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Gjenge Makers: Transforming Tradition and Community

Sustainable design is a valuable part of our ethos at Optima as we strive to create vibrant communities built with the surrounding natural environment at the forefront. Now more than ever before, changemakers across the world are expanding the possibilities for what sustainable designs resemble. Today, we’re spotlighting a leader in sustainable design and affordable construction: Gjenge Makers and its founder, Nzambi Matee.  

In 2017, Nzambi Matee, then an engineer working for Kenya’s oil industry, threw everything she knew away to create a startup aimed to address the need for affordable and sustainable construction materials in her home country of Kenya and across the world. Her first thought immediately went to plastic, a material creating pollution problems across Eastern African countries like Kenya, where Matee has resided her whole life. 

A member of the Gjenge team collecting recycled plastic to use for their sustainable bricks

Thanks to her academic background, including a major in material science, along with experience working as an engineer, Matee understood which plastics would easily bind together and built the needed machinery, allowing her to mass produce the building alternative. Today, Gjenge collects waste materials from local factories and other recyclers and then uses a mixture of plastic and sand to form durable bricks and tiles. 

Gjenge Brick’s various colors

The designs aren’t just sustainable and durable. Matee and the Gjenge team wanted the finished products to emulate a sense of beauty, and today, bricks come in an array of colors, including red, blue, brown and green. Since its founding, Gjenge has transformed more than 22 tons of plastic into various alternative building materials and created more than 100 jobs for local garbage collectors, women and youth. 

We can’t wait to continue exploring the ways innovative architecture can contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world, especially with changemakers like Matee impacting the lives of others daily.

Women in Architecture: Isabel Roberts

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting one of America’s most overlooked architects. As one of only two women in the original Prairie School, Isabel Roberts immediately became an inspiration for women architects in the early 20th century. Learn more about her riveting life and career below: 

The Life of Isabel Roberts

Isabel Roberts was born on March 7, 1871, in Mexico, Missouri. Her parents were natives of the eastern coast; her father was a mechanic from Utica, New York, and her mother was from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Growing up, Roberts and her family moved often; traveling from Missouri to Providence, Rhode Island, to South Bend, Indiana. 

The Isabel Roberts House, by Frank Lloyd Wright Studio, 1908

At 18 years old, Roberts moved to New York City, where she studied architecture at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers from 1899-1901. The atelier was the first in the nation to teach architecture with the principles used by École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Architects Emmanuel Louis Masqueray and Walter B. Chambers founded the school to forge more rewarding educational and professional opportunities for women in architecture at the time. 

Notable Works and Achievements  

In 1901 after completing school at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers, Roberts moved to Illinois to take a position under Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park office. She worked with Wright alongside a team of six others, which included Marion Mahony Griffin, the only other woman in the group that would become known as the Prairie School. 

Eola Park Bandshell, Ryan and Roberts, 1924

Roberts’ impact while working for Wright is commonly underestimated as she contributed her design expertise to various projects, primarily after he left Oak Park for Europe in 1909. Some of her most notable projects include K.C. DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana – a commission for a friend of the Roberts family – the Laura Gale House in Oak Park and the Stohr Arcade Building in Chicago. 

St. Cloud Veterans Memorial Library, Ryan and Roberts, 1923

Commissioned by Isabel’s mother, Mary, the Isabel Roberts House in River Forest, Illinois, was another of Roberts’ illustrious designs with Wright. Completed in 1908, the home’s intricate arrangement contained a warm brick hearth at its core and utilized a mixture of half-story levels to connect living areas. The Prairie School design featured other innovative additions for the time, including a vaulted ceiling, diamond-paned windows and a grand octagonal balcony.

Scottsdale Public Art: Windows to the West

As part of our ongoing public art series, we’ve been exploring exceptional creations to be found across Scottsdale, from the unique Water to Water, to the latest installation, Pinball Wizard. Today however, the spotlight is on Windows to the West, Scottsdale’s first public art installation and one that still inspires the city today after more than 50 years in the city. 

