Brian is a Portland, Oregon-based architecture and arts writer as well as a photographer and award-winning filmmaker. He has written for
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Architect, and Dwell, among others. His podcast and upcoming book, In Search of Portland, explore the city’s architectural and cultural history. Brian Libby's Articles A New Book Explores How, Via X-Rays, Banned Albums Made It Into the Cold War–Era U.S.S.R. The bad news is that this particular set of X-rays won’t be covered by your health insurance. The good news? Discarded hospital film of broken bones can defy a communist regime, deliver banned music to the masses, and endure as art. Janne Saario Subtly Integrates Skate Parks Into Landscapes and Cities For Janne Saario, a former professional skateboarder turned skate park designer, the best skate parks exist in harmony with their landscapes, streetscapes, and communities. “It's always a new story in every project,” he says. A Commemoration of AACM’s Legacy in Experimental Jazz Call it “free jazz,” “avant-garde,” or “the new thing.” Just don’t call it predictable. Founded in Chicago in 1965 and still thriving today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) has long been an emblem of experimental, improvised jazz. As author Paul Steinbeck describes in his new book, Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM (University of Chicago Press), this collective came together to play and promote fearlessly original, spontaneous music. “AACM members combined composition and improvisation in unprecedented ways,” Steinbeck writes, “creating modes of music-making that bridged the gap between experimental concert music and contemporary jazz.” In Milan, This Year’s Pritzker Prize Winner Takes a Victory Lap Earlier this year, Burkina Faso–born Diébédo Francis Kéré became the first African, and the first Black architect, ever to be awarded the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in the profession. It’s an incredible, noteworthy distinction. But his humble, collaborative, community-oriented approach and immaculately crafted buildings are what really make him stand out. His work, which incorporates local materials, near-ancestral wisdom, and vernacular building traditions, embodies collaboration. Unlike that of so many previous Prizker winners, Kéré’s practice is not one of a singular “auteur” architect. His is a collective architecture. At the Morgan Library, a Long-Overlooked Garden Gets a New Life In a city boasting many of the world’s greatest art museums, it’s perhaps easy to overlook the jewel that is the Morgan Library & Museum, which spans more than half a block, between Madison and Park Avenues, in Manhattan's Murray Hill neighborhood. But with a multiyear restoration of the original library building’s exterior finally complete, as well as the just-overhauled Morgan Garden, unveiled last week, there has perhaps never been a better time to visit the former compound of the Gilded Age financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Ironically humble it may be, at least in comparison to the scale and scope of, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, or the Museum of Modern Art, the Morgan is a potent site of culture that, punching above its weight, is in many respects on par with those larger institutions.
Designed by leading 19th-century architect Charles Follen McKim, of the firm McKim, Mead & White (famous for projects including the Brooklyn Museum, structures across Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus, and a 1903 renovation of the White House), and designated as a museum since 1924, the Morgan is among the finest examples of Neoclassical architecture in the United States. Frescoed ceilings? Check. Stone lionesses flanking the entrance? Yup. Thanks to an immaculately executed 2006 expansion by Pritzker Prize–winning Italian architect Renzo Piano, which integrates the site’s three historic buildings within three new glass-and-steel pavilions, the museum is also a striking juxtaposition of 19th- and 21st-century design, one that’s decidedly made for today, but that also honors—and literally protects—the past. Songs from the Big Easy, Recorded by Top Musicians Across Generations “We created rock and roll. We created swing,” says Terence Higgins, the veteran drummer of Louisiana’s legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band, in the new documentary Take Me to the River: New Orleans. (Beginning April 22, it will play at select theaters around the country.) Directed by Martin Shore, it captures accomplished musicians—all from within a 100-mile radius of the city—as they record an album of the same title. The film follows Shore’s 2014 documentary Take Me to the River, created using a similar concept and centered on artists from Memphis, Tennessee; this time, the