Reality Check: A Student Visit

Here we are around the table sharing design ideas with Kean University students. To my left is Lisa Contreras, the Mancini•Duffy Retail Group Resource Director.

Earlier this summer we were visited by a group of bright young people enrolled in the Interior Design program at New Jersey’s Kean University. Led by Damon LaCapra, an Assistant Professor in the School of Design (and a colleague of mine from way back), the students, most in their second and third year, impressed me with their curiosity and savvy about the business of design. They asked many questions, and while they understood and appreciated aesthetics, they wanted to know about practical concerns: How does our firm get work? What’s a typical project schedule? How deadline-driven is the industry in general? As a group, they seemed to have gotten past the “glamorous” part of being a designer, and instead turned their questions to the skills and assets they would need to be successful in their careers. For me, it was something of a reality check – perhaps their attitudes reflect the state of the current economy and the need for today’s young person to be that much more of a go-getter to land a job in such a climate.

On a related note, I was pleased that we managed to impress this savvy group of students as well – whew! – by our work, our client list, and the diversity of the industries we design for. In all, it was a mutual learning experience.

Iraq, notes from the field

Below is a day-by-day diary from a recent trip to Baghdad undertaken by Yves Springuel, AIA, a Principal in our Washington DC office, Mancini•Duffy Winstanley. Yves took the trip on behalf of our client, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and AECOM and the Iraqi Council of Representatives, in order to interview users, conduct a visioning session, and survey the Parliament building, which will be renovated to house the Iraqi Center for Parliamentary Development.

Tuesday, 6/22, 7:00 PM local, Noon EST

This has already been an eye-opening adventure! And with a bit of luck and much hard work, it’ll be a great project. I landed this morning and, after many delays, including combat zone ones, arrived safe and healthy this afternoon at the housing and office compound in Baghdad.

My communications will be sporadic and limited: both because I won’t be adding any value by telling you everything at this time and due to technical difficulties—already the power has gone out twice. The limited distribution of this communication is to reassure my firm that I am fine, to confirm that the systems we set up are working, and to provide project information.

Baghdad remains a city torn asunder. However, the airport could have been anywhere. The world’s most sophisticated technology landed on a perfect runway, taxied, and parked far from a gate. A stifling heat (109 F) slammed us on our walk to the terminal, a place of incomprehensible paperwork that I navigated in about two hours. It cost us $2.00 to replace my visa.

I met up with the head of the South African team that provides our security, was instructed on the wearing of the flak jacket and helmet, and then was taken as part of a three-car motorcade—all for me—in a bulletproof GMC SUV out of the secure perimeter of the airport. The highway to the International Zone is lined with Jersey barriers 12 feet tall or more; you glimpse what is beyond as you are treated to the stories of the security staff and their passengers’ adventures…

We went through five checkpoints, notable as the only public place I saw American military (in a convoy of their own) in the parts of the Green Zone still active, which is where the parliament is located. There we had two spare hours, since the rest of our convoy was finishing a meeting. We touristed! I have a picture of me under the old regime’s crossed swords, and I heard my first Call to Prayer. The walls reminded me not in the least of the ones we all know so well in old Europe; instead they’re all the harsh technology of modern precast, and set at the road’s edge. And yet, all the same, glimpses to something wonderful are to be had over them.

After connecting with the rest of our convoy coming from the parliament, we motored over the Tigris, the first place I got a truly long view of the city. And what a city! While dirty and damaged, the street life is just as real as anywhere you have been. Markets, advertising, construction, children darting out, traffic, police (and soldiers), crowded side streets—you name it, I glimpsed it.

Now in the compound, after my first briefing, I go to dinner. Tomorrow I survey the building, Thursday interview the Senior Staff of the Parliament. We present our findings and solution on Monday. We have a lot of work to do!

It’s great to be an architect.