In June 1970, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded the City of Scottsdale a $20,000 matching grant to commission its own notable work of art by an American sculptor. The NEA program, Works of Arts in Public Places, would go on to fund more than 700 works of public art across the country, and Scottsdale was the first small city they approached at the time. 

Two years later, in February 1972, the City of Scottsdale finished raising their $20,000 of the matching grant, and the Scottsdale Fine Arts Commision chose acclaimed sculptor Louise Nevelson to create the first work of public art for the city. Nevelson, who is regarded as one of the best sculptors of the 20th century, completed the expressionist sculpture out of monochromatic corten steel designed to patina with time. Its abstract structure and shapes resemble some of her other iconic creations. 

Louise Nevelson, the creator of Window to the West, Gazing at her other artwork, 1978, Courtesy of Dixie Guerrero, ©Pedro E. Guerrero Archives

Although the sculpture was originally titled Atmosphere and Environments XVIII, thanks to its westward placement after its completion, it quickly became known as Windows to the West. Since its dedication in 1973, the sculpture has remained a treasured landmark of Scottsdale and continues to showcase how far the city’s appreciation for art has come.

Today, due to renovations on the Scottsdale Civic Center where the Windows to the West lived, the sculpture is in storage until the construction is finished in 2023. When it returns, art enthusiasts can expect the beloved sculpture to find its new home closer to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, but with the same western spirit as before.

A Brief History of the Attached Garage

For those tireless fans of Frank Lloyd Wright — unarguably one of the greatest architects of the 20th century — we are delighted to shine a light on one of his innovations that rarely attracts attention. It’s the attached garage.

In a brilliant process of cultural sleuthing, conceptual artist Olivia Erlanger and architect Luis Ortega Govela embarked on a project that culminated in the 2018 publication of Garage by MIT Press. With elegance, wit and panache, the authors tell this tale of Robie House, completed in 1910:

“In the quiet darkness of South Woodlawn Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright molded and adapted the American home for the automobile. The small rectangular windows of Wright’s Robie House cast rectilinear shadows across the sidewalk. In the moonlight, the red hydrangeas lining the second-floor balcony appeared black, to be identified only by their smell. With no “front” or “back,” the building looms, imperious and totemic. To the pedestrian it looks like a Japanese woodblock puzzle: the riddle of how to enter, or exit, persists until one encounters an oversized gate leading to a three-car garage. The Robie House is known by many as the cornerstone of modernism, but its status as the first home with an attached garage seems to have been forgotten. The garage struck architectural academics as so banal that it became nothing more than a footnote in Wright’s illustrious history.

The garage was invented to domesticate the car. At the end of the nineteenth century, the car made its entrance into the stage of history to replace the horse. Initially it was a temperamental machine, and people were reluctant to incorporate it into their daily lives. The machine had yet to develop the technology necessary to be used regularly, so it was mostly kept in the stable, next to the other animals. Yet at the same time the car needed so much upkeep that mostly they were stored in communal parking lots where the first auto mechanics would constantly be preparing cars for the type of local roads that existed at the time.

Following the completion of Robie House, Wright was commissioned by Emma Martin to design an attached garage for her Oak Park home in his characteristic Prairie style

If the human entrance to the house was secretive, the one designed for the machine was not. Inside the yard, the garage doors dominate the space. It is here that the garage claims its rightful position on the front of the plot with a direct and easy connection to the street. If we go by Wright’s poetic hand, in 1910 the garage was symbolically integrated into the familial structure. This relationship between home and garage, family and car, would not reappear in architecture until the early 1920s, making the Robie House a premonition of the future.”

For a deeper dive into the history of the garage as a space of creativity (think tech start-ups and musicians), grab a copy of Garage and make time to visit Robie House. Enjoy!