focus is on the Big Easy, and on unpacking the city’s rich musical heritage, legacy, and global influence. An Original Soundtrack for the Intersection of Hallucinogens and Mental Health The English electronic musician and producer Jon Hopkins is widely known for his thumping dance music. His star began rising in the 2000s, when the classically trained pianist collaborated with luminaries including Coldplay and Brian Eno. Then his solo career gained speed, generating the rhythmic, Grammy-nominated album Singularity in 2018. But on Hopkins’s sixth studio effort, Music For Psychedelic Therapy, released this past November, he changes direction. “It’s something very far away from a cosmic party or a set of festival-ready bangers,” he says. “Something looking inwards, something egoless … from a different place.” The Poetry of Building the Perfect Sound System Depending on your level of enthusiasm for audio, reading about stereo equipment can be intimidating, perplexing, or both. After all, the gear is a topic that’s typically weighted down by technical jargon around preamps and progressive scans, dome tweeters and damping, clipping and chrominance. Streamlined Watches Designed to Slow Down Time Putting on the breaks has long been a challenge for Corvin Lask and Christopher Noerskau. The pair met as teenagers at a remedial driving school in their native Germany—one was there for running a red light, the other for speeding—and later, after graduating from the same university, found themselves in relentlessly fast-paced, corporate jobs. Both felt like life was passing them by. To help change their lifestyles, they created Slow, a line of stark, Swiss-made watches with the aim of helping their wearers slow down. For Designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, the Cone Is “Perfect Geometry” A cone is a many-splendored shape. Both aesthetically pleasing and functional, it can do everything from redirect traffic to hold a scoop of ice cream. For British designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, the form is one they regularly return to in their work, which began in 1996—when they co-founded their studio, Barber Osgerby, after studying architecture together at the Royal College of Art, in London—and involves a constant exploration of color and materials through the products and furniture they’ve made for brands including Vitra, B&B Italia, and Knoll. These Scent Diffusers Enhance a Room in More Ways Than One With all the time that so many of us have been spending at home over the past two years, it’s no wonder that our interiors might begin to stink. As those looking to overcome the distinct aroma of pandemic-induced isolation know, spraying aerosol disinfectant from a can simply won’t do (not that it’s ever a great option). For a Website Tracking the Tallest Buildings in the World, Size Matters With their audacious, gravity-defying forms, skyscrapers have captured the public’s imagination for more than a century. But the structures are also symbols, and with varying, often mixed messages. In New York, the Empire State Building became an icon almost as soon as it was completed, in 1931, signaling civic unity and hope during the Great Depression; today’s supertall apartment buildings on Billionare’s Row, located just south of Central Park, double as outsize emblems of self-importance. To squabble over skylines and the inherent value of their constituents, a growing number of (mostly male) tall-building enthusiasts log onto Skyscraper Page, a zany website with a skyscraper discussion forum that has spread to some 100,000 threads. But what’s the point of obsessing over big, shiny objects if you can’t pull them out and compare them side by side? A Podcast That Unpacks What It’s Like to Be an Immigrant in America Human-rights activist and Pakistan native Saadia Khan had been living in the United States for more than a decade when the 2016 presidential election prompted her to act against a growing wave of bigotry. “As an immigrant, and as a Muslim woman, I was just so uncomfortable with the rhetoric that was circulating in mainstream media and within political spheres,” Khan, who’s worked with a variety of United Nations organizations, says of the time. She had recently been hired to produce a podcast for a client—and decided to put what she learned from the project to use. Why the World Gets Quieter When It Snows “The first fall of snow is not only an event—it is a magical event,” the late English novelist J.B. Priestley wrote in an essay for his 1928 book, Apes and Angels. “You go to bed in one kind of a world, and wake up in another quite different.” Part of the wonder he referenced might stem from the palpable sense of serenity that the tiny flakes create as they blanket the ground. That calm isn’t a figment of the imagination: Particularly when it’s freshly