Robert S. Duncanson and the Birthright of Landscape


In his 1838 “Essay on American Scenery,” Thomas Cole—the celebrated “founding father” of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting—wrote that American landscapes are:

a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic—explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity—all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!

Emma CroweRobert S. Duncanson and the Birthright of Landscape

Erik Hougen: to Dissolve Place


Curated by: JEFF BERGMAN

In reference to photography, Roland Barthes wrote that its unique position among art was that it referred directly to something “that has been.” Erik Hougen’s paintings hint at that premise; they offer places both familiar and alien, which forces the part of our brain that codifies and organizes images to guess where and when. This dialogue, or rather confusion, between viewer and image is exactly what the artist is working towards. Hougen invites us to a location and time that may not exist. The mind attempts to classify the exact place, but ends up submitting to a notion of place.

Emma CroweErik Hougen: to Dissolve Place

Scenes for Super Towers

Introduction by SCOTT GEIGERphotos by JAMES EWING

new york view

A couple years ago, on the verge of the global collapse, structural engineer Guy Nordenson did an interview with me for a literary monthly, The Believer. The magazine’s title quote ran, “The tall building, as a type, is exhausted.” You could no longer put together a tall office building or a mixed-use tower in a new way, Nordenson felt. World Trade Center Tower One or maybe the CCTV Building in Beijing, depending on your architectural orientation, closed out the skyscraper play, at least in terms of engineering and architectural innovation.

These last two years, though, exotic forces in global finance have conspired to construct in the Manhattan street grid a radically new tall building typology. The super towers, or “billionaires’ beanstalks,” as New York Magazine’s architecture critic Justin Davidson described them, are stacks of full-floor loft apartments (sometimes duplexes) rising into the blue. The forthcoming 111 West 57th Tower, featured on its architect’s website, shows the sheer building arising from a tiny claw hold in Manhattan.

To realize such super towers, their developers and architects have to delicately escort them through New York City municipal agencies and community boards. They must also sell the apartment units, often to prospective owners who do not live in New York City or even in the United States. Architectural renderings do this work. These are digital collages of one or more real photographs, upon which is imposed a scintillating computer-generated image produced from three-dimensional architectural design software. There are whole design agencies, like rendering pioneers DBOX, who specialize solely in the production of these very high-resolution illusions for use in real estate marketing.

Over the summer I learned that Brooklyn architectural photographer James Ewing has regular commissions to document the urban fabric surrounding Manhattan commercial developments. He sometimes even photographs the open airspace around future super towers. To make such images, Ewing accessed the terraces and mechanical rooms of neighboring high-rise towers, waiting long hours for the weather to clear, the daylight or the darkness to settle just so. After studying architectural renderings for a few years now, I’ve concluded that their appeal comes not from their dazzling subjects but from the everyday real upon which the proposed architecture trespasses.

Ewing shot the images below to serve as backgrounds to architectural renderings, which will tease out a counterlife to the city. A knowing consciousness animates the photographs, I feel. His views frame a cumulative, sculptural Manhattan. No sign of street life. Instead, this subjectivity sees a geometric landscape of facades and windowwalls—each building nothing so exotic or radical as the crystallization of market forces past. Especially dramatic to see is the form of the cumulative city juxtaposed to the Hudson and East Rivers at its edge. To the subjectivity within these images, super towers feel only inevitable, the next phase in New York City’s continuous and speculative growth under the sky.

—Scott Geiger

view of the empire state


high rises



Scott Geiger is the Architecture Editor for The Common.
Photographs by James Ewing.

Julia PikeScenes for Super Towers

Words Often Unheard


In August 2013, Amherst College acquired one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American Indian authors ever assembled by a private collector. This collection, from Pablo Eisenberg, consists of about 1,500 books that include poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, and many other works. Even texts by some of the first Native American Indian writers to be published in their lifetimes, such as Samson Occom, William Apess, and Elias Boudinot, are a part of this vast collection. The Robert Frost Library seeks to show as much as possible of the history of Native American writing and philosophy in their exhibit: The Younghee Kim-Wait Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection.

