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2017 in architecture: The good, the bad, and the pink

Two architecture critics weigh in on a year in design

Dimeo Construction Company, Getty Images, Getty Images, Rachel Sender, Winnie Au, Shutterstock

For the eighth consecutive year, Curbed’s own Alexandra Lange and critic Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News cover the ups and downs, triumphs, and tragedies of the year in design. If you thought 2016 was hyperbolic, well, you were in for a treat in 2017.


These are dark days in the galaxy. But fear not! Our intrepid critics, the Luke and Leia of architectural criticism, are here, lightsabers drawn, prepared to fight against design evil and restore peace to the urban (and suburban) landscape. Without further ado…

Best Disappearing Act

Apple’s design leadership. From the 11,000-car garage at Apple “Park,” to the company’s claim that stores are “town squares,” the behemoth has lost the plot.

Honk Twice for Sustainability Award

Meanwhile, Toyota dumped plans for their own LEED-rated Texas headquarters in suburbia, with 6,500 parking spaces and effectively zero public transit.

Biggest Disco Ball

Jean Nouvel’s webby, pattern-making dome for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Good on the critics who visited for not letting the glitter distract from the country’s exploitative labor practices.

Call It a Comeback Award

The monograph was dismissed as an obsolete gesture, but now all the cool kids (SO-IL, WorkAC) are doing them, and doing them well.

The Move Over Frida Crown

Georgia O’Keeffe, fashion icon (as played by Jennifer Lawrence for Dior).

Local Heroes Award

Amidst the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey coverage, much of it inaccurate and misguided, the OffCite Blog, produced by the Rice Design Alliance’s Cite Magazine, was a consistent source for thoughtful, informed reporting and commentary.

Apple Campus in Cupertino.
Dan Frommer
The roof of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
AFP/Getty Images
Georgia O’Keeffe.
Conde Nast via Getty Images
Robin Hood Gardens, London, England.
Getty Images

The Weinstein Shaming Pig

Who will be the first big-name architect to fall? Let’s not let that parlor game distract from reforming the design world’s systemic sexism.

Millennial Pink Prize

Between the retrospectives, the reissues, the auctions, and the ripoffs, Memphis Design Group’s patterned laminates and cockeyed cutouts need to take a nap. May we suggest High Tech as the Next Big Thing?

The White Cube Award

Brooks + Scarpa’s Six housing for homeless veterans in Los Angeles demonstrates that creative public-service architecture is not an oxymoron.

One Hand Doesn’t Know What the Other Is Doing Award

Neave Brown wins RIBA’s highest award for his Brutalist public housing … just as Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens goes under the wrecking ball (and into a museum).

Fake It ‘Til Ya Make It Award

All those swoopy shelves at MVRDV’s new Tianjin library are Instagram cool. Too bad they’re so inaccessible the books had to be faked. Mecanoo: don’t try this at the NYPL.

You Can’t Get There From Here Award

The leadership of the MTA and WMATA seem determined to drive away subway and bus riders—and destroy their cities’ economies. But hey, there’s a ferry!

Goebbels Trophy for Reactionary Over-Reach

The NRA’s latest boogeyman: Frank Gehry’s LA Phil and modern architecture, generally. Spare us.

MVRDV’s new Tianjin library.
LightRocket via Getty Images
Citywide NYC Ferry.
Getty Images
Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Getty Images
Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania. 1934-37. Perspective from the south. encil and colored pencil on paper, 15 3/8 x 25 1/4”.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

The Ghost in the Attic Award

Frank Lloyd Wright was an attention whore when he was alive. At 150, he’s still all up in our (and MoMA’s) grill.

I’ll Take My Helvetica Sleazy Prize

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, queen of supergraphics, subverter of over-serious architecture, has her day with a new book, symposium and installation.

Living in Make-Believe Award

Sidewalk Labs starts a from-scratch smart city experiment in Toronto. But as cities reject Uber, LinkNYC stumbles into porn, and Amazon unlocks your front door, do we want to be their neighbor?

Fair Housing Badge of Courage

To Interboro Partners, whose monumental Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion is an omnibus examination of the systemic policies and practices that divide American communities.

Diploma for Her Lawyer Foyer

McMansionHell deserves it for bushwacking her way through the nonsensical rooflines, granite acreage, and Certified Dank finished basements of America’s cul-de-sacs.

Bigger Is Better Award

MassMoca completed its long-awaited Phase III expansion, with architecture by Bruner Cott and wayfinding by OverUnder, bringing its square footage to a whopping 250,000—making it the largest art exhibition space in America.

Youth Curfew sign from Interboro Partners Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion.
Courtesy Interboro Partners
Illustration of McMansionHell’s criticism.
Rachel Sender
The exterior of Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA.
Boston Globe via Getty Images
North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen, Columbus, Indiana.
Getty Images

Hello, Columbus Award

The modernist town in Indiana had itself a biennial, and was memorialized in a film so twee it should go on sale at Anthropologie.

They Go Low, We Go (Very) High Award

Herzog & de Meuron lifted their wavy Elbphilharmonie concert hall on top of a warehouse. But what really went up is the price tag.

Award In the Form of a Duck

Denise Scott Brown allows MIT Press to reprint Muriel Cooper’s “heroic and original” design for Learning from Las Vegas … and it’s lit like a neon sign.

