Featured AEF Traveling Scholarship – Luc Bamberger, Assoc. AIA

Luc Bamberger PhotoThis week’s featured post is from one of the 2014 AEF traveling scholarship winners, Luc Bamberger, Assoc. AIA.


After observing the spectacle of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I took a step back and pondered the event as a designer of the built environment. How would the facilities—that required such a massive outlay of resources, estimated at $51B—be used after the athletes went home? Unfortunately, I think the legacy will be short lived. The venues seemed more an exercise of fleeting hubris than long-term place making.bamberger-aec-06

During the summer of 2014, I was fortunate to travel to London and to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site of the 2012 games, to study in person a successful Olympic legacy. It is an example of resources well spent in the creation of not only a world-class athletic forum, but also new neighborhoods positioned to live and thrive into the future.

Prior to taking the trip, I had read much about the years of planning that went into the redevelopment of the site in East London. The coalition of community groups, local government, and private developers appeared committed to not only providing the necessary venues for the games, but also housing, schools, and the infrastructure necessary to connect them to surrounding boroughs and the rest of London. I was skeptical that this might be marketing spin used by the organizers to justify the outlay of nearly $15B. The games that were billed as the austerity games—due to their genesis during the recession that began in 2008—had already ballooned into the territory of other recent games, including $15B for Athens in 2004. bamberger-aec-05

Spending time on the grounds and in the venues of the Olympic Park, I was struck by the life and vitality of the public spaces that had been created. Gardens, playgrounds, waterparks, walking and biking paths were alive with people of all ages enjoying a summer day in East London. Two major venues from the games that I visited, the Aquatics Centre and the Lee Valley Velo Park, have recently opened to the public and are heavily used. The Aquatics Centre was designed to be converted post-games by removing large pods of audience seating to better facilitate day-to-day use patterns. It was encouraging to see these engaging and inspiring pieces of architecture becoming real community places that will be used for many years to come. Both venues operate like any other public recreation center in London, with classes, bicycle and swim meets, and general use, all for a nominal fee. These facilities exemplify the success of the planning, foresight, and overall execution of the Olympic plan.

Outdoor public spaces were equally inspiring and also well used. The park is built around a bamberger-aec-04series of existing canals and waterways that have been cleaned up from their days as a huge industrial wasteland. These canals—along with their walking and biking paths—are the connective fibers that weave through and bind the district together, while also connecting it to the transportation networks of the surrounding boroughs. Gathering spaces are a thoughtful mix of both large and small scale, from formal to informal. The wonders of contemporary British landscape architecture and garden design mixed playfully with an architectural landscape that runs the spectrum from the works of the some of the world’s biggest talents to a humble welcome center that skillfully reimagines the industrial leftovers of the site.

The Legacy Corporation (the local planning authority for the venues and site of the 2012 London Games) set out four priority themes to help guide their actions: promoting convergence and community participation, championing equalities and inclusion, ensuring high quality design, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Through coalition building, planning for adaptation and reuse of venues, and the establishment of vital infrastructure, the group was able to create a place that is vibrant and inclusive, even after the last Olympians have gone home. Time will tell if the housing, schools, and businesses of the newly formed neighborhoods will take root and thrive long-term. At least the future wellbeing and sustainability of the area was planned for and funded, which is more than has happened for the venues of many past games. The area has been left with a strong base of infrastructure—from roadways, rail lines, pedestrian and bicycle paths; to parks, recreation centers, housing and schools—that will serve as a foundation for future vitality.

Of course this all came at a price: nearly $6.4B in public money for just the building and repurposing of the infrastructure from the London games. There has been discussion of Denver hosting a Winter Olympics in the future, which could be an exciting opportunity to leverage an event of this scale to revitalize needed infrastructure in our under-served neigbamberger-aec-03hborhoods. However, with the current aversion to public funds being spent on large-scale projects, it would be very challenging to come to the table with enough money to match what was accomplished in London. The charge for us as designers of the built environment is to take the lessons learned—including aligning stakeholder goals and community needs in order to develop well designed infrastructure that will sustainably serve neighborhoods over the long-term—and to apply them to any major project we undertake, beyond just the dream of a possible Olympics, in order to build healthy communities that will inspire and energize all of us for years to come.