Wednesday, 6/23, 8:00 PM local, 1:00 PM EST

Tonight’s note will be short—jet lag is catching up!

One hundred and four degrees, not quite a sandstorm I’m told, more like an atmosphere where the humidity we all know in DC is replaced by a sandy dust carried on the breeze. And of course my principal activity was the most physical of the entire deployment: the building survey! It’s one of the key things we had to accomplish here, and it went well. Tomorrow will be the visioning and requirements interviews.

In the building, no A/C or air movement, but sufficient light to work. The entry foyer has something of the wedding pavilion scene from the Godfather to it. The old National Assembly Hall has sufficient geometric order and restraint to be called a national treasure. And we start with good bones for our project: the office parts are a calm and white interior, though the quarter inch of dust everywhere is a novelty! Outside the building we were fortunately inside the T-walls of its compound; so we did not have to wear our personal protection.

I was also treated to a convoy search. Six fully armed Afrikaners looking out for just you make that a good story, although better told in person…

Still the jet lag is an excuse; I’m pooped—good night.

Thursday, 6/24, 11:00 PM local, 4:00 PM EST

Very busy day conducting the interviews at the Council of Representatives.

You may have seen the building in the news. It’s the old convention center, a horizontal slat/vertical silo, bunker-looking mid-rise. It was the American HQ before the surge. I might best describe it as a fully occupied construction site, with every resident a designer, no superintendent, no completed project or task, and not a day laborer nor dumpster to be found.

Friday 6/25, 11:00 PM local, 4:00 PM EST

It’s the first day that I did not leave the compound, and the city is certainly quieter on this, their holy day, punctuated by the Call to Prayer. I spent the day developing our design presentation, and conducted a 15-minute tourist visit of my surroundings.

We occupy four city blocks bound by a few two-story houses, and buildings up to six stories tall. Two or three are hotels or apartment buildings, the others office buildings. All seem occupied by foreigners (that’s me), and there are barracks for our guard force and the office of the private contractors and classrooms providing the English teachers’ classrooms. The perimeter is closed by the T-walls. The four streets leading in are blocked by a rabbit warren and double gates, and each is manned by several guards. There are pillboxes on all the heights and most every building. Downtown is at the intersection of two main streets; our motor pool of a dozen armored SUVs has this prominent address. It is completely forgettable except for the racket of at least 17 tractor-trailer size generator sets, most of which restart at every blackout. If you are following the news, you know that these are incessant.

There are about 40 of us in the compound this week, and 200 Afrikaners and Gurkhas assuring our security and transport. During the work week, we’re augmented by a local office and labor force, and up to 25 students. Those office folks have been my best contact and given me the most wonderful perspective on this, the cradle of civilization.

The dust subsided today, but I think the haze on everything is a permanent fixture in all seasons. There is no PX; however, the owner of the souvenir gift shop in the lobby of our hotel impatiently awaits my presence. Perhaps I will get a bargain….

Sunday, 6/27, 10:00 PM local, 3:00 PM EST

We presented to the Senior Staff of the Parliament, who approved our concept. Tomorrow we present to the Center’s governing board and that should do it—then it’s home to write the report and produce a scope set of drawings. I discovered that working like this is successful, if not easy.

I also think I discovered that much of the local challenge is because of the security, not in spite of it. For example, I spent two hours this morning waiting in the sun outside the Parliament because my paperwork wasn’t there.

On the way back, the others talked our ride into stopping at the liquor store. We went down a bumpy dirt road to a sweets and ice-cream shop, behind which were three serious retail establishments for the necessities of our western world. Just like high school! And a bargain to boot. Too bad that I have the confiscation line to go though before I come home.

And now back in Compound, the A/C has finally completely given out. Anybody want to trade places?

