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12 favorite Curbed longreads of 2016

The rise of Scandinavian design, Fixer Upper as feminist fantasy, the future of Austin, and more

As the year ends, we’ve been looking back on some of our favorite Curbed stories from 2016. Last week, we looked at the best of the West Coast. Below, we present a dozen more longreads, in order of publication, from, covering everything from the rise of Scandinavian design to the legacy of urbanist and writer Jane Jacobs to one writer’s quest to get into New York City’s locked and storied Gramercy Park.

Gallaudet’s campus.
Gallaudet’s campus.
Rey Lopez

How Gallaudet University’s Architects Are Redefining Deaf Space by Amanda Kolson Hurley

Now 10 years old, DeafSpace is an architectural approach that springs from the particular ways Deaf people perceive and inhabit space. It has grown from small workshops—in which participants expressed Deaf sensibilities that were well-known but had never been codified—into the key set of principles shaping new buildings and renovation projects on Gallaudet’s campus, helmed by a cross-disciplinary research institute. The principles have relevance beyond campus. About 3.5 percent of people in the U.S. have experienced significant hearing loss or deafness, but hearing problems are more common, affecting 13 percent of the population, according to the Gallaudet Research Institute. That share is likely to rise as tens of millions of Baby Boomers reach their seventies and eighties. Why should the places designed for them take hearing as a given?

An illustration of Scandinavian chairs. Kaye Blegvad

Scandi Crush Saga by Sarah Hucal

The term "Scandinavian design" first appeared outside of the region in 1951, in the title of the Scandinavian Design for Living exhibition in Heal’s department store in London. Since then, it has often been accompanied by adjectives such as "democratic," "functional," "natural," and "minimal," in attempts to fuse a diverse potpourri of influences and tastes. In the catalogue for an exhibition of Scandinavian ceramics and glass at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 1989, curator Jan Opie writes that Scandinavian works typically share "craftsmanship, quality, humanity and restraint combined with a sympathetic respect for the natural materials and a concern for their ‘proper’ use by the designer and their consumer." While myriad definitions of the style have surfaced over the years—many more ambiguous than Opie’s—the precise description is likely to vary depending on who is asked.

Two New York City churches, on West Fourth  Street and Prince Street, that have been, or are being, converted into  residential space.
Two New York City churches, on West Fourth Street and Prince Street, that have been, or are being, converted into residential space.

Living on a Prayer by Kyle Chayka

Even outside of sermons, Terry Starks often falls into the rolling cadences and exhortations of the pastor he has been for the past two decades, a declamatory tone that makes it easy to believe him when he says that God gave him the right to a 113-year-old, 48,000-square-foot church on New York City’s Upper West Side. Developers have been struggling to convert this building, initially called the First Church of Christ Scientist New York and then 1 West 96th Street, but now referred to in documents as 361 Central Park West, into luxury apartments since its sale in June 2014 for $26 million. But Starks knows a higher power is on his side, even in the secular arena of Manhattan real estate. "361 is a promise God made me. That building means to me what Israel means to the Jews," he says. "How are you going to turn God’s house into condos?"

James Gulliver Hancock

Celebrating Jane Jacobs

The writer, activist, and urban theorist Jane Jacobs was born 100 years ago today. Best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs pulled together her experiences as an architecture journalist, New York City resident, and long-time observer of urban life (she grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, watching the city’s slow economic decline) to form her ideas about how cities and neighborhoods work best. In the book, which she called "an attack" on established ideas of city planning, Jacobs argued strongly for urban density and diversity.

Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Welcome to Disturbia by Amanda Kolson Hurley

The Crack in the Picture Window was just one in a raft of books about suburban life that appeared steadily through the 1950s and 1960s. A few of these have become cultural touchstones: Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road (1961) still disturbs with its portrait of a corroded marriage, dramatized in a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. John Cheever’s stories of gin-soaked afternoons filled with longing and regret still telegraph upper-middle-class suburban anomie.

But the books that didn’t last—forgotten volumes of pop sociology and psychology like Keats’s, and pulp fiction—can also tell us a lot about the preoccupations of midcentury Americans. Most strikingly, they reveal deep and widespread concern over the stability of mental and physical health in the new suburban environment. This was not confined to popular reading material; at academic conferences, speakers struck worried notes about the "one-class community" and the "filtered experience" of children growing up in a suburban setting.

Ryan Dorgan

Unequal City by Megan Barber

Jackson is in Teton County, one of the richest counties in America, where the wealthy flock in order to take advantage of Wyoming’s lack of income tax. (Jackson is the city; Jackson Hole, as it is more widely known, is the name of both the larger region and the ski area.) Known for skiing, its proximity to two popular national parks, and billionaires who skewed the county’s 2013 average income to $300,000, Jackson was also recently named the most economically unequal city in the United States. Faced with rising rents and a dearth of new housing developments, the ski town is experiencing an affordable housing shortage that’s more reminiscent of San Francisco than a town with a year-round population of 10,000 people.

