numbers tell a different story.

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March 28, 2016

Even in quickly evolving New York City, there’s something romantic about slowing down, stepping out of the fast currents of foot traffic, and looking up. Few neighborhoods will disappoint. Look up high, especially in Manhattan, and you can see the built history of the big city play out in the architectural details and ornamental facades of buildings, awnings and balconies standing out like grooves in record, ready to reveal the story of each block. Within the skyscraper canyons of Midtown, you can spot the pinnacles of great towers, and the cranes of greater towers in the making. But look a little lower, around the corners and in the alleyways, and you’ll see a structure with a romantic connection to an older New York City, zig-zagging down towards the streets.

Fire escapes have a fairly straightforward purpose, designed for the noble role their name implies. But for much of their history, in cities across the world, they’ve served altogether different roles. Tenement dwellers slept on them, bickered on them, turned them into literal community grapevines. For the optimistic and dirt-poor trying to eke out an existence in a dense city, the iron grates offered a blank canvas to conjure unaffordable luxuries; a mattress became an extra bedroom, especially before the comforts of air conditioning (“whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear,” wrote playwright Arthur Miller about growing up on 110th Street); a flower pot was as good as a garden, and the stairs offered an easy way to the roof, “tar beach” during hot summer days. “The greatest thing I remember about wintertime,” Chicagoan Bill Bailey once told Studs Terkel, “you’d reach out on the fire escape and pull in some snow, put condensed milk on it, and you had great ice cream!”

Fire Escape Immigrant
A newly arrived immigrant eats noodles on the fire escape in New York City. © Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum Photos 1988

“They hearken back to a time when the barriers between your and your neighbor’s lives and physical space were much more tenuous than now,” says Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who’s spent his whole adult life in a pair of Hell’s Kitchen buildings with fire escapes. “This was an era when people had communal bathrooms and lots more shared space. It was time when there was an expectation, at least for many of us of modest means, that our lives would be much more intertwined and interdependent.”

For many, fire escapes exist somewhere between the practical and the aesthetic. And while everyday citizens made them part of their homes, artists and intellectuals made fire escapes romantic symbols. Photos and films have caused fire escapes to be intertwined with urbanity, as attached to our collective imagination of cities as they are to the sides of buildings.

Consider how fire escapes make it into the foreground and background of the New York City’s creative culture: surreal, black-and-white symbols of alienation in film noir, the modern balcony in West Side Story’s interracial spin on Shakespeare, the workplaces of crime fighters and comic book heroes, framing devices for Hitchcock’s exploration of voyeurism, Rear Window.

Rear WIndow Still

Rear Window; James Stewart, Grace Kelly, 1954. Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Rear WIndow Movie Poster

A poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery film ‘Rear Window’ starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

One of Andy Warhol’s first videos was shot on a fire escape, a short of his boyfriend, scissor in hand, giving Edie Sedgewick a pixie cut. An impossibly young Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe posed next to the iron railings in ripped jeans and white tees, punk poet and photographer in repose. On Wu-Tang’s song “C.R.E.A.M.,” Raekwon raps about “running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes/Making my way on fire escapes.” James Baldwin’s short story The Rockpile, the two main characters, a pair of stepbrothers in Harlem, survey the landscape below them from the fire escape outside their window. Paul Simon looks out from a fire escape on Crosby Street on the cover of Still Crazy After All These Years. Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs dueled over Greenwich Village neighborhoods such as Hell’s Hundred Acres, where fire escapes with pots of geraniums signaled the home of an artist, likely an illegal squatter.

Fire escapes have seen so much. And sadly, in their extreme age, they’ve gone from a safety solution, to a symbol of the city’s romantic past, to worn, often unsafe landings and occasional eyesores—the antithesis of their roles as protective devices. Francisco “Cisco” Meneses, who repairs fire escapes and runs the National Fire Escape Association, a nonprofit that trains fire departments to investigate and spot these rotting structures, has found that rust, corrosion, and general neglect has turned many of these external stairs into potential dangers.

“Many of the connections for these fire escapes haven’t been examined for decades,” says Meneses, who calls the escapes “rusty gold” due to the potential number of repairs and upgrades needed across the country. “When I examine them, 75 percent aren’t up to code, and 50 percent could cause safety incidents. These are still up because people have maintained old buildings. Fire escapes are just along for the ride. Ask a fireman; they avoid fire escapes as much as possible.”

The Polis concept from Studio Gang would remake police stations into community centers and neighborhoods hubs offering numerous community services. Images via Studio Gang.

The eclectic body of work of Chicago architect Jeanne Gangdraws inspiration from unlikely sources. The angled profile of the WMS Boathouse mimics the motion of rowers, and the unfolding roof of the open-air Bengt Sjostrom Theatre provides a star-shaped view of the night sky. Deep dives into nature tend to inform her work—which includes numerous urban park and landscape projects—a product of a large reading list and a curiosity about science. So what would lead her to tackle the hot topic of policing reform?

As Gang explains, the people at her firm were, like everyone else, “outraged” at seeing the results of deteriorating relations between communities and the police. So earlier this year, they decided to do something about it. After months of research, came up with Polis, a research project that proposes turning police stations into community centers, and have started the process of turning some of those ideas into action in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The project, on display at theChicago Architecture Biennial, offers a chance to examine the working methods and thought process of Gang and her firm, which she spoke about with Curbed.

“This is a nice example because it’s self-initiated,” says Gang. “We’re interested in this issue, we read the paper everyday, but we’re not a client of the police or any community groups. But, if you are designing a police station, you should be working for both groups equally.”

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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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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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