Juicy Two-Handed Goodness

I wouldn’t call it a fetish – it’s closer to an addiction – but I love gadgets. Not the kitchen-type stuff (althought I love that too) but the high-tech toys, the iPhones, Netbooks, e-readers, etc. etc. So, sooner or later, I had to get an iPad. I was hoping to put off the purchase till later, when the second version arrives sometime next year – it will probably sport a camera by then – but AT&T and Apple forced my hand when they announced a new data pricing plan. They eliminated the unlimited data plan and, if I wanted that, I needed to buy the device before the new plan went into effect. Given the financial situation that is affecting us all, a new toy and data plan were stretching it but, given the potential of what the device can do as an online tool, and the data it can chew up, I decided it was a good investment. OK, so I’ve given up a lunch here or there, but I had to have an iPad. Here are my impressions of it.

I’ve had it for more than a month as of this writing, and I was looking to offload some of the things that I would do with my Netbook (small laptop). I had such high hopes that I could replace my laptop and e-reader but, as of today, the iPad can probably replace my e-reader, but it can’t replace my laptop: it does more than an e-reader but a lot less than a laptop. It will let me surf the net, read digital magazines, interface with Facebook and other social networks, play games, and run mini-apps. It’s a great interface device for interacting, and that’s exactly what I do with my iPhone, except now I can interface on a larger screen. I can consume loads of info and make a note here and there. I can view websites, but not those in Flash. I can read email, view email attachments and Microsoft documents, listen to music, and watch videos. However, the operative words here are View and Consume. I can create some documentation – but with limitations.

It would be nice if I could add the capital-letter words Modify and Create to describe what I can do with the iPad; unfortunately, I can only use the small-letter words for it. It’s just not a laptop replacement. The limitations to modifying and creating depend on what applications are available, as well as the limits of the device. Some of these limitations are pretty big. For instance, I can’t really modify an email attachment. I can’t create/reply to an email and add an attachment, and file viewing is limited to images unless you have a mini-app (if I purchase a mini-app, I can have some editing ability with Microsoft documents). I can view some PDFs, but don’t try a floor plan or a set of construction documents – the contractor will have the problem fixed by the time you have the file open. I’m limited to what iTunes allows me to sync with the iPad; for instance, I (currently) can’t take a document off my hard drive and place it on the iPad. If iTunes can’t add it to its library, you can’t sync it.

It’s a great-looking device and I love to use it daily, because I can just sit on the train, plug in my headphones, and catch up with the world: read my New York Times, view CNN and ESPN, and read my comic books. But only if I’m sitting. It’s a little heavy for one hand, and it’s too big for my thumb to get from one side to the other. It’s a two-hander – like a really big cheeseburger.

Avery Miyasato Handy, IIDA patiently waits to accept the award for “Commercial under 50,000 sq. ft.” from Dale Alan Greenwald, IIDA, the 2009-2010 IIDA New York President. Photo by Natalie Severson.

We were thrilled to receive two nominations and one win in the 2010 IIDA NY Lester Dundes Awards – picking up the most recognition of any architecture firm represented. In the Retail category, Saks Fifth Avenue’s third floor in its Manhattan flagship, completed by Mancini•Duffy’s Retail Group, got a nod, as did our 130,000-sf project for law firm Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto in the “Commercial over 50,000 sq. ft.” category. The big prize for “Commercial under 50,000 sq. ft.” went to our Fortune Global 500 Investment Center project in Charlotte, North Carolina. Congratulations to everyone who worked on these projects, and special thanks to our Charlotte team, which included Avery Miyasato Handy, IIDA; Lee Devore, LEED AP; Jeremiah Hancock, Associate AIA, LEED AP; Courtney R. Kemper; Manuel Garcia; Dale Peterson, AIA; Anthony P. Schirripa, FAIA, IIDA. Go here to see images of the project as well as all of this year’s winners; go here or here to see the judges’ comments on the space.

And in other big news, our own Alan J. Dandron, IIDA, LEED AP stepped up as 2010-2011 President of the IIDA New York Chapter this month. Congratulations, Alan!