How to Save the Structures We Love Most
By Stephen Starr
The unfolding tragedy in Miami has laid bare just how badly infrastructure needs upgrading in America. The doomed building in Surfside, constructed in 1981, was due for inspection before it collapsed in the early hours last Thursday. What’s more, engineers in 2018 found “major structural damage” to the site’s pool deck in addition to cracking and spalling of columns and beams in the building’s parking lot. Now all buildings aged 40 years and older in Miami are to be audited. At-risk infrastructure has been on the minds of U.S. politicians for some time, and last week, a deal reached by Republican and Democratic lawmakers to invest $1.2 trillion in the country’s infrastructure highlighted the acute need to invest in roads, bridges and housing nationwide.
grand designs at risk
Rockin’ the Casbah
It’s a bit of a maze. For many Middle Eastern metropolitan areas, historic city-center souks, or markets, are the beating heart of the community and local economy. But not the Casbah of Algiers district. About half of the more than 1,800 buildings and structures in the area, some of which date back a thousand years and are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been in disrepair for years. One-third of those were built in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Other reports suggest 1,200 buildings are in ruins, with many simply abandoned. The Algerian military, in power for decades, stubbornly refuses to allow much in the way of independent or outside help to restore the Casbah to life.
Knock on Teak, and Who’s Knocking Back
Across central Myanmar’s lowland villages, stunning traditional teak farmhouses are disappearing as farmers and young people alike choose to live in more contemporary housing with modern conveniences such as air conditioning. Half of the world’s wild-growing teak is in Myanmar, which has banned its export since 2014 to protect against illegal logging (plantation-grown teak was permitted for international sale in 2019). The survival of these farmhouses is so concerning that the World Monuments Fund has placed them on its watch list, while helping to raise funds for renovations, advocacy and owner support.
Toronto’s Modernist Icon Could Be Lost
When it debuted 50 years ago, Ontario Place helped Torontonians appreciate that the untouched part of their urban landscape included a full 70 miles of shoreline. Since then, urbanites who can’t afford to rent cottages further north have been able to experience the great outdoors in their own downtown. However, last year, the modernist icon found itself on the World Monuments Fund’s 2020 watch list owing to a call for redevelopment proposals. The provincial government is seeking to lease out the underused public site for private development, stirring concern and controversy, in part because the move was made without consulting the city and none of the proposals received thus far have been released.
Much Ado About New Machu Picchu Airport
The ancient Inca citadel nestled 8,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes used to attract more than 4,000 backpackers a day until restrictions to protect the 15th-century site were put in place a decade ago (with more issued this year). But that hasn’t dampened the Peruvian government’s appetite for cashing in on one of the world’s most famous ancient sites. In 2025, a new international airport will open, and with it access to travelers who aren’t strictly backpacking aficionados. Locals, according to Smithsonian Magazine, are divided about the airport. Héctor Cusicuna, the mayor of Chinchero, where the airport will be located, says the region has few other options. “We don’t have factories or mines,” he says. “We used to have agriculture, but it is not profitable.”
renovation, renovation, renovation
Kabul’s Urban Gardens Offer Oasis of Calm
In a country where ecological and architectural concerns have for decades been low on the list of priorities, the Afghan capital is now leaning on its past to make the crowded city of around 4.4 million a little more inhabitable. Dating back to the 16th century, Bagh-e Babur, or the Gardens of Babur, is now a 30-acre oasis, providing essential green space used by more than a million Kabul residents annually. Having cleared unexploded ordnance and restored the Garden Pavilion and the Queen’s Palace at the edge of the park, the space has served as the setting for cultural events and an essential meeting place for women in the city. “The security situation in Kabul is not so good, and many places are not safe. But it is peaceful and secure here, and we can be ourselves,” one young female student, speaking of the city’s Chihilsitoon Garden, told Reuters.
Taking Office Corridors Outside
The fear of a major earthquake shaped the approach taken for the $93.3 million rehabilitation of the century-old Pasadena City Hall in Los Angeles. But that wasn’t the only consideration: Instead of building a new network of indoor corridors, the architects, in a nod to its original ventilation design, decided that staff could simply use the existing outdoor arcades to move between offices. The result? The consumption of almost 25% less energy.
It’s Greek to Us: The Wrong Approach to Historic Renovation
The Acropolis of Athens is a marvel of the ancient world, and renovations have been undertaken on the citadel for decades. And yet, after all that time, the builders completing the restoration work are still making major mistakes. A recently installed concrete path has resulted in a wheelchair user falling and getting injured, while flooding has also occurred, likely as a result of . . . you guessed it . . . the new concrete paving. What’s more, many of the structures were originally painted in a variety of colors, counter to both popular understanding and the ongoing renovation work itself. That’s caused an outcry. Plans to renovate the western entrance have so riled academics they issued an open letter urging that the project be canceled for fear it will lead to the “devaluation, concealment and degradation of the greatest archaeological and artistic treasure that has been bequeathed to modern Greece.”
will it hold us?