Emma CroweWords Often Unheard

Photographing the New Nature


photographer in a garden

We were back in the Hudson Valley, in the marvelous town of Beacon, to make some images of a new park on the solstice. I found Brooklyn photographer James Ewing stalking the faint pre-dawn, about 5:15AM. A golden haze that had built behind the Hudson Highlands, in an instant, crested over to illuminate this little riverfront peninsula. We scrambled to make the most of the sun, searching out the best views, the right moments. The whole Saturday passed this way, really, though with less urgency than those first minutes. All across Beacon’s Long Dock Park, in a bit of solar sport, we either laid traps ahead of or chased just behind the light.

Julia PikePhotographing the New Nature

A Living Infrastructure


people by the ocean

Oysters in the Raritan Bay, courtesy of SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Next week Thursday, April 3, the amazing Rebuild by Design competition concludes in New York City. The finale event on Vesey Street in Manhattan is open to the public, and I think it well worth attending, even if you’re only just now learning about the competition. I’ve wanted to write about this competition since its launch last summer, and now as it comes to a close I can speculate a little about its significance.

Julia PikeA Living Infrastructure

Sound City


Emeka Ogboh | Bus

Lagos, Nigeria is growing fast but travels slow. The city, which is Africa’s largest, has doubled in population within the past seventeen years, crowding its roads and bridges with many millions of people – too many for the city’s recent infrastructure investments to keep up. Traffic jams, called go-slows, ensue. But while Danfos, the yellow minibuses that are public transportation in Lagos, tend to get stuck, its passengers don’t. While buses crawl, Lagosians move: playing street music, revving engines, hawking products, shouting directions and taking phone calls.

Emma CroweSound City

What Is RiverFirst?


map of river

The Mississippi River meets only one waterfall on its wayward transcontinental course. It comes early, in the northern Midwest, at a site the Sioux knew as a place that was part real world, part spirit world. Seventeenth-century adventurers rumored about a “pigmy Niagra” called St. Anthony Falls. Pioneers from the young United States reached these waters early in the nineteenth century; they established simple mills for grist and lumber just as soon as property rights could be legally defined.The mills grew and industrialized over decades, triggering the rise of Minneapolis. A feature of nature became a technology servicing the city. The names Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury still loom in enormous metal type on opposite sides of the historic railway bridge leading into Minneapolis that was new when F. Scott Fitzgerald was a boy. The historic mills themselves have gone, though, and today Stone Arch Bridge belongs to pedestrians, cyclists, and the students of the University of Minnesota. Looking north from the bridge they see an amphitheater of a spillway, tall gray waters pouring between a research lab and hydroelectric plant on the east side; a lock-dam barge elevator run by the Army Corps of Engineers on the west.

Two modern Minneapolises meet at St. Anthony Falls. The first is a Midwestern city of commercial real estate, of skybridges, of eight-lane intersections, and Mall of America Field. A second Minneapolis comprises the 6,725 acres of green space administered by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. In the 1880s, landscape architect Horace Cleveland designed a circuitous park to preserve and connect the region’s most beautiful natural features: its lakes, Minnehaha Falls, and the western Mississippi Riverfront. The Grand Rounds, as Cleveland deemed his park system, preserved the scale and character of American nature for the refreshment and recreation of the emerging industrial city. A century and a half later, the city’s economy is radically different, yet the parks remain intact, pristine. A third kind of Minneapolis, emerging today, will leverage the Grand Rounds and sites like St. Anthony Falls to reform the rest of the city toward a sustainable balance with the cycles and systems of nature.

birds eye view of buildings and park

Over the past year, “Buckminster” entries for The Common have auditioned the literary potential of certain kinds of architectural documentation and design media. RiverFirst is a proposal for a new Minneapolis, represented with writings and architectural media created by Berkeley-based landscape architect Tom Leader. Yes, it proposes a series of interventions across the city, some achievable in the near term, others that might be implemented over twenty years. But unlike a city master plan, its commissioners have no political power, no money to implement the vision. RiverFirst is instead a cultural campaign to align many people and organizations around a shared tomorrow.

