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How do you build a tower like this in an earthquake-prone city? Very carefully.

Photos courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson


Vancouver Skyscraper Twists Around Zoning Restrictions

Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group used limitations to its advantage with the gravity-defying Vancouver House apartment tower.

January 7, 2023 at 11:00 AM GMT-3

(This story is part of "Look at That Building," a weekly Bloomberg CityLab series about everyday — and not-so-everyday — architecture. Read more from the series, and sign up to get the next story sent directly to your inbox.)

As drivers head from Vancouver’s suburbs to the city’s downtown, they’re now greeted by what looks like a gravity-defying building. The Vancouver House is a 490-foot high-rise teetering on a narrow base, twisting and expanding as it rises. The torquing tower serves as a new gateway to the city, appearing like a half-formed archway that frames the skyline and British Columbia’s North Shore Mountains beyond.

Designing the twisting apartment complex, which includes nearly 500 units, was no easy feat. The lot came with a laundry list of zoning restrictions: The high-rise couldn’t be too close to the street, it had to be at least 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) away from the Granville Bridge and it couldn’t cast shadows on a nearby park. Those constraints left just a small triangular footprint upon which architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group could erect a skyscraper.

Photos courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson

But architects at BIG found a catch to the onerous restrictions: The building only had to be 30 meters from the bridge up until the skyscraper itself reached 30 meters in height, at which point it could widen and turn toward the Granville Bridge. As a result, the team designed the building to start with a triangular footprint which pivoted and expanded as it rose, so that as it nears its highest point, it transforms into a rectangular shape.

"The project is probably shaped more by constraints than by opportunities because of this very limited footprint that we had," said Thomas Christoffersen, a partner at BIG and one of the principal architects on the Vancouver House, which was orchestrated by Vancouver-based real estate developer Westbank and completed in 2020. The process took a decade and involved nearly 100 of BIG’s employees.

Photos courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson

Because of its twisting design, structural engineering played a large role in the construction. BIG consulted with engineering firms Glotman Simpson and Buro Happold to ensure the tower — which steps out around 80 feet — was stable enough to meet stringent building codes in this seismically active city. (The architect declined to disclose how much the Vancouver House cost to build, while Westbank, the developer, didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

"It’s not only bigger on the top," Christoffersen says. "It’s also asymmetrical." To counter the heavier side of the building — and prevent it from leaning over — engineers strung cables through its walls to ensure "post-tensioning." The post-tensioned steel cables, which are also known as tendons, are anchored to 2- to 3-foot-thick concrete walls of the structure’s core in order to keep the building steady.

On top of that, the building’s facade needed flexibility so that it could move more than a typical building does. Although that didn’t have an impact on material used for the exterior, it meant that the firm had to be deliberate about how the exterior walls were put together, choosing larger joints and gaskets between panels to give them a bit more mobility, Christoffersen says.

Photos courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson

So commonplace are shiny curtain-walled towers in Vancouver that it’s earned the nickname "City of Glass." That holds true for the immediate vicinity around the Vancouver House, with the majority of nearby buildings either featuring glass or a matte finish. BIG wanted something different, a material that would reflect the light of its surroundings — especially the sky and sun, Christoffersen says. The architects opted for a glinting facade of stainless steel that frames the building’s recessed balconies. From some close-up angles, it resembles a gleaming beehive.

"The stainless steel really makes it stand out during certain times of the day," he said. "It also has this changing appearance depending on the time of day and year."

BIG and Westbank have teamed up on other striking designs that break Canada’s architectural status quo. The two also worked together on what Christoffersen calls a sibling building in Calgary, Alberta, known as the Telus Sky Tower. Like an inverted version of the Vancouver House, the Calgary building has a dramatic slope that narrows toward the top of the skyscraper. The partners are also working on two other buildings in Canada — one more in Vancouver and another in Toronto.

Photos courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson.