fallen, light, and fluffy, snow is surprisingly effective at absorbing sound. A Beautiful Bare-Bones Radio, Designed by an Architect Who Strove for Simplicity In 1938, Italian architect Franco Albini received a traditional wood-encased radio as a wedding gift—and proceeded to take it apart. He stripped down what he saw as a clumsy, cumbersome device, then reassembled it to showcase only the essential electric parts, which he suspended between two sheets of glass to create a sense of lightness and simplicity—both hallmarks of the late architect’s neorationalist design approach. The resulting object, called Radio in Cristallo, was unveiled two years later at Wohnbedarf’s modern furniture competition in Zurich, but was never put into production—until now. Spare Home Accessories, Informed by the Artisans of Colonial Williamsburg While the bonnets and muskets seen in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg—the early American settlement turned immersive outdoor museum—might be of another era, the institution is rooted in something very much of the moment: an appreciation for items that are skillfully made by hand. On the institution’s grounds, artisans including blacksmiths, woodworkers, bookbinders, and weavers regularly demonstrate the tools and techniques that were used to make everyday objects in the 18th century, many of which continue to be used today. To familiarize more people with the heritage of American craftsmanship, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (the entity that operates the museum) created Craft & Forge, a wide-ranging line of spare, everyday accessories for the home that will debut at the end of the month. With EarthPercent, Brian Eno Helps the Music Industry Address the Climate Crisis Brian Eno, the British musician and ambient-music pioneer, spends a lot of time thinking about how he can impact the world in ways that will make it better. He’s a founding member of the Long Now Foundation, a 15-year-old California nonprofit that promotes slower, smarter thinking, and a trustee of ClientEarth, a London-based environmental law firm. He’s also involved with Music Declares Emergency, a global group of artists and organizations that coordinates activities that direct the music industry toward a carbon-neutral future. Tumi’s Latest Fragrance Conjures Up the Curiosity of Contemporary Explorers Tumi, the travel brand founded in 1975, has long been known for its functional luggage that manages to be stylish. Its founder, Charlie Clifford—a former Peace Corps volunteer in South America who named his business after a type of sharp tool used in the central Andes region during pre- and post-colonial eras—built the company on a simple black, ballistic-nylon suitcase. Its cult following catapulted Tumi into a full-scale lifestyle label that now offers not only baggage, but accessories, outerwear, and, as of last year, men’s fragrances that underscore its spirit of refined exploration. An Unsettling Sound Installation Blasts Cold, Hard Facts Into Downtown San Jose Artist Trevor Paglen has a talent for visualizing the invisible. He has photographed top-secret drones and bases used by the military, gone on scuba-diving expeditions to locate undersea cables owned by the N.S.A., and created a viral art project that exposed the racist and sexist biases in one of the world’s leading image databases. (Paglen recently discussed these and other undertakings, as well as his lifelong interest in perception, on Ep. 49 of our Time Sensitive podcast.) Each piece encourages viewers to ponder the unseen, often disturbing realities that quietly shape our everyday lives. Why Aliens Could Be Able to Listen to NASA’s Golden Record—Even If They Don’t Have Ears In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft into the sky with the initial goal of exploring the outer solar system. Once the spacecraft had examined Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, they kept flying for billions of miles, ultimately entering interstellar space. Each carried a copy of the Golden Record, a disc of earthly sounds that are intended to represent humanity to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might encounter it. (To date, the record is the only human-made object to have left the solar system.) Astronomer Carl Sagan chaired the committee that determined the disc’s contents, which include booms of thunder, chirping birds, and snippets of more than 55 human languages. There’s also a lot of music: Compositions by Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart made the cut, as did those by blues legend Blind Willie Johnson, Azerbaijani folk singers, and rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry. A Fashion Designer Transforms Deadstock Textiles and Upcycled Sleeping Bags Into Wearable Life-Saving Shelters While producing a line of