Monday, May 03, 2010

Threshold v2.0

From all of us here at Threshold, thank you for reading! We hope you have enjoyed our coverage of regional design issues, and we're excited to announce the beta version of our new site...THRESHOLD: Where Landscape, Architecture, and Interior Design Meet.

We are forming partnerships with AIA-MN, MASLA, and ASID-MN to include more viewpoints on more issues of the built environment, and we've designed a brand new site to help make that happen.

We will continue to showcase (and expand) the contributions from regional design voices, and we hope you will join the conversation at

The "old" Threshold will gradually be abandoned, so please visit the new Threshold for details on our official "launch" event.

Thanks! Read More......

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Virgin Forest Grows In the Bronx

Image courtesy Jennifer Harris

When I say “Bronx” images of the arson induced urban blight of the ‘60s and ‘70s is probably the first thing that comes to mind and with good reason. The chaos inflicted on the borough during that time left it scarred for almost 30 years. It remains the home of one of the five poorest congressional districts in the country, but generally, the image of the Bronx has transitioned from one of decay to one of rebirth. It is home to one of the best public high schools in the country (Bronx Science), one of the largest zoos in the country (Bronx Zoo), and a preeminent botanical garden (New York Botanical Garden).

Image courtesy Jennifer Harris

The New York Botanical Garden is host to plant research laboratories, living plant collections, plant exhibitions, and covers 250 acres of land along the Bronx River.
Atop 50 of these acres lives a collection of Oak, Beech, Cherry, Birch, Tulip, and White Ash trees. These trees are virgin forest, a concept I have yet still to fully grasp. I am not sure if I am surprised that virgin forest still exists in the city or that there is so little of it left. Both ideas seem to induce the same level of incredulity.

The part of me that grew up the son of a forester almost literally in the middle of the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest is stunned by the fact that so little native flora remains. The part of me that has lived in New York City for the past four years cannot believe someone had enough foresight to save any of it.

Image courtesy

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Bearden Place Competition | Jay Isenberg

As I write this, Twin Cities architects are hurriedly completing their submissions (due Wednesday) for Bearden Place: A Housing Competition in the Artists' Core. If you're hearing about this for the first time, it's probably too late to enter, but I'd love you to follow our progress as we re-envision vacancy in Minneapolis. In the meantime, I thought a little background might be interesting.

The Competition is a natural outgrowth of my interest and recent work in creating situations where architects are challenged to engage creatively, yet differently in the social, political and cultural forces that shape our environment and impact our work.

I had been a consultant for the Family Housing Fund and had been spending time with the Willard Homewood neighborhood group guiding them in efforts to visualize the housing situation in their immediate neighborhood using GIS mapping techniques and graphics. The housing crisis was in full throttle, this neighborhood was very committed to rebuilding itself, and there was a dearth of new ideas coming from the usual suspects. I would drive by this vacant site on the corner of Plymouth and Sheridan Avenues North and think what a great opportunity this would be for a project that would demonstrate all the best intentions of the many people and groups I had come across who were working so hard to combat the housing crisis. This group included architects, and it was not a great leap to think what might happen if a design competition was held and dozens of architects had the opportunity to bring their collective skills and creativity to bear upon the site and the conditions that allowed such an important piece of the neighborhood to remain empty.

My motivations and intentions with this competition are as numerous as the disparate parties involved, which include the City, the Builders, the neighborhood, and the design community. However, each in their own way shares an overriding desire to support a project that demonstrates the possibility of great, affordable and sustainable housing design that would serve as the benchmark for future inner city development efforts. Finding the magic balance among the design submissions that most likely allows for the construction and successful sale of all units will be the charge and duty of the jury.

I'm particularly interested in whether a process defined by partnering, collaboration and identification of shared goals can deliver something superior to the traditional development process, where architects and the community are asked to respond directly and specifically to a single development proposal and it's goals. While we are very good at this, I believe architects are called upon in too limited a manner and circumstance. I want architects at the table where policy making discussions occur and in other public situations that could benefit from design thinking and problem solving.

I hadn't heard of Romare Howard Bearden (1911-1988) before this competition, so I was pleased to be introduced to his work and history. We were seeking a name for the competition that wasn't too dry, too literal, or too much like a bad TV sitcom. It had to reflect the passion and hope of the residents who were trying to rebuild their neighborhood, who had branded it the "Artists' Core" and were hoping to attract young, vibrant, arts-oriented people to come purchase and revitalize the solid housing stock that still existed.