Limiting the shadows that new construction can cast on parks and green spaces is a phenomenon that has sparked debates in other cities. In New York, the outcry over shadows reached a fever pitch around 2014 as a spate of new supertalls went up near Central Park, but has resurfaced in bouts over the years. For the Vancouver House, BIG had to be deliberate about which portion of the lot the skyscraper could stand on in order to ensure that a nearby park received sufficient sunlight throughout the day. The park prevented construction further south, and as a result, left a chunk of land nearby empty. Christoffersen says he likes the differing terrain: "It breaks up the scale of the lot, so it’s not all one development."

But the residential tower isn’t the only construction BIG was responsible for on the site. The property also includes two adjacent, triangular lots that are sandwiched by the bridge and its off-ramps. The two buildings house a portion of University Canada West and ground-level retail. Lots that corner bridges are often unused — or at the very least, not creatively used — and BIG wanted to change that. Christoffersen says that the firm didn’t build beneath the underpasses, which don’t get much light, but instead built around them.

"We really tried to make something that feels more like a campus," Christoffersen says. "We wanted to transform this sort of derelict piece of land under some bridges to something that is active and attractive."

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    Here Are 15 Books About Cities We Read in 2023

    Photographer: Henrik Sorensen/Digital Vision via Getty Images


    Here Are 15 Books About Cities We Read in 2023

    New releases tackled issues including climate change, transportation and inequality, and offered solutions to make cities better and more livable.

    December 21, 2023 at 7:00 AM GMT-3

    It was easy to criticize big cities that found themselves struggling with challenges like climate change, inequality and inadequate transportation in 2023. But several new books tackled these issues head on, and offered a path forward.

    These books offered a vital window into the lives of people facing issues like housing instability and fleeing climate disasters. They helped readers think critically about the status quo and pushed leaders to act on inclusive transportation measures and parking reform — and they suggested solutions for global problems with new frameworks like biourbanism.

    Here’s a roundup of 15 new releases that Bloomberg CityLab read and wrote about this year. They allowed us to explore different places, histories and possibilities. We hope they’ll bring you to new worlds, too.


    Source: Island Press

    Inclusive Transportation by Veronica Davis
    What do we mean by "equity" and how do we achieve it? Urban planner Veronica Davis ponders that question in her latest book Inclusive Transportation, which looks at how inequalities are cemented into American infrastructure to divide cities (and often, Black, Brown or low-income neighborhoods) — through streets, interstates and highways. She spoke to CityLab about the need for bold leaders to make difficult decisions, purposefully engage communities and properly educate people on the solutions available to them. "In 2023, with the knowledge that we have, with the tools available to us, building a highway through a neighborhood is lazy," Davis said.

    Source: University of Chicago Press

    The Great American Transit Disaster by Nicholas Dagen Bloom

    Don’t just blame cars for the deterioration of public transportation in American cities, argues Nicholas Dagen Bloom — blame the "compounding decisions made by city leaders, state leaders and private sector people." His book, The Great American Transit Disaster, explores US transit systems of the 20th century and the multitude of crises and poor choices that have led many municipalities to abandon them. "You didn’t have to build systems of parkways and highways that were so comprehensive that you sacrifice neighborhoods. You didn’t have to completely demolish your downtowns, create massive federal programs that paid for parking ramps and give tax breaks on downtown parking," Bloom said. "These are political choices."


    Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City by Katie J. Wells, Kafui Attoh and Declan Cullen

    Remember the old days without Uber? Before the company changed expectations for ride-hailing and created a whole new gig economy, dissatisfaction with the taxi industry’s outdated vehicles and subpar service ran deep. Disrupting D.C. dives into the promises made, kept and broken by Uber, specifically in the nation’s capital. It chronicles how its rise "ended up being deeply destructive," CityLab’s David Zipper writes, "because the city sought to outsource societal responsibilities to a venture-backed startup." Besides the inequality reinforced through the popularization of precarious gig work, and the safety and labor issues the company raised, the book also cites evidence that ride-hailing has overall led to more emissions, less transit ridership and frustrating levels of congestion.