luxury outerwear, Dutch fashion designer Bas Timmer learned that the homeless father of two of his friends had passed away from hypothermia while waiting in front of a shelter that was at capacity. The news jolted Timmer into action: Using an old tent and sleeping bag, he stitched together a jacket that zipped onto a cocoon-like bottom, took it to a local shelter, and offered it to a man sitting outside. The man’s grateful reaction to the garment led Timmer to make more of the outfits, which he dubbed Sheltersuits, and in 2014, to found the Sheltersuit Foundation as a means of producing the pieces on a larger scale. Since then, the organization has given away more than 12,500 Sheltersuits to people experiencing homelessness in Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States. This Spare Sculpture Creates a Subtle Background Scent for Your Home From scented candles to aerosol sprays, the home fragrance market is filled with sweet-smelling devices that have found their way into many an interior. Our attraction to aromatic objects—or more specifically, to their soothing effects—has to do with the nature of smell itself. The sense has a direct line to our limbic system, the part of the brain involved with emotion and memory. Scents such as bergamot, lavender, and lemon prompt the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, creating a feeling of calm. But some of the bouquets emanating from residential air fresheners are synthetic, and in certain cases, bad for the environment. What if there was a better, more beautiful way? In London, a Big Bouquet of Horns Brings People Together Through Sound The façades of London’s historic buildings are often covered in decorative motifs. Among the most abundant is the cornucopia, a curving goat’s horn filled with flowers and fruit that symbolizes prosperity. Its Latin name, cornu copiae (“horn of plenty”), serves as a fitting emblem for “Sonic Bloom,” an outdoor installation by Japanese artist Yuri Suzuki that opened last week in Mayfair’s Brown Hart Gardens, near the popular Oxford Street shopping district. Protect Your Hearing With These Otherworldly Earplugs Hearing impairment can affect people at any age, especially musicians and fans who are regularly exposed to high-volume sound. Subjective tinnitus, the ringing and other audible vibrations that typically occur with noise-related hearing loss, can be difficult to treat—and it’s precisely what Elliot Cash, founder of the custom earplug company Crystal Guardian, aims to prevent. This Discreet Speaker Combines Mood-Enhancing Lighting With Superior Sound The greater our technological advances, the smaller our devices—or so it seems, at least, in the case of speakers. In the digital age, sound-emitting contraptions can fit in the palm of your hand, but when installed at home, often require hiding wires or disguising speaker boxes that never disappear completely. Veteran speaker designer Morten Villiers Warren, founder and CEO of the start-up Zuma, found a way to do exactly that with the Lumisonic, a wireless ceiling-mounted apparatus that combines superior audio with a dimmable LED light source for a singular atmospheric experience. Vintage Loudspeakers, Restored and Transformed Into Aural Works of Art The Ironic speaker, produced by the Brooklyn studio Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA), looks more like an abstract sculpture than a potent deliverer of sound. And its primary material, cast iron, likely evokes visions of frying pans rather than moments of aural greatness. But the dramatic device, produced in a limited edition of ten pairs, offers a sublime listening experience that the company’s founder, vintage audio-gear collector Jonathan Weiss, has seen bring more than one famous musician to tears. This Open-Source Library Captures the Magic of the Forest Through Sound Spend a few hours with the Sounds of the Forest open-source library of woodland-area recordings, and you’ll be sure to see the forest for the trees. From the Alps to the Amazon to the Adirondacks, forests are perhaps our most important natural resource (as Dr. Suzanne Simard recently noted on Ep. 114 of our At a Distance podcast), and one of our most spiritually beloved. Be they tropical or temperate, these dense ecosystems function as the world’s lungs, sequestering carbon and providing habitats for millions of species. In recent years (thanks, in large part, to pioneering work by Dr. Simard), science has taught us that trees cluster together in forests to communicate with each other and even share resources. Yet forests are increasingly threatened by deforestation, not to mention fire, flooding, insects, and diseases, even as we’ve come to appreciate their psychological benefits (forest bathing, anyone?) all the more. Real-Time Radio and Street Sounds Bring These Virtual Driving Tours