The Tower of Positive Thinking


Carol Willis, the founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, is a connoisseur of big buildings and everything that goes along with them. So when she lavishes praise on a particular elevator ride in a particular skyscraper, it’s like a seasoned restaurant critic recommending a great entrée at a restaurant. Do yourself a favor, and go along for the ride.

Willis lately approves of the elevators at 7 World Trade Center—the 52-story building designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill overlooking ground zero. Willis explains that in addition to being unusually silent, steady, and well lit, the elevators are coordinated by a direct dispatch, computer-controlled system that maximizes efficiency and, thus, saves energy en route. “The elevator ride is an underappreciated experience in and of itself,” says Willis.

In the months to come, Willis will have ample opportunity to joyride the elevators as she welcomes visitors to the 40th floor of the building. There, at the recently completed headquarters of the New York Academy of Sciences, in a conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, she will be co-hosting a series of public lectures called Mixed Greens, investigating the relationship between sustainable design and skyscrapers.

In recent years, much of the public discussion about environmental issues, particularly global warming, has obsessed over the role of cars while more or less ignoring the major impact that buildings have on the consumption of water, energy, fossil fuels, and raw construction materials.

But Willis says that within the profession, the conversation on the environment began to change around the time that the National Building Museum held a seminal exhibit called Big Green in 2003. “It was really the first time that architects took responsibility for the wastefulness of buildings,” recalls Willis.

In subsequent years, Manhattan has witnessed the rise (and planned construction) of many new buildings—from the Hearst Tower on 8th Avenue to the Bank of America Tower at Bryant Park to 7 World Trade Center—that embrace environmentally sustainable design strategies. The ins and outs of many of these skyscrapers were on display last year when the Skyscraper Museum put together an exhibit, called Green Towers, at its cozy headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

Willis says that this time around, the lectures will continue to focus on the sustainable design of skyscrapers, but will extend the scope to international projects from China to Germany to Malaysia. On March 15, architect Helmut Jahn will be discussing a number of his energy-conscious high-rise projects around the world, including the Deutsche Post Tower in Bonn, Germany. On April 5, architect Ken Yeang will speak about his work on a “bioclimatic skyscraper” in Kuala Lumpur.

Willis says she purposely invited the “Jahn and Yeang” of architecture because they represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of green design. “Helmut Jang takes a very technological approach,” says Willis. “The buildings are all glass, extremely elegant modernism. Helmut will say ‘I’m not a green architect.’ He’s just an architect who believes that buildings should be efficient and beautiful. Whereas Yeang has a history of designing these plant-laden buildings that use passive environmental techniques, such as shade and shadow. He’s on the low-tech end of the spectrum.”

The series concludes on May 8, when Roger Frechette, an engineer with Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill discusses his work on the Zero-Energy Tower, in Guangzhou, China. “It’s actually supposed to generate electricity rather than consume it, through wind turbines and heat recapture,” says Willis.

Throughout the series, while audience members sit and ponder the future of man and skyscraper they can gaze out over the city’s skyline and contemplate its past. The final encore? A choice elevator ride back to street level.

Lectures begin at 6:30 PM, 7 World Trade Center, New York Academy of Sciences, 212-968-1961

Curbside Enthusiasm

Nothing says furious, unbridled idealism like a first-year graduate student. Too fresh to be jaded, too naive to be guarded, and too excited to know better, they create for the love of creating, no matter how outlandish the outcome. In Lost & Found City, 10 graduate students in their first year of curatorial studies and contemporary culture at Bard, let loose their fledgling optimism in a series of exhibits and installations exploring the relationship between private lives and public flux. Along the way, expect meditations on gentrification and, apparently, mysterious suitcases. March 3–24, Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare, 212-431-5795

