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

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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
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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
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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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Curbed
Feature
June 30, 2015

PAUL WEBB

The first weekend felt like a festival.” It’s 5 a.m. on a weekday, and British designer Wayne Hemingway (MBE)is already awake, ready to go to work on a theme park. On June 19th, the city of Margate, on England’s southeastern coast, saw its pride and joy, the Dreamland amusement park, spring back to life after being closed for more than a decade. Hemingway Design, the firm Wayne started with his wife and co-founder Gerardine, has designed the entire site, and staff have been pulling all-nighters in anticipation of the opening and continued expansion of the park. When all 16 acres are finished, the new-look Dreamland will include more than a dozen rides, a vintage roller disco, ballroom restaurants and a wooden rollercoaster built in the 1920’s known as “The Scenic.” One hundred percent of the rides have been recovered, restored or rebuilt—the rattly timber railway is being fixed under the watchful eye of preservation officials—and while the Hemingway’s designs for Dreamland reanimate a 20th century icon, they aren’t steeped in nostalgia.

Signs such as “Scream if you want to go faster!” may prompt vacationers to spend a day on the midway, but Hemingway’s vision is larger than the park. He views the job of creating sherbet-colored signage and restoring rides like the Gallopers and Helter-Skelter as dead serious. Fun, in this case, can fuel an area’s revival. There are as many teenagers as there as 60-year-olds at Glastonbury, Hemingway notes, referring to the iconic British music fest that just happened earlier this month. His goal for Dreamland, beyond restoring a landmark, is to create that kind of gathering every weekend, a catalyst for the local economy.

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Curbed
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July 8, 2015

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One day in 1954, a young Cassius Clay, fuming about his stolen red Schwinn bike, ran in front of his family’s five-room house at 3302 Grand Avenue in Louisville with tears in his eyes and screamed that he’d whup whomever took his ride. Down the block, police officer Joe E. Martin heard his neighbor making noise, and decided to make him an offer. If you plan on whooping anybody, he supposedly said, you better come down to my boxing gym and learn to fight. From that day on, the future heavyweight champ was a fixture at nearby Columbia Gym.

Dan Riedemann may work with a hammer and nails instead of a laptop, but he sees his job as helping bring those kinds of stories to life. A homebuilder and restoration expert who owns 19th Century Restorations, which specializes in rebuilding historic homes such as the Iowa home where Johnny Carson grew up, he just begantransforming Ali’s childhood home, abandoned since 2012, into a museum celebrating the champ’s life and exploits. Much like Riedemann’s niche operation, he says these homes, and the work to restore and preserve them, offers a uniquely American story.

“These homes tell the only-in-America type stories,” he says. “Simone and Ali, people who achieved absolute fame and stardom, started in 400-square-feet homes in modest neighborhood with no advantages whatsoever. It’s a story of pure talent and ambition.”

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Curbed
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July 15, 2015

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At Tougaloo College, the story is in the soil. Its genesis in 1869, the purchase of 500 acres of red clay dirt in Jackson, Mississippi, by the abolitionist American Missionary Association, was meant to transform the site of a former cotton plantation into a college for freed slaves. Over the decades, the small cluster of antebellum and 19th century buildings, including a repurposed mansion that was added to the state’s Historic Register, blossomed into a full university. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, Tougaloo’s grounds became a safe haven for activists escaping violence and intimidation.

These humble roots make Tougaloo’s flirtation with an unorthodox architectural intervention even more of a curious story. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a modernist architect, Gunnar Birkerts, designed a futuristic master plan for the school, a concrete city in the sky intended to literally and figuratively elevate the student body. Started and then abandoned, the project left behind a few precast concrete structures on campus, Brutalist forms amid the genteel Southern landscape. Their presence serves as a reminder of a scheme built on, and sunk by, ambition.

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Curbed
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July 21, 2015

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Next to Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois, no area can lay claim to as many works by Frank Lloyd Wright as Buffalo, New York. From the sprawling Darwin Martin House to the Larkin Building, from gas stations to boat houses, the numerous examples of the architect’s work in and around the city made a deep impression on the landscape. But Graycliff, a summer retreat on the shores of Lake Erie that he designed in the late ’20s, may be a telling example of the landscape making an impression on him. Better known by its official name, which references its perch overlooking Lake Erie, the narrow home integrates native materials and boasts a light-filled interior; it’s telling Wright named it ‘the Natural House.”

“Eight years later he designed Fallingwater, and that home wouldn’t look like it does without Graycliff,” says Reine Hauser, Executive Director of the Graycliff Conservancy. “You can see it in the corner windows, the cantilevers overlooking water, and the idea of transparency.”

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Curbed
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July 23, 2015

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“What do you want?”

“Access!

“When do you want it?”

“Now!”

There are 82 stone steps up to the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., a relatively minor bit of trivia for the majority of legislators, tourists, and visitors who traverse them every day. But for those unable to walk up those steps, they’re hallowed ground. In 1990, a group of activists and legislators were fighting to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a far-reaching piece of legislation that sought to guarantee equal rights for then roughly 40 million American citizens with disabilities, in part by changing the way architects designed buildings. The bill’s potential financial implications had led lobbyists and legislators to bog down negotiations and create a stalemate in the House of Representatives. Patrisha Wright, a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disabilities who had earned the nickname “The General” for leading the ADA fight, felt it was time to make a statement.

On March 12, the Capitol Crawl, organized by ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), gathered a crowd of hundreds of chanting supporters at the entrance of the country’s legislature. They watched 60 activists drop their canes or leave their wheelchairs and pull themselves up each of those steps. Dozens strained at the task, as friends and family offered them water and encouragement. Cameras focused on eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who had cerebral palsy. She made her way up, hands-to-knees. At one point, she told the dozens of reporters focused on her that “I’ll take all night if I have to!”

“Here you have one of the symbols of freedom and democracy, and it’s got these huge steps barring people from coming in,” says Wright. The building offered wheelchair access via side entrances, but she felt the steps made for potent symbolism. “We needed something inspirational to make sure that people knew that those who were disabled weren’t going to sit down,” she says.

The “stunt,” as a handful of annoyed senators called it, proved to be an important turning point in the battle for the ADA. But more importantly, it dramatized the difficulties that the built environment poses for people with disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Wright, who herself was blind, wanted others to see how much design can change a person’s everyday actions and level of independence, and how poor design can create a form of what she called “second-class citizenship.”

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June 23, 2015

Technological shifts don’t always begin with keynote speeches or media frenzies. Sometimes, they just arrive in the mail.

 This past spring, high school students and aspiring designers accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) received more than just a letter. The postman also dropped off a white cardboard mailer that when opened, unfolded, and reassembled turned into a set of goggles—a device known as Google Cardboard, the tech giant’s low-cost way to introduce the masses to virtual reality (VR). Prospects could load a virtual-tour website on their smartphone, slip the phone into the cardboard glasses, and with this makeshift headset, take a virtual walk around one of SCAD’s four campuses.

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According to Suzanne Sanders, director of marketing at YouVisit (the tech company that created the SCAD tour), potential students spent an average of 10 minutes on the virtual campus, and some even toured for upwards of an hour. YouVisit’s turn toward VR with SCAD is a vision of the future of the company, which launched in 2009 to provide online college tours, and now represents the promise of widespread VR adoption, currently working with more than 1,000 educational institutions, as well as travel and leisure, hospitality, and real estate firms.

“Our purpose isn’t to eliminate the visit, but to increase the number of quality visits,” Sanders says. “I don’t think people realize the power of VR. It’s going to take marketing to the next level, and it’s going to have quicker adoption than mobile.”

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