In 2010, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board worked with a local activist named Mary deLaittre to produce a design competition for a framework vision for the future of their Mississippi riverfront. The competition’s strategic area ran north from St. Anthony Falls for five miles, and projected a future in which the historic industrial waterfronts transform into parklands. The winning entry came from Tom Leader Studio, with architects Kennedy & Violich of Boston in collaboration with fifteen other entities and organizations, from structural engineers to botanists, global real estate analysts to Minneapolis-local community groups. RiverFirst was Leader’s title for their effort, and the competition entry included a logo that the campaign has since adopted. New parks and bridges improve the patterns and means of circulation throughout Minneapolis. Renewed wildlife habitats create an ecological infrastructure for the city: city-wide stormwater filtration ends combined sewer overflow, “soft” edges along the river guard against spring floods, and new trees extend the cooling benefits of urban canopies to relieve the city from summer heat. Meanwhile, Minneapolitan quality of life re-prioritizes the Mississippi River as the city’s focus.

poster of riverfirst guiding principles

Since the competition, Mary deLaittre has taken up advocacy for RiverFirst through a new nonprofit agency called the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Their agenda is not merely to illustrate possibility, but to animate the community and the government to act upon possibilities identified by Tom Leader Studio’s team. The center of this advocacy is through the RiverFirst campaign website. But the Parks Foundation also runs public education programs, events, and a lecture series in collaboration with the Walker Art Center.

RiverFirst appeals to Minneapolitans through an amalgam of fact and fiction. Architectural media enumerates its intentions: diagrams, plans, and sectional perspectives, which are three-dimensional drawings that slice up the landscape like a piece of cake to reveal topography and subsurface soils and geology. Tom Leader Studio’s team also chose to envision futures for key sites along the east and west riverfronts, depicting these new parks in aerial perspectives and imaginary scenes generated from parametric modeling software and polished in Adobe PhotoShop.

priority projects

The new Minneapolis makes its debut through these rendered images of RiverFirst. Their lighting is natural, colors toned modestly. Ordinary people texture their edges, gazing into the parklands. But the proposed projects do vary by degrees of complexity, with their implementation set to take place over years. Some pieces of RiverFirst will be built in the next five years, others in the next twenty. An extension of the trail system further north is easy to visualize, but RiverFirst’s long duration schedule invites science fiction.  One such spectacle is Scherer Park, a new island with a swim beach on the site of a former lumberyard. There are also new bridges exclusively for pedestrians. And a network of floating artificial islands, described as Biohavens, appears to clean the Mississippi and support wildlife habitats. We see in these schemes not only the Mississippi landscape futures, but the actions of Minneapolitans imagined in the throes of daily life.

Which other classes of culture operate at such scales? Involving so much land? And over such a duration of time?

Hollywood films and TV shows can support broadly popular and occasionally even enduring works of art. They ask nothing beyond appreciation and the price of admission though. Commercial advertising positions before audiences the products or luminous brands that bid to transform your life. We carry home an iPad or laptop, taking into ourselves a little of Apple. Then what?

mockup in park

The success of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation’s mission to steer the entire city toward a superior future will rely on the RiverFirst vision almost as a founding text. In this way the project resembles a social movement or a political campaign. Except that the Minneapolis of tomorrow will be brokered in mosaic, year by year, as lands are acquired and funds secured. The needs of local communities will change; new opportunities will appear, technologies surely will evolve. January brought news that the U.S. Army Corps will decommission its barge elevator, and last week saw the first public work session for a RiverFirst priority project site—St. Anthony Falls, to be designed by landscape architect Kate Orff as Water Works Park.

What is RiverFirst? Most generally, it appears to be a flexible, shared story about the city’s future, addressing government policy, real estate, ecology, wild life habitat, public space, sustainability, and daily life. The protagonists will be a generation of Minneapolitans making up real lives in the imagined landscapes of a city coming into alignment with its natural surroundings.


Scott Geiger is the Architecture Editor for The Common. His fiction has earned a Pushcart Prize and a 2012 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

Julia PikeWhat Is RiverFirst?

Sidney Waugh, Monuments Man



Sidney Waugh was a twentieth-century sculptor best known for architectural and large-scale works on the one hand, and for smaller designs for glass and medallions on the other. As lead creative artist at Steuben Glass in New York, he elevated glass to a fine art medium, while also designing many public and private monuments on the East Coast of the United States.

Julia PikeSidney Waugh, Monuments Man

A Pilgrimage to 5 Pointz


5 Pointz

From the elevated train in Queens, I’d glimpse the phantasmagoria that was 5 Pointz. A riot of color and occasional faces covering every inch of the old, block-long factory, it felt hallucinatory. In a minute—not enough time for the eye or brain to take it all in—the images vanished and the train rumbled underground, heading to Manhattan.

Julia PikeA Pilgrimage to 5 Pointz