to Life Amid last year’s travel restrictions and global lockdowns, Erkam Şeker, a Turkish graduate student studying in Munich, missed cruising around Istanbul’s streets with music blaring—and thought that others might be longing for the nostalgia-inducing pastime, too. So he set up Drive & Listen, a website that allows visitors to do exactly that. Enter the site, and high-resolution video footage (obtained from YouTube and user-submitted dash cam content) of a ride through a city, with a view from behind the wheel, fills the screen. A dashboard at the top provides more than 50 towns to tour, including Barcelona, Oslo, São Paulo, and Seoul, and various speeds at which users can roll. This Elegant Glass Speaker Magnifies Sounds From Your Smartphone Artisans at the Tokyo-based homeware company Sugahara have been handcrafting gracefully curvy, minimal objects from glass since its founding, in 1932. Dedicated to pushing the boundaries of the notoriously difficult material, its offerings often take unexpected forms, such as faceted, paper-thin vases and a collection of cups, plates, and bowls made entirely out of scrap glass, sourced from Sugahara’s factory in Chiba, Japan, as part of an ongoing effort to minimize waste in its production process. Fix Frozen Treats at Home With These No-Nonsense Ice-Cream Makers “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy ice cream,” the adage goes, “and that’s pretty much the same thing.” Like watching blockbuster movies and sunbathing at the beach, ice cream is a summertime rite. Luckily, as the pandemic subsides, purveyors of Rocky Road and butter brickle will largely be back, scoopers and waffle cones at the ready. But if there’s one thing recent times have taught us, it’s that many of our favorite foods can be prepared at home—and taste better because of it. So why not try fixing a frozen treat yourself? In Detroit, Botanical Extracts Inform These Tasty Small-Batch Sodas Like some insatiable thirst, the global soft drink market just keeps growing, and will be worth a projected $1.4 trillion by 2027. While ubiquitous macro brands still reign supreme, tiny artisan producers are gaining momentum, fueled by consumers who increasingly seek libations made from healthy, natural ingredients—ironically, something more like the classic fountain sodas of the early 1900s, when pharmacists concocted their own blends and sold them at their drugstores. A Musician Who Immortalizes Luminaries Through Songs on His Podcast British musician Jack Stafford likens his Podsongs podcast to the end credits of a movie, when the title song plays and keeps audiences in their seats, embodying the spirit of the story they’ve just taken in. On each episode, from his home studio in Italy, he interviews someone he admires—scientists, activists, justice-seekers, health experts, and other luminaries—and uses the conversation to inspire a new song, which Stafford writes (off-mic, with musicians Maurizio Sarnicola, Massimino Voza, and Luigi Falcione) and plays at the end of the show. So far, he’s released around 60 episodes with corresponding tracks that serve as artful, often clever conclusions. The chorus to sleep doctor Michael Breus’s song, for example—“What’s your chronotype, baby?”—stems from a quiz Breus recommends to help determine one’s ideal snooze time; a line in a tune written for game designer Reed Berkowitz, who reflects on the similarities between gaming mechanisms and QAnon, goes, “The longer you play / The greater your role / The further we all go / Down the white rabbit hole.” Each thought-provoking send-off varies widely in style, and accumulates on a public playlist. “When I listen to other podcasts now, and there’s no song at the end, there’s this huge letdown,” Stafford says. “This is basically a podcast with benefits.” Symphonic Masterpieces in Better-Than-Ever Fidelity, Mixed by a German D.J. Over the past decade, German D.J. and producer Christian Löffler has enjoyed a growing audience for his distinct blend of beats and melancholy. But Löffler’s recent project—interpreting work by legendary classical composers—may bring him a new level of attention. A New Film Highlights Fashion Designer Margaret Howell’s Admiration for Understated Japanese Objects and Materials In 1983, the British fashion designer Margaret Howell made the first of many visits to Japan, where she discovered tools, materials, and a way of life that resonated with the understated aesthetic of the utilitarian, skillfully made men’s and women’s garments she creates for her namesake clothing line. A photo of Howell during this formative trip opens Affinities: 50 Years of Design, a new short film directed by artist Emily Richardson that celebrates the distinctive work that Howell—now 74 and with more than 120 outlets in Japan, in addition to shops in Florence, London, New York, and