Sara Annapolen

The Urban Games by Nate Berg

On a field of dirt, about a hundred octagonal white tents are lined up in neat rows. They’re weather-beaten and coated with dust, but the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees still peeks through on their fabric rooftops, revealing their purpose. Like many refugee camps set up in recent years, this one is a mix of desperation and inactivity. Unlike most others, it’s surrounded by stadium seating.

This is the field of the baseball stadium built for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The stadium has gone mostly unused in the 12 years since the city spent $15 billion putting on the games. Its recent turn as a refugee camp, along with other Olympic venues in the city, has been a rare reuse of a very expensive structure built for a two-week event with seemingly little thought of what would happen after. Most of the projects Athens built for the Olympics have struggled to find a use after the Games, leaving venues barren and rotting. Notwithstanding Greece’s subsequent economic crisis and its current struggle to handle the refugee flow from various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the Olympics have left Athens with deep and expensive scars.

Karen Pearson

Into the Woods by Claire Carusillo

When I arrived in the Adirondacks in a pair of sensible sneakers for hiking, I expected to be reporting a story about the American rustic architecture of Eagle Island, an ancient, nearly 10 years abandoned summer camp in Saranac Lake, New York. But somehow, about three minutes into my stay at the town’s Doctor’s Inn guest house, I realized I had no choice but to also report a story about a global health pandemic. And neither story could be told without recounting the history of this quiet old lake town, whose fresh air has an almost mythical reputation for healing bodies. In this story presumably about architecture, people die, a family suffers a great tragedy, pre-teen girls electively spend weeks at a time sleeping outside on a man-free island Utopia, Sylvia Plath shows up for enough time to break a leg, a German scientist cures tuberculosis, a group of former Girl Scouts sue for land rights.

The River Master by Karrie Jacobs

Henry has worked for his family business his whole life—his older brother Gary controls the company purse strings—although he’s sold his skills and licensed his inventions to other water park operators. Currently, he and Schooley are plotting the Transportainment for a new Atlantis resort on the South China Sea.

"I wasn’t trying to simulate nature," he tells me. "I was trying to create an experience for the guest that would allow their mind and their body to enjoy and relax. I found that on rivers, nothing was ever the same. Nothing was ever straight. Everything was free flowing, like the water."

This, I guess, explains, the Schlitterbahn aesthetic: the rivers meander. The banks are made of concrete, but they’re lumpy and irregular in a way that alludes to natural banks. He remembers discovering the secret of river aesthetics: "Wow, this is easy. I don’t have to make it straight. I don’t have to make it level. I don’t have to make it look like everyone else thinks it’s supposed to look."

How to get into Gramercy Park by Angela Serratorre

For weeks I’ve been grumbling to anyone willing to listen (and everyone who follows me on Twitter) about Gramercy Park—more specifically, about how I work three blocks away on Irving Place and am a tax-paying, law-abiding resident of New York City, a historic preservation enthusiast who never litters, and yet this space, a perfect square of green I have to walk around to get to Lexington Avenue, is inaccessible to me because I don’t have one of the 400 keys in circulation.

Is Fixer Upper a stealth feminist fantasy? by Virginia Sole-Smith

So what is it about the Gaines family that has made Fixer Upper the number one cable show in its time slot among viewers aged 25 to 54—and, in particular, that has captured the hearts of my demographic ("upscale women" aged 25 to 54)? In part, it is the Pinterest-worthy design: white marble countertops, farmhouse tables, and, of course, the iconic use of shiplap. And it’s also the insane likability of Chip and Joanna themselves.

"I am in love with them," says Sherry Petersik, herself one half of a well-known married design duo and cofounder of the blog Young House Love, which featured the Gaineses’ farmhouse kitchen renovation back before they were HGTV stars. "I’ve watched probably one million hours of HGTV, and I remember as soon as I saw their first episode, thinking they are just ‘It.’ They are who you want to be and also who you could go out to dinner with and have a great time."

Petersik notes that Chip, in particular, fills a void on HGTV, since he’s far more rumpled and cartoonish than the channel’s usual slick-designer hosts. The Gaines’ relationship is also unique; they display a warm and authentic chemistry that is yet to be replicated on any other design show. But really, it’s all about Joanna.

Rachel Sender

Austin faces the future

Austin, Texas, is changing. Once known for its music and its slackers, these days the Texas capital earns more headlines related to growth and productivity: The number of companies and people that have moved there, the booming tech industry, the festival scene.

The demographic data bears out this change: In 2015, the city’s population hit 2 million, an increase of 37.7 percent since 2005. Between 50 and 100 newcomers move to Austin every day, and the population is projected to double, to nearly 4 million, by 2040.

For city residents—and city planners—Austin’s growth has major implications.


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