Melissa Hope Matlins

Sponge Parks for Superfund Sites
May 7, 2009, 4:32 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Green, Sustainability, Urbanism

Brooklyn’s own Gowanus Canal is on the verge of becoming a Superfund site, pretty incredible since my friend was spotted paddling down the Canal in January, clearly at his own peril. The pending Superfund declaration has generated significant debate about how, exactly, the polluted waterway will be remediated. The industrial polluters that once lined the Gowanus are long-gone, but New York City’s own 19th century sewer system, which combines sewage from buildings with stormwater from streets, empties into the Canal and other waterways surrounding the city practically every time it rains. (It has been raining for almost a week straight here, so it’s on my mind.)

ARO Principal Stephen Cassell, and his friend Susannah Drake, Principal at dlandstudio, have a proposal for you – “Sponge Parks” along the Canal that will harness the incredible absorptive power of dirt and plant roots to capture water where it hits the ground, stemming the tide of stormwater that slicks our urban surfaces, building rooftops, sidewalks and roads. I have to admit, the term Sponge Park sounds pretty fun, a place that you might want to hang out in, enjoy the weather and such. It a significant improvement over the industry terminology of bioswales and rain gardens; the former sounding too technical and the latter sounding too age of Aquarius.

Via: WNYC Cityscapes project


Green. Simple. Funny.


Environmentalism is serious, complicated business, so a bit of humor on the subject is quite refreshing, especially when the jokes call attention to simple green solutions. I had a good laugh over the “Tongue-in-Cheek Guide for Green Gadget Buyers” in Fast Company this month, especially the recession-friendly “efficiency toggle” that “can achieve a 100% reduction in power usage.” Building daylight monitors and occupancy sensors are cool, but lets not forget that the simple act of turning off the lights (like your parents told you to) doesn’t require a complicated calculation to determine the payback period.

Via: Fast Company

Lieb House, Boat?
March 13, 2009, 3:29 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, New York City | Tags: ,

I think that most architects would argue that what distinguishes their work from art is a consideration of “context.” Architects like that word – context – and it can be used to describe everything from a skyscraper to a schoolchild. When there is a disjunction between a building and its context, it is often because the neighborhood changes around it, or the building is adapted to another use or program. But every so often a disjunction occurs when a building is actually removed from its context, and transported via barge up the East River perhaps.


The Lieb House, designed by Pritzker Prize winner Robert Venturi of Venturi Scott Brown Associates, is a notable 1,500 square foot beach house that lived on a large lot in New Jersey – until recently. To save the structure from demolition, the house was purchased by a couple who happen to own another Venturi-designed house. The Lieb House will be joining their Kalpakjian House in Glen Cove, Long Island.

More pictures here

The New Design Ascetic
February 23, 2009, 9:50 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Green, Sustainability

At their most relevant, design objects are a reflection of the moment that we live in. In leaner times, design downsizes accordingly, casting off the trappings of the baroque in favor of an austere, and even ascetic, sensibility.

The coveted objects of the past decade were born of excess and eschewed function in favor of frivolity. If I had to select one piece as a symbol of this heady time, I would single out the absurdly oversized chandelier.

The oversized chandelier is an entirely non-functional object. Unless you harbor a devious plan to incapacitate a ballroom’s worth of revelers in a very dramatic fashion, you probably don’t need one. A new asceticism, coupled with a renewed interest in ecology, is paring design back to its roots in function. The oversized chandelier has been usurped by the humble compact fluorescent bulb. The chandelier-lovers deride it, but it looks like progress to me, and its going to light the way toward a more purposeful future for design.


Must we repent, banish decoration and bathe in dumpsters? Probably no. (Although it does look roomy.) But as designers, we may want to take a hard look at the detritus around us and put our thinking caps on. I don’t want to see another bathtub carved from a single chunk of marble excised from the ground at the opposite end of the earth in a pricey apartment, pretty much ever again. There has to be a more intelligent way to make things.

Dumpster bathtub image via MAKE

Empire State Building Tickled Pink
February 20, 2009, 7:50 pm
Filed under: Architecture, New York City

The canyon-like streets between New York City’s tall towers sometimes create strange and wonderful natural lighting effects. For example, there are photos all over the web of Manhattanhenge, an evening every summer when the sun aligns perfectly with Manhattan’s east-west streets.

I catch a sliver of the Empire State Building out of my window at work, and towards sunset last night the low winter sun lit up the building like a giant pink floodlight for about five minutes.


CCTV Fire Signals the End of Boomtown Architecture
February 10, 2009, 3:18 am
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Urbanism


Incredibly, all it seemed to take was a few sparks from the Lunar New Year’s celebrations to ignite a 500 foot high tower, part of Beijing’s iconic new CCTV development, designed by Rem Koolhaas of OMA. Thankfully the structure was unoccupied, so we can ponder the figurative meaning of this destruction, and not the mourn the loss of life, surprising considering how close this person got to the blaze.

If the end of the olympic games marked the technical end date of China’s great building boom, this fire has surely marked the symbolic end. This building pair was cutely dubbed the “underpants” and “boot” because of their radical shapes. From some angles, it would appear that the boot was kicking the underpants forward, almost encouraging the CCTV tower, and China by extension, to stride confidently into the future. At the time the building was conceived in 2004, the future was an endless building boom for China, fueled by a surge in US consumer spending. I think we know how that turned out.

A massive urban development, an abundance of cheap labor and financing, a star architect, an ambitious design, a worldwide event, a now vacant tower, a project over budget, a year or more behind schedule, finally a huge burnout. It’s like the program summary of an avant garde opera. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger, recognizing the building’s flair for drama, recently wrote: “a building which I had thought was going to be a pretentious piece of structural exhibitionism—turned out to be a compelling and exciting piece of structural exhibitionism.”

Below, a rendering of the CCTV development in happier times.


Photograph: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images via Times Online

Architecture’s Ten Best of 2008 by Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker

Going Green in Antarctica
February 5, 2009, 7:51 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Green, Sustainability, Travel


In some ways, designing for a climate like Antarctica is like designing for another planet. That is exactly what I thought when I saw my friend Ken’s pictures of McMurdo Station, like the one above – this is what a future human settlement on Mars will look like. Not like the Jetsons house at all. Just bunkerlike, uninspiring, unsustainable, and thoroughly un-designed! And how unfortunate, because the idea of designing a building to house all those arctic researchers, ice pioneers and  penguin aficionados that could be both beautiful and green is darn exciting.

That is exactly why I find this design competition for a “green” research station in Antarctica so intriguing. And not just a little bit green, but zero carbon emissions no less! I am imagining some sort of igloo, but with solar panels on it? I am really looking forward to seeing the results.

Competition via: Bustler

More Antarctica fabulousness: SpaceBit