Played Out Cup

The Museum of Ice Cream, where the sprinkles are plastic and the fun is strictly for the camera. Move along, your 45 minutes are up.

Blade Runner Award for Dystopian Fantasy Porn

Blade Runner 2049. And this time, you can watch with legal weed!

Beauty + Brains Book of the Year

Rome Prize winner Keith Krumwiede’s Atlas of Another America, an obsessive and obsessively gorgeous meditation on American planning and sprawl.

Net Zero Is Better Than Coke Zero Award

A passel of Clean Contemporary Architects (Morphosis, Weiss/Manfredi, Handel and, soon, Snohetta) post impressive environmental numbers on Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus.

Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco, CA.
Getty Images for Museum of Ice Cream
Cornell Tech Campus.
Iwan Baan
I.M. Pei standing next to a full size simulation if his Louvre Pyramid.
Sygma via Getty Images
Trump’s border wall prototypes.
Ian Volner

Going Deep Award

To Jarrett Fuller, whose Scratching the Surface podcast makes design criticism (and design critics) seem entertaining and relevant.

Geritol Medals for Modernism

I.M. Pei celebrated his centennial, and Kevin Roche (95) was the subject of a fine documentary, The Quiet Architect.

Preservation Makes Strange Bedfellows Award

Postmodernism brings lovers of light, glass, and grids to some mighty historicist barricades, as the AT&T Building is threatened with an Apple-botomy, and the Portland Building with a face transplant.

Blue Ribbon for Boswells

Biographies of Louis Kahn and Michael Graves bring new insight to the life and work of architects inspired by Rome, but to wildly different ends.

Big Time Sensuality Award

Ward Bennett, subject of a lush new monograph, is the designer we need to bridge the taste gap between Barcelona chairs and those Ruthless People sofas—his clients included David Rockefeller AND Jann Wenner.

Architecture That Should Have No Architects Award

The US-Mexico border wall, may it never expand beyond these dystopian samples.

What Me Worry, Award?

Temperatures and seas are rising. Los Angeles is on fire. A perfect time to back out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Designers Are Geniuses Too! Award

Kate Orff (landscape architecture) and Damon Rich (urban planning), already amply rewarded as 2017 MacArthur Fellows.

Wildfires in California.
AFP/Getty Images
Blake Hobbs Play-Za by Kate Orff’s firm SCAPE.
Winnie Au
Pritzker Prize 2017 winner RCR architects.
AFP/Getty Images
Pauli Murray College and Benjamin Franklin College at Yale University.
Dimeo Construction Company

One More Step Toward Irrelevance Award

No, we’ve never heard of this year’s Pritzker winners either. Why do we pay attention to this prize, again? Anybody?

Best Exhibition (Small Scale)

Soft Thresholds, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, a beautifully mounted retrospective of the architecture, planning and preservation work of Rahul Mehrotra. (Attn: Pritzker jurists)

Best Exhibition (Large Scale)

Entering the white-on-white village in which Rei Kawakubo installed her bulbous, dotty, puffy, ragged and theatrical retrospective at the Met was to wonder, Did I just step through a portal?

That’s So 1996 Award

With Vespertine, fine dining achieves a level of formalist pretension architecture’s been trying to shed for years—and in the perfect Eric Owen Moss venue.

Skyscrapers Grow On Trees Plaque

Our timber-framed future is here, as Framework rises in Portland (12 stories) and the University of British Columbia’s Brock Commons (18 stories) opens.

Prince Charles Lost Cause Prize for Boring Historicist Design

Yale, which has a campus with buildings by Breuer, Bunshaft, Kahn, Rudolph and Saarinen (not to mention Berke, Hopkins, Foster and KieranTimblerlake) builds a pair of Hogwartsian residential colleges by Bob Stern.

Best House We Didn’t Buy

Anne Tyng’s angular Philadelphia aerie, a ship-shape rowhouse with sleeping nook, triangular windows, and acres of built-in bookshelves.


Farewells

—To Gunnar Birkerts, architect of glass mountains, bridges and canyons
—To Hugh Hardy, benevolent guardian of New York’s built history (and we need more of those!)
—To Albert Ledner, whose portholes, overbite and ashtrays made modernism much more
—To William Krisel, whose midcentury tract houses made desert modernism affordable
—To Vann Molyvann, who brought modernism to Cambodia, and then watched it disappear
—To Ivan Chermayeff, whose logos took us from birth (PBS) to banking (Chase) to highways (Mobil) to museums on both coasts (MoMA, MoCA)
—To Vito Acconci, the grungy avant-garde architect/artist who was genuinely avant-garde
—To Frank Welch, the gentlemanly dean of Texas architecture
—To Linda Nochlin, the no-bullshit art-historian who changed our thinking
—To Vincent Scully, influential critic, historian, interpreter of architecture via empathy and experience

Alexandra Lange’s architectural criticism column, Critical Eye, appears bimonthly on Curbed. Her book of collected essays The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, will be published in 2018 by Bloomsbury Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @LangeAlexandra; ditto Instagram. Mark Lamster is the architecture critic at Dallas Morning News. He is currently at work on a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson. Follow Mark on Twitter at @marklamster. Missed Lange’s and Lamster’s 2015 and 2016 architecture picks? Read up on em here and here.

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