Allison Arieff :: D*Crit Talk Recap


I enjoy lectures where the speaker invokes more questions than they actually answer and broad ideas take currency over topical anecdotes. Allison. Arieff brought the goods to the table during this thought provoking lecture at the Design Critic Department of the School of Visual Arts. After giving us a zoomed out review of her career and the fractured path that has brought her to hold theopinions she currently puts forth, Allison quickly and succinctly laid out a host of topics, all of which demand casting a critical eye on the many things urbanists (“I”) love about what’s happening today. She then promptly opened the discussion to the audience and a lively chat was had. Here are the questions she challenged us with:

Is urban agriculture a design strategy (or a novelty?) Is it sustainable and/or economically viable?
How do we in fact “retrofit” suburbia?
Temporary is the new permanent… but what happens when they want their land back?
Is the First World successfully solving the Third World’s problems? Should it even be trying?
What’s next for architecture?
Why is there so little actual critique of design? Why so little follow up to see if these actions did indeed have impact?
How can we develop a more effective critique of stuff?
Where is publishing headed?


As I said this was not a long winded format. These ideas where merely breached with an associated image during her PowerPoint presentation with a few sentences about each so the audience may understand the context of the questions. I want to briefly talk about these eight topics now although I realize that each could easily lead me down a separate path of inquiry, critique and dissection for each leading to several blog posts. That is the content approach I took after anotherD*Crit lecture I attended last year where Christopher Hawthorn presented a list of topical themes in architecture that I then to expanded upon. The most interesting thing about Allison’s list of critical lines of inquiry is that I believe I am already questioning so many of these things. The problem is I have not really vocalized or written about these ideas as much as I could, or apparently should, because I have been hesitant to cast doubt on otherwise wonderful ideas. After all who wants to be Mr. Negative?  Even the flawed idea has merit though and without questioning and sussing out the intricacies those wonderful ideas, we could be looking back at these once promising visions of change and compassion and wonder why they didn’t pan out. Here is a quick look at some of the reactions and thematic underpinnings these questions brought to my mind. I’m sure that these questions will be recurring in my writing from here on out as my mind natural thinks in these terms but I feel that Ms Arieff has just given me creative license and the confidance to voice my often dissonant ideas and otherwise open-ended critiques.

During a conversation with Allison at the reception, I revisited the idea of casting a critical eye on urban agriculture in particular. After all this is my favorite topic of discussion over a beer. This was the first question presented and it seems like it was discussed the least during the Q&A session. Is urban agriculture a design strategy (or a novelty?) Is it sustainable and/or economically viable?As it turns out, Allison was one of the first clients patronizing the San Francisco based company Yard Farm, which sought to create a decentralized urban agricultural farm via many small urban yards. I recall this company being an inspiration to me, they where even selling the business plan, but the company is not around anymore and apparently the owner has just disappeared. It seems that the income was not substantial enough to support an urban farmer in a place where the cost of living is so very steep. Would there have been a chance to change that if there was a more critical stance taken from the onset? What lessons do the owners and employees have to impart on others that are taking up and carrying the torch that they lit? I can’t help but think that, even if the company failed, they sparked an idea. If they can help others to succeed by outlining what not to do, the “failure” will actually be a win over all. This is one of the ideas discussed in the recent city sessions online discussion about DIY/tactical urbanism as we ramp up implementation of these ideas/designs/techniques how often are early models going to fail, how much can be learned from these “early adopters” and how can lessons from one place/project/set of tactics be imparted on similar yet different ones in the future?

On the face of it the second question “How do we in fact ‘retrofit’ suburbia?” seems to be answered already! There are so many awesome ideas out there about how to accomplish this goal. There is even an entire book titled Retrofitting Suburbia for heavens sake! The “in fact” clause is the kicker to this question. It forces us to realize that we are not going to have the capitol for improvements that we had before, that there are laws in place disallowing the retrofit to happen and most alarming, in my mind at least, the fact that so many people want to live in suburbs and will fight to preserve that “American Dream”. Fact is, as urban designers work towards developing “solutions” for the “problem”, actual people who live in the suburbs live there for very specific reasons. I spoke to this point on the following evening where, after a screening of “The End of Suburbia” I pointed out that one of these reasons may be financial. Due to suburban infrastructures being subsidized for so long (ei highways and utilities) but also because it is often times downright illegal to build dense, walkable towns and cities due to zoning and land development regulations. It was pleasant to get some pushback on this idea as the moderator noted that in fact many live in the burbs because they WANT to. He encouraged us to think about what are the real drivers of suburban growth. It made me recall how much I really did love my cul-de-sac 3/2, 2 car garage home with its pie shaped lot and oasis like backyard in Orlando. Living there was nice, but it definitely had drawbacks, like the commute to work and an almost complacent admission that I was taking part in a very unsustainable way of life. I miss my yard now. My Manhattan apartment is small and I have definitely had to trim the fat from my belongings in making the move from suburbia to the city. But I love the vibrancy and diversity of the city, the walkability, not owning a car. There are definitely pros and cons to both living arraignments. I still had flashbacks of Allison’s recounting of a recent home builders trade show where so much attention was focused on the financial instruments used to sell the homes, like the made up bride who was promoting the new “Mortgage Down-Payment Wedding Registry” and so few, if any, builders seemed to concern themselves at all with the actual product, houses. This is a big disconnect and could go a long way in explaining some of the issues we face as we in factretrofit suburbia.