The Un-departed

Is there anything worse in the cycle of domestic life than having to move your parents or grandparents into a nursing home? Emotional questions of independence aside, such moves often raise troubling logistical issues, such as, what am I supposed to do with Grandpa’s exhaustive collection of Civil War memorabilia, not to mention the two decades worth of rubber bands he kept stashed under the sink? With any luck, future generations may be able to duck such questions. In House_n, MIT’s home of the future, Dr. Kent Larson, director of a joint venture between MIT’s Department of Architecture and its Media Laboratory, discusses how technological progress may enable old folks to remain in their own homes for longer. March 5, 5:30pm, Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Pl, 212-683-0023

Love Triangles

Is there anyone in the world who gets as turned on by simple geometric shapes as your average architect? That’s a rhetorical question. Whether it’s a beautiful rectangle, or a devastating rhombus, architects love to get all hot and bothered by the simplest of forms. Catch the Euclidian fever when Mark Foster Gage, of Gage/Clemenceau Architects, speaks about how digital form-making technologies are steering designers back to beauty through geometry and topology in his lecture Forms of Seduction. March 28, 6:30pm, Pratt Manhattan, 144 W 14th, 212-647-7199, $80

Tower of Scour

You saw it in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. You’ve listened to people debate whether it is architecture or outside art; and whether it’s more like Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia or Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers. For the past 28 years, self-taught architect Arthur Wood has been adding to his outlandish home-cum-art-piece in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn one found ashtray and discarded fender at a time. Now go see the Broken Angel of Clinton Hill in person, before it gets turned into condos or burns to the ground in another fire. 4 Downing St at Quincy, Bklyn

The Power Procrastinator

Admit it: For years, every time the subject arose at a cocktail party you pretended that you had already avidly read “The Power Broker,” Robert A. Caro’s voluminous masterpiece on the life of Robert Moses. So you felt relieved when you heard that the Museum of the City of New York had put together an exhibit on the life of arguably the most powerful city planner in New York’s history. Except that for months now, you’ve been procrastinating on that too! Redeem yourself and finally stop faking it with this curator-led private tour of Robert Moses & the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis. April 17, 6pm, Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave, 212-534-1672

The Outsiders

Everybody loves a Park Avenue client. But apparently there are some stir-crazy designers who have recently begun to venture in search of clients beyond the far reaches of Manhattan. And, no, we’re not talking about the Hamptons. In the exhibit Design for the Other 90%, curator Cynthia E. Smith displays work from the growing ranks of designers who are creating everything from shelter to transportation systems for people around the planet living in poverty or recovering from natural disasters. May 4–Sept. 23, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 E 91st, 212-849-8400

Canal Pleasures

All across the city, planners and developers are struggling to reclaim New York’s industrial waterfront for recreational purposes. These days, nowhere is the deconstruction of New York’s industrial past more dramatic than along the oozing banks of the Gowanus Canal. Rising big-box stores, crumbling factories, punk-infested squat houses—the Gowanus Canal of South Brooklyn has it all! Including a bed of oysters that, somehow, continue to live inside the canal. For the time being, eschew the Gowanus on the half shell. Instead, enjoy the post-industrial mishmash while cruising down the canal in a canoe, on an Estuary Discovery Tour, sponsored by the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. May 5, from 1 to 5pm, 2nd Street Dock, Bklyn, 718-243-0849

House Patrol

Suburban housing developments tend to be the bane of American architecture, carving up rural enclaves into boxy McMansions, and triggering paroxysms of displeasure among humorless architecture critics (see Rybczynski, Witold). Not so, the Houses at Sagaponac. Dreamed up by the late developer Harry J. Brown and coordinated by the ubiquitous starchitect Richard Meier, this 65-acre site in the Hamptons will eventually feature 34 summer houses designed by a insanely talented roster of architects—including Thomas Phifer, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, and Carlos Jimenez. The first of the houses are now completed. More are on the way. Most are visible from the side of the road, making them perfect subjects for curbside ogle-thons. 21 Forest Crossing, Sagaponack, NY, 212-683-4400,