    Source: W. W. Norton & Company

    Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet by Ben Goldfarb
    In Crossings, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb makes a heartbreaking case for how streets and highways have massively affected wildlife. And he doesn’t stop at roadkill. He describes some of the more subtle methods of biological annihilation, such as road noise deterring songbirds from critical migratory stopover areas and an "impermeable wall of vehicles" that prevents animals like elk and longhorn from migrating across the American West. With cars and concrete, humans are challenging the notion that only the strongest animals survive. "The opposite is true on the roads," Goldfarb says. "Cars are these indiscriminate predators that kill any animal walking in front of them."

    Cities as Solutions

    Source: Penguin Random House

    Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson
    Kim Stanley Robinson is credited with helping create the genre of climate fiction, and his book Green Earth is yet another example of that. Set in Washington, DC, Robinson draws from his own personal experience living and working in the capital city. "What I like about DC is that there is kind of an electricity in the air, a human electricity," Robinson told CityLab. "You walk the streets, you see people from all over the world. To go to the world capital and settle there is a statement. It’s an attempt to wrest control of one’s fate." But where the fictional part of the story begins is in its characters — when he portrays federal bureaucrats as a positive force for good.

    Source: Biourbanism Publishing Pty Ltd

    Biourbanism: Cities as Nature by Adrian McGregor
    "If we can understand that cities are part of nature — even if they don’t really look like nature — that means we’ve got to change how we plan with them, how we work with them, and what our future looks like on spaceship Earth," Adrian McGregor says. That’s the premise of Biourbanism: Cities as Nature, which looks at how effective urban planning and design can be achieved by viewing cities through a natural lens. McGregor sees cities as instrumental to lead the fight against the climate crisis. "There’s a policy gap between a federal government making decarbonization commitments and actual city policy," he says. "They’re not really thinking clearly about where the emissions are coming from and therefore how to target them."

    Source: Penguin Random House

    Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar
    Journalist Henry Grabar has a pretty simple solution for better city living: parking reform. The act of parking, for so many, is an aggravating experience. "You’re more likely to be killed over a parking space than you are to be killed by a shark," Grabar told CityLab. In his book Paved Paradise, he argues that the key to happier residents is transforming parking policies to make them smarter and more convenient, and by undoing some of the privileges given to drivers in order to help boost multimodal transportation. "It’s very hard to overrule the instinctive feeling that parking ought to be available when I want it, where I want it, for the price I want to pay, which is zero," Grabar said. "A lot of smart parking policy deviates from those assumptions, like charging for coveted street parking in busy locations, or trying to encourage people to park in a garage a few blocks away and then walk a bit."


    Equality and Cities

    Built From the Fire by Victor Luckerson
    What happened after the Tulsa race massacre? It’s a question often lost when thinking about the violence that saw one of the wealthiest historic Black American neighborhoods burned down, and its residents killed or chased out. Built From the Fire seeks to tell the story of Greenwood from start to end, past the initial tragedy that wiped out Black Wall Street and the destructive urban renewal plans and physically divisive highways that followed. For Victor Luckerson, who moved to Tulsa and embedded himself in Greenwood’s community and archives in order to tell the story right, the policies and actions of local government officials did as much damage, if not more, to the neighborhood’s heritage than the initial conflagration. "I would say the massacre was more devastating in the short term, and urban renewal more devastating in the long term," he says.

    Source: Disney Hyperion

    There Goes the Neighborhood by Jade Adia
    It’s not just heartbreak and bad grades that teens are facing — now, it’s gentrification too. Author Jade Adia found inspiration in the Los Angeles youth that came out to protest against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, and wrote There Goes the Neighborhood with those young people in mind. Her debut young adult novel tells the story of 15-year-old Rhea, who devises a plan to save her best friend’s family from eviction, as gentrifiers threaten to upend her neighborhood in South Los Angeles. "I wanted to tackle the topic [of gentrification] in the most accessible way possible," Adia told CityLab, "by putting young people and their experiences on the front lines of the conversation."