In the end I don’t want a group of suburbanites declaring that suburbia is the only way we can live in the future, which is why I am so supportive of the Congress for New Urbanism (despite closely held grievances with some of their results) in their strides towards changing and addressing zoning and land use law all over the place. Inversely, I’m sure that suburbanites don’t want us metropolitan city slickers going into their communities and telling them where or how to live or the form of their towns and villages. This is a very important fact that must be addressed. As long as it is us (urbanists) against them (suburbanists) the dialogue doesn’t exist. Until that paradigm of confrontation can be overcome the whole “debate” is nothing more than an argument taking place in public forums. But I fear that the argument is taking place less and less. In reality there is probably a lot more preaching to the choir about retrofitting suburbia and a lot more silent indignation coming from the burbs. An echo chamber in both directions

One of the most fascinating areas of debate for me personally right now is the conversation, or lack thereof, between New Urbanists and Landscape Urbanists. Where NU is taking a stance of guarding their territory from the up and coming contender, they are actually going about it in a rather offensive way, taking any opportunity they can to pick at the Landscape Urbanism’s shortcomings (perceived or actual) in print, online and in person. Conversely,  the LU contingent seems to be non responsive to the provocations in print, paper or digital. Despite this they seem to be winning many small battles by receiving so many high profile commissions in major cities around the US and the globe, which has sparked verbal debates about the issues. It seems that the New Urbanist’s have found a wonderful way to lull the suburbs into a more densely built communities with walkability and mixed uses built right in. While the Landscape Urbanists are introducing elements of highly designed an performative nature into the built up environs of already dense cities. 

Temporary is the new permanent… but what happens when they want their land back?               This question speaks directly to DIY/tactical urbanism just as much as it speaks to the tried and true method of artists co-opting spaces and making community where no other population segment, besides the homeless, would dare to dwell. This was epitomized in the NYC’s Lower East Side and Alphabet City during the 1970’s and 80’s and it is less extreme but equally pronounced and currently happening in Williamsburg, Long Island City and even the Rockaways. Places like Chashama in Long Island City which is an old drive-thru bank is being lent to an arts group for use as gallery and studio space. This is great, it gives artist an affordable place to create their visions and it also activates what would otherwise be a dead space. At the same time it creates a vicious cycle in which the property owner and the artist both play their roll. Eventually the artists will create such a great place from what they have been afforded that the property values and demand will pick back up. This is the inevitable end of this spaces artistic uses. Upper middle class folks will move in, expensive/trendy/shi-shi restaurants and retail will follow and the artist community will have little choice but to move on to more accommodating digs only to start the heart wrenching process all over again. On the bright side this nasty hand deal to the arts community will no doubt insure a steady stream of inspired pieces that build upon the emotions that go along with the struggle.

Is the First World successfully solving the Third World’s problems? Should it even be trying?        This reminds me of the “Gizmo Green” meme from Steve Mouzon. How significant is it that industrialized nations are dreaming up highly processed ways of solving basic problems that the global poor face if, in becoming reliant on those solutions, the people only become more indebted to the people/nations/corporations that are “helping” them? One fresh example in my mind comes from a story told by Iain and Petia of spurse told during one of their Lab Experiments. The story was about Plumpy’Nut which was invented by a big company and was sold to another major company that is one of the largest suppliers of food aid to the Third World. This product has saved many from malnutrition and starvation. It is a wonderful thing! The thing is, during the growing, transportation and processing of the peanuts then the packaging, transportation and distribution of the final product, all kinds of efficiencies and opportunities are lost. The simple fact is this is nothing more than dense peanut butter and peanuts can just as easily, if not more easily, be grown in situ where they are needed. This supplies the people with skills, products and a means to sustain themselves. So now there are ten partnering companies and a non-profit that now make Plumpy’Nut locally, in Africa.

What’s next for architecture? Allison spoke about Via Verde which is a pretty attractive and healthy mixed/low income development in  the South Bronx she also mentioned the fact that the NYTimes art critic has become the architecture critic as well. So some good and potentially bad things on the horizon here.

Why is there so little actual critique of design? Why so little follow up to see if these actions did indeed have impact? Interesting ideas about the shallow nature of the majority of major magazine and other media. Including the “Look how nice/pretty this new object is don’t you love it?!” and “hot or not” type writing.  Arieff essentially said that, We need a new form of writing that is not simply celebratory of new products or product design but more in depth critique of product design and product marketing. I agree and I’ll take that as a provocation.

How can we develop a more effective critique of stuff? Allison mentioned one of my favorites “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard but states rather plainly that there needs to be much more of this critical line of inquiry about EVERYTHING.