“Bad architecture”… I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it…

“Bad architecture” is a difficult thing to quantify. There are almost never right or wrong answers to all problems. People have opinions a mile long when it comes to design aesthetics and what makes a building good or bad. If you ask some one specifically what bad architecture looks like, most will give vague notions of examples or recent trends. More often than not, though, those questions are answered with the same, age-old adage: I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion put on by the Denver Architectural Foundation titled “Re: Denver”. The discussion focused primarily on what exactly is “bad architecture” and what are some things that create vibrant and successful architecture.

When giving examples of poor architecture, or “fugly” buildings as some called them, the most common themes within the examples were ones that used tacky materials and those that barely acknowledged the presence of any sort of context. They are wholly insular and turn their backs to their neighbors. The most tangible example was the very common (at least in Denver) three-story townhome that is built with it’s side to the street, completely covers the lot it’s on, and has all of it’s front doors away from the public realm.

How all of these townhomes and large-scale multi-family developments will be judged over time is difficult to say. While density itself is not a bad thing at all, the manner in which it is achieved is most likely leaving something to be desired. Is it possible that some of these buildings will grow to be revered? Will people say to each other in fifty years “I’m really looking for something with a classic fiber cement panel look to it… That’s just such a timeless style”? You could probably guess what my answer would be.

The one positive thing I will say about these developments: they are adding layers to the city fabric. The point was made by one of the panelists, Jeff Sheppard, that some of the most vibrant cities and communities are those that have a number of layers to them, which helps give them a deep sense of character. This is achieved through a variety of people, businesses, amenities, and activated streets. These neighborhoods and areas are not built all at one time by a mega-developer, but instead are cultivated over time as pieces get added to the patchwork quilt of a city context.

Let’s be honest, some of these buildings are just awful. There is no getting around that and we will all have to live with the choices that some people made for our neighborhoods and cities. However, the fact that they are helping to add a potential layer to the their overall context through their users is a good thing. Although the buildings themselves might be total eyesores in some cases, they do help to enliven an area. That, at least, is contributing somewhat to the idea of a layered city and increasing its depth of character.

Hopefully our generation won’t be known as the ones that tried to create density without taking the time to do it right. Hopefully we won’t be the ones that create all of these buildings that are demolished in a few decades because they weren’t built to last and people just cannot stand to look at them anymore. We have the opportunity to be the ones that help to reinvigorate urban cores in a sustainable and community-centric manner.

With any luck, we will be known for putting people first through smart urban development and not as the generation who went on a shopping spree at the “mediocre building materials grab bin”.

Fingers crossed.

AIA Look Up Film Challenge

Don’t have 4th of July plans?

Why not channel your inner-filmmaker and enter the AIA’s “Look Up Film Challenge?”

A part of the AIA’s recent “I look up” campaign, the AIA is looking for submissions of short, 3-5 minute films from teams of 1-3 person collaborations that “illuminates how architecture enriches our lives and our communities.”

Register by July 15th to receive the AIA’s “secret prompt” on July 17th. Winners will be notified in September and earn an award of a cool $3000, two SXSW Film Festival Badges, two round-trip flights to Austin, Texas, a one-on-one session with a media professional, and national distribution of their film.

For more information as well as an inspiring example story featuring Chris Downey, an architect that returned to practice after losing his sight, go here: http://ilookup.org/filmchallenge/.

Happy filming, and Happy Fourth of July!

If not an intern…what? 

It feels like recently NCARB is changing everything from IDP to AREs and even the name of our licensing advisors or more historically known as IDP coordinators.  At the 2015 convention in Atlanta NCARB made an even bigger announcement. They have eliminated the term “intern” from their vocabulary. 

What does this mean? NCARB states that “The new term? There isn’t one. Just don’t use ‘intern.'”