    Climate Change

    Source: Simon & Schuster

    The Great Displacement by Jake Bittle
    Climate migration in America has already begun. Bittle documents this harrowing byproduct of climate change in The Great Displacement, telling the stories of numerous journeys made by families escaping the destruction caused by wildfires, hurricanes and floods. Bittle’s portraits reveal how unprepared the country is to manage the climate retreat and bring relief to those displaced from their homes, and sheds light on the ever-increasing need for more affordable housing after major disasters.

    Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli
    India faced a deadly monsoon season this year, with catastrophic flooding disasters that claimed as many as 2,000 lives. With the risk of climate disaster only increasing, Bengaluru-based ecologists Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli look to ancient knowledge and traditions to guide them to future solutions in their book, Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities. While focused on community-oriented and sustainable approaches to protecting cities and rejuvenating water bodies, the authors also want to get back to the positive memories people attach to the water. "For us, the book is a way of bringing that back," Mundoli says. "Everything doesn’t have to be about gloom and doom."

    Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation by Danielle Arigoni
    Again and again, the numbers show that older people are disproportionately killed in climate disasters. Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation lays out why it’s so important to plan for the safety of elderly residents in the face of those growing risks. "I’m haunted by the idea that one out of five people over 65 doesn’t drive anymore," Arigoni told CityLab, citing mobility as one of the key issues in which older populations are often overlooked. "The presumption that people can just get in their car and drive away from the wildfire, or move to a hotel because the hurricane is coming — that’s a pretty radical departure from reality."


    Design and Architecture

    Portal: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities by John King
    San Francisco’s Ferry Building has weathered many literal storms, but perhaps its biggest threat has been irrelevance. "This building that now is this cherished icon of the past was a very edge-pushing building," architecture and urban design critic John King told CityLab. Despite no longer being used as the city’s primary transportation hub, the Ferry Building has become central to the city’s identity. In his book Portal, King traces the building’s past to reflect on San Francisco’s resilience and future.

    The Brutalists by Owen Hopkins
    The use of black and white photography in The Brutalists echoes the usual emphasis placed on the artistry, form and lighting of brutalist architecture. For some, the color scheme may speak to the dying nature of the construction style as more of the buildings are torn down and left solely to memory. For architecture historian Owen Hopkins, however, brutalism is as much a part of architecture’s present as its past. Bringing attention to both widely celebrated and lesser-known architects, his revisitation of the movement references structures built as recently as 2016. "There’s a way of thinking about Brutalism that embraces and in many ways depends on its paradoxes," Hopkins says.

    Other People’s Homes: Suburban Kerb Appeal by Sandy Weir
    A pandemic-fueled curiosity for the unique architecture found in Melbourne is what originally led Sandy Weir to post photographs of local homes online. The virality of the project surprised Weir, and put her on the path to publishing Other People’s Homes. She went on to capture images of houses all over Australia and its quirky suburbs for 18 months. "We’re such a nation of entertainers, so our houses are becoming more of showpieces," she said. Through 224 pages, Weir traces the influence of immigration from Asia and Southern Europe on the country’s architecture, and features a mix of styles like art deco and the Queenslander. The result is a fun, colorful showcase of Australia’s playful character as told through its eclectic homes.

    What books should be on our 2024 reading list? Drop us a line at [email protected].


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      In 2023, Sphere was an inescapable gravity well that sucked in the world’s architectural attention.

      Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America

      The Year of Sphere

      The $2.3 billion entertainment venue in Las Vegas is both 2023’s greatest architectural spectacle and a giant artifact of our screen-obsessed age.

      December 27, 2023 at 11:35 AM GMT-3

      Speed past the Venetian hotel on Sands Avenue in Las Vegas and it comes into view suddenly, a celestial body that eclipses the sky. Turn up Howard Hughes Parkway and it emerges more gradually, a great dome rising from the desert. No matter where you are coming from in the city, your eyes manage to find it. In daytime, a giant mauve marble, a totem like a pyramid or ziggurat; at night a globe of pure information.