Women in Architecture: Natalie de Blois

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting a designer who generously contributed to the refined elegance of American modernism, Natalie de Blois. As an early advocate for women in architecture, de Blois became well-known in feminist architecture circles around the world. Learn more about her incredible life and career below: 

The Life of Natalie Griffin de Blois

De Blois was born on April 2, 1921, in Paterson, New Jersey. Following three generations of engineers in her family, she knew by the age of 10 that she wanted to become an architect. Supported by her father, de Blois’ interests in art and architecture flourished; thanks to him, she enrolled in a mechanical drawing course in school, which was typically limited to male students at the time. 

The class not only helped de Blois evolve her drawing skills for what would become her passion, but it also introduced her to the bias she would experience throughout her career. In 1939, she visited the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, further expanding her understanding and vision for modern architecture.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, a postcard of the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1940

De Blois enrolled at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio but soon transferred to Columbia University after they changed their architecture school’s admission policy. While at Columbia, de Blois worked for various firms drafting various presentations and projects

Notable Works and Achievements 

Following her graduation in 1944, de Blois immediately received her first position at Ketchum, Gina and Sharpe, a firm she admired for their dedication to modern design. However, she left due to gender bias less than a year after starting. But, while one door closed, another opened at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where de Blois’ talents were finally celebrated. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, 1960

At SOM, de Blois contributed to seminal design proposals including the United Nations Headquarters and Lincoln Center, but it wasn’t until 1948 that she led her first project, Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. The hotel immediately received praise for its modern, luxurious look and high-tech amenities for the time. She also contributed designs to many of the firm’s other significant projects, including Manhattan’s Lever House, completed in 1952 and the Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, finished in 1960, perhaps the most complete example of her most modernist design aesthetic.

In 1961, de Blois relocated to work for SOM’s Chicago office, where she was promoted to Associate Partner. In Chicago, she prioritized advocating for women in her field and was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and was appointed to the AIA Chicago Taskforce on Women in Architecture in 1974. However, de Blois left the firm the same year and moved to Texas, where she completed her career in architecture, later becoming a professor at the University of Texas School of Architecture. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, Equitable Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1965

Alongside her revolutionary work, de Blois has received various design awards and achievements, including: 

  • Fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1974
  • Edward J. Romieniec, FAIA, Award for Outstanding Educational Contributions, Texas Society of Architects, 1998
  • Tallest woman-designed building in the world, 270 Park Avenue, from 1960 until 2009  

Throughout her illustrious career, de Blois’ proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And, in her lifelong pursuit of gender equality, she proved that women could compete at the highest levels of the architecture profession, empowering the careers of countless women who followed her.

Modern Interpretations of Le Corbusier’s Celebrated Designs

Celebrated as the pioneer of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier’s contributions to architecture and design remain as significant as ever. And although much of his work is nearly a century old, designers continue to draw inspiration from his inventive principles. Take a look at how designers are still responding to Le Corbusier’s theories of modernism today. 

This year, the international contemporary art gallery, Galerie Philia, displayed Héritages. Found at Cité Radieuse, a Le Corbusier housing complex built in 1952, the exhibit featured works by eight international designs referencing the functionality and minimalist design elements Le Corbusier famously employed through his work. 

And although the exhibition featured work from multiple designers, each piece united through a visual response or reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s theories. While some artists showcased work heavily influenced by Le Corbusier in the exhibition’s “resonance” area, others provided pieces opposing his theories in the “dissonance” area. 

Arno Declerq’s steel daybed in the “resonance” room, Photo by Maison Mounton Noir

Belgian designer Arno Declercq contributed a sculptural daybed for the “resonance” room, inspired by both Le Corbusier’s famous furniture designs and his architectural contributions. The minimalist design features a structure of steel, a material Le Corbusier often used throughout his architecture. Paired with the daybed, architect and designer Pietro Franceschini contributed a chunky brutalist chair upholstered with vibrant yellow velvet, deeply inspired by Le Corbusier’s bold yet functional armchair designs. 