Romare Bearden was suggested as the appropriate namesake and whose most noted works are his large collages, the most notable being "The Block" which graces the pages of the Competition Program. His legacy is represented by the Bearden Foundation and fortunately they have given us permission to use his name and images for this project and are very interested in the outcomes. You can see his multifaceted work and find out more about this influential African American artist, educator, scholar, and social activist at the Bearden Foundation website. Read More......

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Big Shop of Wonders

Workshops fascinate me. I have always had some sort of workshop access, my grandfather had a hardware store in California, and although he had retired when I knew him, I still have tools and even a large box of screws and bolts from the store. Almost every place I have lived, no matter how small or mobile had some sort of shop or bench or box or packet with tools and materials to make stuff. Now I have a bigger and better and faster workshop, and still, whenever I walk into someone else’s workshop, especially one that has been occupied for some time, I get a grin on my face and start poking around, asking questions about tools, materials, projects, and the inevitable detritus that accumulates.

One of the first really great shops I had the pleasure to work in was at the Walker Art Center, when I worked on the crew. The crew built out the galleries for new shows, framed the pieces of art, built display furniture, installed shows and built some of the most beautiful crates for shipping and storing artwork I have ever seen. People on the crew were artists and craftsmen, all highly skilled and educated and working there because it gave them a chance to interact closely with the art and artists. We had a pretty nice shop, fairly spacious and with good tools, that enabled us to build most anything we needed for a show. The pay was terrible, they camaraderie great and the work we did was beautiful.

I stopped by the shop of a friend from those days, Willie Willette, recently and got the same goofy grin. His shop, Willie Willette Works, is huge, plenty of room for him and his four employees to move around, to store projects and materials. It was the materials that first widened my grin. Arrayed along one wall were slabs of natural edged wood, some of the mating pieces book-matched, waiting for the right client and inspiration. There were also a few scraps of what had been a load of 16 foot pieces of walnut, nearly two inches thick. Most of these had been turned into a huge table, the top of which showed the true nature of these beautiful pieces of wood. It is part of entire office suite, designed in a minimalist style, with a Loosian lack of ornament, which allows the beauty of this material to shine through. In the same room, hanging on pegs, Shaker style, were prototypes and a final version of the Melissa chair, Willettes dining chair. It is always great to see the process of design, and when that process is arrayed before you full scale, the steps taken become even clearer.

Willie and crew don’t just build to spec, they are involved in the design process. As I was poking around the shop, people were busy sanding, scribing, sawing and designing. They work collaboratively with architects and designers and seek those kinds of jobs. Everyone here has had some formal education in design, most at MCAD (one of the workers I had had in an architecture class I taught there). So they are all skilled designers as well as artisans. The work shows it as does the pleasure they obviously get from the design process. Here, like at the Walker, it is not the promise of profit that motivates one, but the inherent satisfaction that comes from working with bright and capable others to produce something functional, beautiful and well crafted.
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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A Clinic on Urban Form

Rochester, MN, is known for the Mayo Clinic, and rightfully so – though not in my opinion because of the international medical reputation, but because of urban design. The major Mayo buildings sit right downtown, within the city’s rectilinear street grid. They’re a perfectly mismatched blend of styles and histories that together seem more like a city than a campus (in the traditionally uniform sense).
Annenberg Plaza with four medical buildings: Mayo in the left foreground, Gonda in the left background, Plummer in the right foreground, and Siebens adjoining the Plummer.

Some of the streets have become plazas, but the grid is still there, and almost every building has an unexpected indoor-outdoor relationship. The Siebens Building’s ground floor is below street level, but angled windows allow the Annenberg and Peace Plazas into the atrium.
From the Plummer Building looking out on Annenberg Plaza.

The Gonda Building’s lofty Nathan Landow Atrium actually carves the land away, creating inside and outside lounge space below the bustle of the street. On the main level, expansive windows show off Rochester’s urban form.
The Nathan Landow Atrium, from the main (street) level.

Perhaps most strange is the Mathews Heritage Dome, which sits at the edge of Annenberg Plaza. This glass oculus provides a sky view to a lower level lounge, but also allows pedestrians outside to peek down into the building.
Peeping into the Mathews Heritage Dome, with the reflection of the Gonda Building superimposed on the lounge below.