      Sphere — no "the," only Sphere — tilted Las Vegas’s axis this year. Its location just east of the Strip shifted the epicenter of tourism in the city, while its design upended the trajectory of Vegas architecture.

      Sphere awakens: the venue's grand opening on Sept. 29.Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America

      Yet the gravitational waves of Sphere’s arrival extend far beyond the city’s limits. Sphere was unavoidable in 2023: a massive blinking eye, a cackling jack-o-lantern, a monumental ad for Paramount+ and thousands more iterations. Sphere is the building of the year, the decade, possibly the century — visible, reportedly, from space.

      Physics textbooks sometimes describe a black hole as a billiard ball that sinks down into the surface of the pool table, taking light and mass down with it. In 2023, that ball was Sphere: an inescapable gravity well of viral content, vivid imagery and vast sums of money.

      Sphere overlooks the F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix in November.Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

      Superlatives orbit Sphere like satellites. The world’s largest spherical object, at 366 feet (112 meters) tall and 516 feet wide. The world’s largest video screen, with 580,000 square feet (54,000 square meters) of LED displays on its exterior. A visual experience measured in incomprehensibly geeky numbers (18K resolution, 160,000 speakers, capable of projecting film weighing in at a half-petabyte in size). James Dolan, the divisive New York entertainment mogul behind Madison Square Garden, spent nearly a decade working to realize his vision for an immersive 17,500-seat amphitheater. At $2.3 billion, it’s by far the most expensive entertainment venue ever built in Vegas, and possibly the first to lose nearly $100 million in just three months.

      Read more: James Dolan’s Vegas Sphere Cost $2.3 Billion and Might Pay Off


      Well before its September debut — with a mind-bending residency by U2 — Sphere was drawing crowds of curious onlookers, many from beyond city limits. Los Angeles Times critic Carolina A. Miranda was the first national writer on the scene, with a dispatch about how Sphere fits into the city’s architectural history. Sphere generated as many takes as ticket sales: The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel wrote about feeling vertigo while watching U2 play Achtung Baby through the screens of people holding up their phones to capture the 360-degree screen surrounding Bono and the Edge. For the Washington Post, Maura Judkis spoke to one of the five androids named Aura that work in Sphere’s lobby.

      By day, Sphere is a giant mauve marble in the Vegas skyline.Photographer: George Rose/Getty Images North America

      As a visual spectacle, Sphere has some precedent, if mostly fictional. Blade Runner is surely a forerunner, with its dystopian vision of skyscrapers draped in holographic ads. Sad painter Vincent Van Gogh found new life in the 21st century as the subject of endlessly duplicated immersive rooms. Other non-Euclidean visions have come before Sphere: Back in 2012, artist Doug Aitken transfixed audiences in Washington, DC, by projecting a film called SONG1 onto the cylindrical surface of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. What sets apart Sphere is its scale, not just one installation but an ever-changing series of experiences — as many as advertisers can imagine and Sphere Studios can deliver. Sphere is such sheer escalation. As spectacles go, the structure is like a leap from the steam engine to nuclear fusion: the world’s first piece of streaming architecture.

      That sudden lurch forward in visual technology has produced not a little anxiety among critics. For the New York Times, Christopher Hawthorne wrote that Sphere raised "the question of analog architecture’s ongoing ability to compete with digital wizardry for popular attention." Imagine, in a post-Sphere world, bothering to lift your phone to snap a tower lit up in a championship team’s colors. Sphere can become the ball. Sphere can broadcast the game itself.

      A spiritual predecessor to Sphere: the "Big Duck" in Riverhead, New York.Photo: Mac Gramlich/Getty Images

      However singular this arena may be, Las Vegas can offer the context to explain it. In her article, Miranda offers a helpful history. She points to the influential 1977 study Learning from Las Vegas, which kicked off a long-running debate in architecture. In it, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour divide buildings into two categories: a "duck" is a building whose shape signals its function, while a "decorated shed" is a structure with signage to spell out its purpose. Sphere is both, Miranda reports, which makes it special.