“Architects are those who have met all the requirements to become licensed in states and jurisdictions throughout the United States,” said NCARB President Dale McKinney, FAIA, NCARB. “Everyone else is not an architect. But their status also doesn’t need a regulatory title such as ‘intern’ or any similar reference. This has become a term that has been perceived as negative by many in the architecture community and a term that really does not fully value the work that aspiring architects bring to the profession.”

So now that we can’t be called architects or interns, what are we? 

We are…designers, leaders, activists, coordinators, project managers, and so much more. I believe this change is positive.  The confusion I have faced when telling someone outside the profession that I am an intern is disconcerting. We have worked hard to be where we are. For some of us, we have a long way to go. For others, they have been in the profession for years. They are running firms, owning firms, designing major projects.  Some even reside outside of the traditional realm of architecture. All of the above are invaluable people to help better the built environment. Let’s stop watering down their work and the value they bring to the profession by calling them “interns”. 

I am well aware this topic has been debated excessively in the past few years. But the day we stop debating these changes and furthering the profession in our constantly changing world is the day we become irrelevant as s profession.  The world is a constantly changing place. I heard on the radio today there are now more millennials than baby boomers. We will discuss the millennials in a future blog post, but it’s a telling sign that the profession and the changes NCARB keeps making are thoughtful and relevant to the world we now live and work in. 

If you feel lost without a title, take this opportunity to talk with your firm leaders and your local AIA office on what is appropriate. Personally, I am a Project Coordinator and using this term is so much more rewarding. I hope to call myself an architect one day. But for now, I am celebrating I don’t have to be classified as an “intern”. 

The Value of Outreach

If we think back to when we were ten years old, what did we believe architecture was? What about in junior high or high school? What was the point at which we believed we had a basic understanding of architecture and what it meant to the world we live in? Or, when did we decide architecture was more than what we found out from George Costanza? Did we ever grow out of that state? For some, the answers to these questions are simple and straightforward. For others, there may not be exact answers to them.

Recently, our office had the opportunity to help with some of these answers via the Cleworth Architectural Legacy (CAL) program. CAL is a program organized through the Denver Architectural Foundation in Denver Public Schools where we attempt to teach a basic understanding of architecture and the process of creating our built environment to a classroom of young children. We had the opportunity to work with a group of fourth grade students at University Prep in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver to create “space architecture”.

Because the idea of “space architecture” is such an abstract one that continues to fuel speculative and fantastical designs from even the most world renowned architects, it seemed like a great opportunity to allow the students to delve into the world of planning, three-dimensional space organization, and abstract concepts. While most students had a great time with the multi-week project, some did not see the point of creating something so impractical. After all, seeing the value of designing buildings and neighborhoods down to the stairway that you ascend every morning isn’t always readily apparent by using sticks, marshmallows, and plastic wrap to create colonies on Mars.

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That all being said, providing an outlet for fourth grade students to think about a community in which they imagine themselves living helps to provide a lifelong lesson, even if it is only over the course of few months. If we were all given the opportunity to imagine and physically create, even abstractly, the ideal environments in which we would like to live, would we still be living in the same environment today? Or would the value of design have been rooted deeply within us to demand higher standards?

This is all a very far-reaching claim to make from a few weeks working with fifty students in a single city. But, I can’t help but wonder what our buildings would look like if the public at large was more informed about architecture and held it to a higher standard from a very early age. I would venture to say that we would demand that our buildings perform at a higher rate, be more user driven, and push the envelope as far as possible in regards to aesthetics and a cohesive urban environment.

Ultimately, the point of architects reaching out to children is to help further the understanding of the value of architecture and design within the every day lives of every person. It may turn out that only a couple of these students pursue architecture as a career path and it may turn out that none do. What is an invaluable message, though, is that the spaces and places that they inhabit were (usually) carefully planned and that there is a tremendous value to fully thinking about the spaces in which we occupy and move through everyday.

Otherwise, most people may just end up sitting around a diner with a few friends speculating on what architecture is and the fanciful and out of reach possibilities of such an industry.

george costanza - architect

Shameless plug: if you would like to get involved with  programs like CAL, please reach out to AIA Colorado or the Denver Architectural Foundation for more information.