A Bridge Too Far. No, Seriously.
London Bridge may not be falling, but 1 in 3 American bridges are in need of replacement or repair. You read that right. That adds up to 171.5 million daily crossings on over 45,000 structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. (and a whole lotta lives put at risk), according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Some, such as Idaho’s Interstate 35 over the Teton River, which sees just 16,000 daily crossings, are relatively minor transportation routes. Others pose a bigger risk, such as the I-95 over Comly Street in northeast Philadelphia, which sees more than 200,000 daily journeys.
Problema Numero Uno
The world looked on in horror when 26 people were killed last month by the collapse of a subway system overpass in Mexico City. The tragedy fueled protests, but it was just one symptom of a more serious ailment afflicting public facilities in the largest metropolis in the Americas. Of the city metro system’s 467 escalators, 22 are inoperable at any given time. Why? Seems that commuters keep peeing on them, and the resulting corrosion causes them to break down. It may seem comical, but it also highlights the fact that one of the largest subway systems in the world has almost no bathrooms. Even worse, Mexico City has no sanitary code for building public bathrooms, leading to a stinky mess.
Will China’s Glass Bridge Craze Finally Crack?
If you’re afraid of heights, look away. Thanks largely to a wealthy middle class seeking new forms of entertainment, glass-bottom bridges and skywalks have become part of the recreational fabric of parks and wilderness areas across China. The Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge, the world’s tallest and longest, is located in Hunan province. But these tourist traps are also becoming points of danger: People are falling or jumping from them, plunging to their deaths. In October 2019, the Chinese government temporarily closed the country’s 32 major glass bridges and skywalks following a series of deaths and close calls. With an estimated 2,300 such structures dotted across the country, some question whether they’re disasters waiting to happen. Last month, 93 mph winds shattered the glass floor of a structure in Longjing, capturing global headlines and renewing questions around safety.
Genoa’s New Tech-Savvy Bridge
When a section of the Morandi viaduct in Genoa collapsed in August 2018, it claimed 43 lives and severed a vital trade route between northern Italy and France. And yet, in just 18 months, the entire structure has been replaced. Why do engineers believe the new San Giorgio Bridge will last a thousand years? Sure, it’s equipped with photovoltaic and dehumidification systems, but it’s the cutting-edge monitoring tech — “accelerometers, extensometers, velocimeters, inclinometers and detectors for joint expansion” — that have designers resting easy.
rising star designers
Who You Callin’ Old?
China’s getting older. America’s getting older. Japan’s already old. So how do we rethink our urban landscapes to better suit elderly and differently abled residents? Poland-born Joanna Asia Grzybowska is the founder of London’s Mycelium Studio, which runs an “empathy tour and workshop.” Participants don so-called senior suits to feel what it’s like to age and can try out other items to allow them to experience London from varying points of view, whether from a wheelchair or stroller, or as a blind person or pregnant woman. Named a rising star in 2019 by architecture’s RIBA Journal, Grzybowska is “working in areas frequently overlooked by architecture,” noted competition judge Louise Wyman.
A Medical Job for Shipping Containers
Future pandemics are just a sneeze away, experts say. And that means an infrastructure to quickly immunize people will become an essential feature of 21st-century life. With schools and other public spaces reopening, we can’t rely on them as vaccination centers for thousands of people. Enter Andrew Waugh of London-based Waugh Thistleton Architects. His company’s idea? To deploy shipping containers as mobile vaccination units. “Shipping containers are the perfect structure for this use. We have a stockpile of them in this country,” the firm says. “Their linear form suits the through-put nature of the (vaccination) process.”
Where the Sidewalk School Begins
It’s a learning experience. Felicia Rangel-Samponaro of Brownsville, Texas, tells OZY she’s been using her own money and a GoFundMe campaign to buy more than 300 tablets for dozens of school-aged students as part of The Sidewalk School for child asylum-seekers. Set up in August 2019, the group has hired 20 teachers, all asylum-seekers themselves, to operate in Mexican border cities such as Matamoros, Reynosa and Ciudad Juárez. Rangel-Samponaro says demand is so high that she has teamed up with nonprofits to open a satellite campus in a refugee encampment in Malawi by the end of the year. “The unique thing about The Sidewalk School is that it’s all via Zoom and that’s how we’re able to be in so many cities at one time,” Rangel-Samponaro tells OZY. “All the kids go to class at the same time, with the same teacher.”
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake shattered Nepal in April 2015, claiming almost 9,000 lives and causing enormous damage to the Kathmandu Valley’s majestic Hindu temples and shrines and Buddhist stupas. But Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, a conservation organization involved in rebuilding several significant sites, has taken an open approach to the renovation effort by allowing the public to see what’s going on. “In all our projects we have transparent fencing so that people can see from outside,” he says. Groups overseeing restoration work in Patan Durbar Square, another group of temples and shrines 30 minutes south of Kathmandu city center, are even allowing the public to walk near the craftsmen as they go about their work.
- Stephen Starr, OZY Author Contact Stephen Starr