Paris—has been refining for half a century. She’s compared her design approach to that of an architect, one in which functionality, superior craftsmanship, and noble materials outweigh trends, resulting in wearable pieces that endure and transcend time (not too unlike those of fashion designer Eileen Fisher, who was the guest on Ep. 44 of our Time Sensitive podcast). The film is on view via the brand’s website and, along with a presentation of drawings and artifacts from Howell’s personal archive, at a complex for the bookstore Tsutaya called T-Site in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district until May 31, and at Kyoto’s Rohm Theatre from June 4–13. (The festivities were meant to launch last year, but were postponed due to Covid-19.) This Public Audio Installation Helps Listeners Take the Long View on Life Late last year, park benches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens—each with a clear view looking west—were stamped with small bronze plaques inscribed with a phone number and a simple instruction: “Make yourself comfortable. Call at sunset.” Those who do so are treated to The End of the Day, a meditative public audio experience created by artist April Soetarman. Her voice gently guides listeners through a 10-minute reflection about loved ones, moments of past wonder, and places where callers felt connected to others, nature, or forces bigger than themselves. These A.I.-Generated Songs Raise Awareness About Mental Health in the Music Industry Every music fan knows the roster of iconic artists who died young, particularly those who passed around age 27, and gained unfortunate membership in what some have deemed the “27 Club.” When the cause is preventable, such as suicide or addiction, the tragedy can be all the more painful. This Chicago Music Label Is on a Mission to Unearth Lost Sounds Numero Group is that rare music label with levels of passion, curiosity, and risk-taking equivalent to the artists it represents. From vintage ’60s soul to ’70s country to ’80s synth sounds, its catalog is a never-ending deep dive into music that never quite broke big, and has been waiting patiently to be rediscovered. Byredo’s New Perfume Captures the Experience of a Roller-Coaster Year Tumultuous times often lead to creative new measures. For Ben Gorham, founder of the luxury brand Byredo, the drama of 2020 was the perfect muse for Mixed Emotions, a new unisex fragrance made to evoke the bewilderment of a roller-coaster year. A spritz of it starts out with the strange, intense scents of maté and blackcurrant, then relaxes into warm, familiar notes such as black tea, birch, and papyrus—an elegant olfactory interpretation of life as we’ve known it, and as we hope it soon becomes again. A New Immersive Exhibition Brings Interiors From the Book Goodnight Moon to Life When Goodnight Moon was first published, in 1947, the chief children’s librarian at the New York Public Library didn’t like that its story—about a bunny’s bedtime routine that entails expressing well-wishes to various objects—was told from the perspective of a child, and refused to purchase it. (The institution didn’t carry the book, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, until 1972.) But Goodnight Moon’s honest presentation of sleep and solicitude still resonated with readers, who’ve since purchased more than 48 million copies of the title. This Brooklyn Fermented Tea Brand Brews by Its Own Rules In the United States, the market for fermented tea drinks, including the popular kombucha variety, reached $2.2 billion at the end of last year, and is expected to jump to $6.5 billion by 2026. But all such beverages are not created equal, as exemplified by Brooklyn-based brewer Unified Ferments, which concocts refreshments that offer a distinctive, and complex yet subtle drinking experience. “Most kombucha is made from a simple tea that’s used as a base, and then flavored,” says Graham Pirtle, who co-founded the company in 2019 with his friend Young Stowe after realizing, while employed at a high-end tea house in Manhattan, that certain teas age, and can be consumed, like fine wines. “With us, each product makes its own rules—there’s never exactly a playbook.” A Unisex Fragrance That Smells Like Old Books, Created by a Portland Bookstore The poster child for the gray-skyed Pacific Northwest, Portland is perhaps America’s most book-loving city. Reading is a perfect rainy-day activity, after all, so it makes sense that the town is home to one of the world’s largest independent bookstores: the four-story, block-long Powell’s City of Books. When the pandemic forced its temporary closure last year (the space has since partially reopened), the retailer was surprised to discover, through customer surveys, that what its patrons missed most wasn’t the books themselves. It was the bookstore’s smell.