The Mayo Clinic’s commitment to Rochester is well known, but I was struck with its commitment to that city’s urbanity. When it expanded over the years, this health institution could have easily decamped to a woodsy, ravine-studded estate in the hills outside of town. Instead it has created, through building placement and design, a venue that is as much about the city as it is about the clinic. Read More......

Thursday, April 01, 2010

MSCED - Brock Davis at Creative Electric

If an artist has a successful enough career, at some point people start to look through everything they did: Notes, sketches for ideas, unfinished projects, etc. I tend to really appreciate the fragments and pieces found on the side roads of an artist’s life and work even though it’s possible the artist never intended to share them. It feels like I can get closer to a body of work. I’m also a big believer that the failures in life and work generally teach us more than the successes.

On January 1st 2009, Minneapolis artist/designer Brock Davis started a project called “Make Something Cool Everyday”, which he did, for the whole year. Starting May 1st, you can see all 365 pieces of art on display at Creative Electric Studios in NE Minneapolis. Some are awesome, some probably not fully developed; some probably wouldn’t have made the cut in a different context. Seeing all the pieces together reminds me of what the work of an artist is really about: to see or imagine the world differently. And that’s a process, not a single act.

Brock was kind enough to answer a few questions about this project and his work.

Matt Olson - Can you talk a little bit about this project/show “Make Something Cool Everyday? “ What went into deciding to approach your work this way?

Brock Davis - I’m excited about the show. It took a couple of months of planning to figure out how best to present the work. I wanted viewers to get a sense of the timeline of the work, so that walking through the exhibit is like going through each day. All 365 pieces are going to be arranged in the geometric shapes of the calendar months of 2009. I then chose some standout pieces from each month and those pieces will be arranged around the 12 calendar cubes throughout the gallery.

MO - Do you see this year long project as one single work? Or are the individual pieces important to you as single works? Or both?

BD - I see it as both. There were some pieces that developed through the process that could stand on their own, but those pieces were birthed from the overall project, so I keep them attached. Whenever I would stumble upon something that was extendable, it was a good feeling as it gave me an idea of what the next few days would bring. Then those pieces would run their course and it was time for something new. The toughest part was thinking of a new idea. There were many times where I would look at the clock and I would only have an hour left in the day and I still had no idea what I was going to make. I always try to seek something original, which is almost impossible, but just trying to come up with something original can lead to some interesting ideas.

MO - How did this or might this project affect your practice in the future?

BD - A project like this shows all your sides, your consistencies, strengths, weaknesses. It pushed me into media I don’t usually work in, like sculpture and collage. It brought me back to media I haven’t done in a while, like sketching and painting. But I think the most important thing I learned was to pay more attention to my immediate surroundings and realize the creative potential in everyday, ordinary objects and situations. Most of the works in this project are pieces created in my house based on daily observations. Whether I was shaving, staring at a dead fly in a spider’s web or looking at a garden hose in the back yard. This project also taught me to work more efficiently and quickly. I tend to be obsessive-compulsive when it comes to execution, and in the past I would toil for longer periods of time over ideas and executions. This project was kind of like having a job. I would punch in every day and have to have something made (hopefully something interesting) by the end of the day. That pressure and schedule helped me to work more quickly and efficiently.

MO - Who are some of your favorite artists? Architects?

BD - Thomas Heatherwick is probably one of my favorite modern day inspirations...I also like Kim Hiorthoy, Brian Wilson, Stefan Sagmeister, Charley Harper, Paul Rand...and many more.

You can see the all the work created in this year long project here, but I recommend seeing the show for real:

“Make Something Cool Everyday” by Brock Davis - Presented by Creative Electric Studios at the California Buliding Gallery, 2205 NE California Street, Mpls MN

Saturday May 1st Through May 22nd Saturdays 10am-2pm or by Appointment
Opening Reception Saturday May 1st from 6:30 - 11pm Read More......

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Plain Sight | St. Anthony Park Library

Three Carnegie libraries opened in St. Paul in 1917 – Riverview, Arlington Hills, and St. Anthony Park – and all three were designed by the St. Paul City Architect's office. While they're almost identical, it's the St. Anthony Park branch which gets a clear geographical advantage. Located at the triangular intersection of Como and Carter Avenues, the stately facade is given a proper vantage point and park-like space from which it can be appreciated.

Furthermore, the library's proximity to local schools, universities, and housing make it the system's 5th busiest. In 2000, architect Phillip Broussard designed the addition of a children's reading room in the shape of a rotunda--perfectly complementing the classic geometry of this neighborhood gem. Read More......