      But Sphere isn’t the first odd duck in Vegas by a long shot. When it opened in 1993, the MGM Grand, then the world’s largest casino, featured an entrance shaped like a lion, in keeping with a theme based on The Wizard of Oz. A popular local legend has it that the vibe of walking into a lion’s mouth didn’t sit well with Chinese gamblers, so MGM changed course. (That was at least partly a myth: Visitors entered under the lion’s maw, not through it.) This blocky beast was gone after just five years, sadly, and nothing since has tested the duck-versus-shed theory the same way — until Sphere.

      A prior Vegas spectacle: In the 1990s, the entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel boasted a monumental lion’s head.Photographer: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group Editorial

      Compared to other well-known orbs, Sphere sets itself apart. Montreal Biosphere and other geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller are spidery, ethereal structures. Reunion Tower looks like a golf ball on a tee on the Dallas skyline at night, but Welton Becket designed the tower to have a distinct pink look during the day. In contrast, Sphere is solid and mysterious in daylight, so dense and massive that it comes off as some kind of essential infrastructure. In the evening, its Death Star surface disappears as its envelope is consumed by advertising.


      The enigmatic energy it radiates extends to its designers. For now, Sphere Entertainment Co. (previously part of Madison Square Garden Entertainment) is keeping a tight lid on its architects, Kansas City-based firm Populous, who told Bloomberg CityLab that they were not able to comment on the structure. Populous is best known for designing stadiums, making it an outsider among the relatively insular group of casino architects responsible for the Vegas skyline. Sphere marks a big departure from the slabs and towers on the strip, a circle to all those squares.

      The MGM Cotai resort in Macau, designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, is an unusually flamboyant example of casino architecture.Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

      Casino design has been stuck in a rut recently, with architects copy-pasting their projects from one gambling haven to another, or simply borrowing others’ designs. For example, Paul Steelman, who designed Steve Wynn’s game-changing Mirage casino and hotel in Vegas in 1989, also designed the city’s most recent tower, Resorts World Las Vegas, which was backed by developer Genting Malaysia Bhd. and opened in 2021. That project bears a passing resemblance to another casino tower, Wynn Las Vegas, which opened in 2005, and which in turn has an identical twin in Macau that opened in 2006. The Mirage also has a mirror-image project in Macau.

      All these Sin Cities start to look the same. There’s new entertainment architecture out there that’s interesting — Kohn Pederson Fox’s MGM Cotai stands out as a stack of gold bars in Macau — but a project like Sphere shows just how standardized these global entertainment hubs have become.

      Then again, 2023 might just be Sphere’s year one. Dolan is already in talks with developers to license the idea, an advance that would bring Sphere full circle. In coming years, new Spheres could open in Abu Dhabi and South Korea. A copycat globe in Macau can’t be far behind.

      Not everyone wants this piece of blobular advertising in their back yard. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright described the prospect of a Sphere in east London as a "litmus test of how democratic London’s decision-making process really is." For now, it’s a moot point — London Mayor Sadiq Khan batted down a proposal for this theater in the round in November. But the city is unlikely to be the last to debate it.

      For tourists on the Strip, Sphere is impossible to miss.Photographer: David Becker/Washington Post via Getty Images

      As far as democracy goes, how could anyone be upset with the largest snowglobe in the world (courtesy of Target)? Sphere enjoys ugly holiday sweaters, just like you! True, the building seems to manifest all the stress that comes with constant access to screens — it is digital distraction at megaproject scale, a ritalin-washed temple to attention-deficit disorder. Which is to say nothing of Vegas residents who have to live shoulder-to-shoulder with the thing, sharing lanes with preoccupied drivers rubbernecking to catch the show.

      But there’s something about a building that takes the form of a very sleepy emoji when it lights up in the morning that seems to resist all criticism. To all of its detractors, to all of its neighbors, to the entire world, Sphere says: go ahead. Crane your neck and watch.


      Kriston Capps is a writer for CityLab in Washington, D.C., focused on housing, architecture and the built environment.

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