Where is publishing headed? Allison used a cover of T|H Magazine (that Tommy Hilfiger) to illustrate some of the issues print media is running up against currently. They have their own magazine now why would they need to pay for space in GQ or Rolling Stone and what sort of content is actually being produced for T|H Mag? I could rant about this for hours, but suffice it to say that one of the most influential books I’ve read in the past couple years is “No Logo by Naomi Klein, I don’t listen to commercial radio or watch television, I dissect all the billboard ads I see and basically put blinders on when walking through Times Square. I realize that advertising is big and it probably affects me. I think some of the biggest questions/issues that I struggle with deal with corporate sponsorship and corporitization in general. I will definitely be delving deeper into this subject at a latter date. 

I really enjoy these critical talks but unfortunately I will not be able to attend any more of the D*Crit Lecture Series this season due to Green Drinks NYC next week and my Intro to Greenroofs and Living Walls course starting on Oct 25th I encourage others interested in these ideas to check out their calender and attend some of the lectures. They are free with RSVP, the reception is nice as are the people. Check the calendar and topics here:



3 thoughts on “Allison Arieff :: D*Crit Talk Recap

  1. Gil, interesting post. I saw Hawthorne but not Arieff.Many New Urbanists are a little baffled about the amount of time Andres Duany has spent on Landscape Urbanism – but he has. The Duany – Waldheim session at CNU 19 was exceedingly civil, with no fireworks at all. It was pretty boring.Waldheim has been clear that LU was created as a critical alternative to NU. In his discussions he has made some generalizations about NU that seem more polemical than factual. And at the GSD, home of LU, they are openly hostile towards and dismissive of NU. That’s part of the background of the discussion.Here in New York, you’re right that LU has gotten some very good commissions. Part of the reason for that is the New York architectural establishment works hard to eliminate NU from the short lists for work. "We don’t need New Urbanism, we have urbanism," is one of the tag lines. This disguises the fact that an inseparable part of LU is a Modernist aesthetic that the architectural establishment supports.The Highline and Brooklyn Bridge Park are great places, but they’re great because of their sites, not their designs. It would be great to level the playing field, so that we could compare T5 and T6 NU and LU results.Re critical discourse: maybe that’s what some of the NU / LU discussion you haven’t liked has been? LU and NU are fundamentally in opposition on basic principles, so the discussion can easily be very critical.

  2. Massengale, thank you so much for your reply. I truly appreciate and am thankful for your opinion here and provocation of this topic. I watched Duany’s presentation of LU from last years Congress as well as Waldheim’s presentation online. I partially agree with your point that the new NYC sites are so successful due to their location but I disagree that this has little/nothing to do with design. Both are integral (along with maintenance and programming) in creating great, enduring places. I have a feeling both parks would be well attended despite the design due to their locations but the fact is, they are both beautiful, inviting and pay attention to ecological context in their own right.I agree that the LU has been more widely accepted by the Designers Designer due to their perceived modernist aesthetic but I cannot accept that as an excuse for NU being marginalized in cities, especially with so many NU proponents making the argument that NU doesn’t necessarily have to be composed in the traditional architectural style and that there are other stylistic interpretations of the NU development out there. If this is the case (which I believe it is) then I think there is actually less difference between the LU and the NU than everyone is hemming and hawing about. One (NU) seems to exist in the suburbs and greenfields wearing classical clothes and the more urbane cousin (LU) thrives in cities and infill with a more modern outfit.I would like to make the T5 and T6 comparisons as well but I think it will be equally interesting to look at how LU performs on the T1-T3 level as well. Although I question the ability of the modern aesthetic to appeal to the people who live in these rural/small town places (just as the traditional/classical aesthetic fails to inspire urban dwellers) I also wonder how many LU designers have the desire/gumption to work in these transect zones.I would like to clarify that I have enjoyed/like every part of the NU / LU discussion and find it all extremely titillating. I’ve worked at FL NU firms in the past and now find myself consulting/contracting with an NYC LU office most of the time. I don’t see myself as taking a side necessarily, but rather, I see both as techniques/tactics/tools in an wider arsenal that are to be applied when and where most appropriate. I also I don’t believe that the two approaches are as opposed on a basic principle level as you claim they are, "fundamentally opposed on basic principles." I look forward to continuing this debate (and deepening my personal understanding) as well as seeing different size/scale projects from both contingents appear across the transect zones.

  3. Gil, we can agree to disagree on the design and its details (you know, where god is). For example, I think the old painted iron railings are much better than the new glass railings. They take less maintenance too.Plus, I saw the old grasses on the Highline, and by comparison the new ones look precious and not local (are they Asian?).As I think I said, none of these things are actually bad, but neither do the they strike you as beautiful when you experience them in person. They please the intellect more than the senses.The sites, of course, are beautiful.But when it comes to cities, I’m talking about New York City, not "cities." The New York architectural establishment actively and successfully works against New Urbanist and traditional work* in New York.* They think New Urban work and traditional work are the same thing; they’re wrong.

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