Projects in Public Architecture March Newsletter


  • Launching March 15: Life at the Speed of Rail
  • Letter from New Orleans: Redesigning the Delta
  • Thanks for Sharing the Love!
  • World Architecture Festival Kick-Off
  • VAI Talks Megacities at London’s Ecobuild
  • ArtBridge and Epic Announce Between the Lines
  • Members’ Discount: The Fabric of the Garment District

How will high-speed rail change American life in the coming decades? At this critical moment for American infrastructure, Van Alen Institute is calling on the creative community to envision the cultural, environmental, and economic impacts of new rail networks on our world.

Launching on March 15, Life at the Speed of Rail seeks the visions of architects, planners, graphic designers, artists—anyone with a dream of the rail-rich future and the ways in which high-speed infrastructure can reshape our lives.

At a time when Congress is poised to debate billions worth of spending on federal transportation projects, we’re taking the conversation to the public. Because we need your help. American culture is driven by colorful stories and images, yet the story of high-speed rail has been told in black and white, with facts and figures (or drab maps and speeding bullet trains). It’s clear a broader vision is needed to add complexity and depth to this national discussion, and Life at the Speed of Rail is designed to offer just that.

Entrants will be asked to produce images and videos picturing the wide-ranging impacts that a new transportation network will have on their own community, whether urban or rural, rail-riding or car-centric, heartland or borderland. By collecting these ideas and images of a transformed nation—be they specific, pragmatic, or speculative—we’ll better understand the contours of our current moment and be better equipped to decide whether and how we might create new rail paradigms for the greater good.

The Life at the Speed of Rail website goes live on March 15. Be sure to check for full details—and get set to share your high-speed rail visions!




Flying into this coastal city—circling low over vanishing wetlands, vulnerable oil infrastructure, and receding bayou culture—the problem is easy to see: the Lower Mississippi River Delta is on the brink of collapse. Ecosystems, social systems, port networks, fisheries—nearly all aspects of this globally important swath of river, sea, and city are, as a state planner told us, “on the leading edge of erosion.”

On February 16 and 17, Van Alen Institute and our partners at Environmental Defense Fund convened an international conversation in New Orleans with engineering experts, coastal scientists, and state and local stakeholders for a progress report on the Lower Mississippi River Delta Design Initiative, a cross-disciplinary effort to reimagine a more sustainable future for one of the world’s most precious delta landscapes.

Today, Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are disappearing because the river’s land-building sediment has been diverted into the Gulf of Mexico by engineered control structures, levees, and dredging. We want to capture that sediment and restore the natural delta dynamic. We want to do it with the collaboration of navigation and oil interests. We want to do it in partnership with state and federal agencies. And above all, we want to do it while building social and economic assets for the people of Louisiana and beyond.

How do we get there? The Design Initiative is envisioned as a highly-competitive, two-phase RFP process that commissions engineers, coastal researchers, planners, architects, and landscape architects to work hand in hand. During a first phase, these multidisciplinary teams will generate world-class, realizable visions that reimagine the delta system as far as 300 miles upriver. During a second phase, one or more of these visions will be selected for further refinement. The results will be vetted by technical teams, leadership groups, and the public—and, we hope, ultimately guided into the region’s official planning efforts.

In New Orleans, we presented case studies from around the world. We debated hydrological models that form the core of the project’s technical brief. We considered different scenarios for the Initiative’s scope. And we discussed how the Initiative can align with planning efforts already under way, including Louisiana’s 2012 Master Plan, which gathers, studies, and evaluates hundreds of proposed projects to address ecosystem restoration and flood protection.

We know design can make a difference, especially on a canvas this big, this rich, and this important. As a colleague from New Orleans remarked, “We want you to show us the art of the possible.” At Van Alen Institute, that’s our specialty. Stay tuned—we’ll look forward to sharing further updates as our work continues.

The Mississippi River Delta





Participants discuss the Design Initiative in New Orleans.



Our VanAlentine’s Day Open House Brunch on February 12 was a rousing success, with another high-intensity edition of Design Speed Dating, our portfolio review series. Here’s a big round of applause for the event’s four emerging designers: Thomas Carruthers, Mustafa Faruki, Priyanka Shah, and Ife Vanable. And special thanks to critics James Biber, Susannah Drake, Lars Müller, and Frederieke Taylor for their generous and sharp-witted critiques. If you missed out, see the photos on our Facebook album, and find full-length video of Design Speed Dating on our Vimeo page. Enjoy!

Jim Biber addresses the group at Design Speed Dating.



On February 2, Van Alen was pleased to host the New York launch party for this year’s World Architecture Festival, set to take place on November 2–4 in Barcelona. Sponsored by The Architect’s Newspaper , the evening brought together notable New York architects and design personalities, many of whom have been key supporters of the event as awards entrants, judges, and speakers since its debut in 2008. WAF programme director Paul Finch wryly noted that recent years haven’t been the easiest for the startup of a design-focused festival, but 2011 should be the most ambitious yet. (Get your projects ready: WAF entries open April 1.) Thanks to all who attended—see our photo gallery of the evening on Facebook.




On March 1, VAI Executive Director Olympia Kazi joins a distinguished panel of speakers at Ecobuild , the London conference on sustainability and the built environment. Kazi discusses the future of the world’s aging urban cores on the panel titled, “Megacities and Extreme Urban Environments: Lessons for People First, Place-making Second.” Ecobuild’s sustainable-design seminars run through March 3—see the full schedule here.



The New York–based nonprofit ArtBridge has teamed up with Epic Records to launch Between the Lines, a national call for entries for a large-scale exhibition at the label’s Madison Avenue headquarters. Open to U.S.-based emerging visual artists working in any medium—including painting, photography, collage, and digital art—the competition calls for a 440-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling mural on the theme of “Sound.” Submissions are due Friday, April 1.




On Wednesday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m., the Museum of the City of New York presents “The Fabric of the Garment District,” a discussion of the changing history and geography of the garment industry 100 years after the tragic Triangle factory fire. Historian Andrew Dolkart will survey the district’s history, including New York’s first garment district on the streets flanking Broadway, north and south of 23rd Street. We are pleased to offer VAI members a special discounted admission of $6—just RSVP to and mention Van Alen Institute.




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