In the exhibit’s “dissancane” room, American visual artist Jojo Corväiá explores imbalance with his standout ceramic table. Using volcanic clay, Corväiá designed the table with the intent of displaying its cracks and irregularities, a practice from which Le Corbusier strayed. Designer Roxane Lahidji also contributed to the room, adding a sculpted chair of marbled salts. The stretched seat and arched base make reference to the fragility of organic designs. 

Jojo Corväiá’s volcanic clay table in the “dissonance” room, Photo by Maison Mounton Noir

In addition to the furniture, artist Flora Temnouche created three oil paintings for the space. The paintings touch on the inertia of nature, partially inspired by the sparse relationship to nature Le Corbusier’s approach to design and architecture employed.

Considered one of the most influential figures in contemporary design, Le Corbusier’s work continues to create inspiration across the world today. And, thanks to Galerie Philia’s Héritages exhibition, artists and designers continue to honor and reflect the transformative work, bringing it new meaning and life. Explore the rest of the exhibition’s bold work here!

Modern Decor For Your Home

At Optima, our affinity for modern design and style stretches through all of our Communities. In the past, we’ve explored the history and identity of modern furniture, but we’ve never touched on the defining elements of modern decor. So, if you’re looking to elevate your home with a modern eye, look no further:

Like design, remember that with modernism, form follows function; this means that every decor element you have should always reflect its intended purpose. Avoid inserting decor that doesn’t add supplementary function or purpose to your home. However, this doesn’t mean that your decor has to be limited; many modernist designs also embrace vibrant colors, unique shapes and various materials.

Embrace The Light 

One key trait of modernism is utilizing and celebrating a space’s natural light. For windows, modesty is key; even with curtains, use soft and sheer fabrics to keep it minimal. Another great way to stretch the natural light in your home and manipulate space is by adding mirrors to your interior. Hang mirrors where they’re most practical in your home. Rooms that have limited light and feel small may benefit from a large mirror, and it might make sense to place a mirror across from your home’s beautiful view or a statement piece.

brightly lit living room with an orange sofa, patterned rug, glass accent table, and other modern home decor
Vibrant colors and organic textures in an Optima Sonoran Village residence

Introduce Texture & Color

Whether you start with the living room or the bathroom, introducing organic textures to your home is a great way to welcome modern design. Bring the outdoors in with furniture and decor elements that feature natural wood and stone. Other warm textures like leather and natural fibers make fantastic options for complimenting other modern features of your home. Modern design and warm elements don’t have to conflict with one another.

To some, modernism is only associated with monochromatic tones like gray, white and black, but extending pops of vibrant color throughout your home is a great way to add life to the environment. Place a bright-colored rug in the center of a large room or go all natural and bring in lush greenery and foliage.

Modern decor and design continue to be timeless templates for accessorizing homes. Whether you start utilizing your home’s natural light or mix in a splash of color, there are countless ways to embrace modern decor throughout your home.

Women in Architecture: Doreen Adengo

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re shedding light on a trailblazer for some of Africa’s most transformative architecture, Doreen Adengo. Studying and traveling across various continents, Adengo’s ultimate architectural vision showcases the best of the world’s architectural feats. Learn more about her impactful life and work below: 

The Life of Doreen Adengo

Adengo was born in 1976 in Uganda where she lived until she was 18. She moved with her family to the United States in 1994 and studied architecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She then completed her masters degree in architecture from Yale University and began her professional career shortly after. 

Her work took her from the United States to Europe early on in her career, where she worked at various architectural studios in London. Following her stint in the UK, Adengo returned home to Uganda where she founded the Kampala-based studio Adengo Architecture in 2015. Much of the work Adengo created while at Adengo Architecture focused the studio’s commitment to developing affordable and sustainable housing projects. 

The Bujuuko Schools, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture
The Bujuuko Schools, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture

Notable Works and Achievements

While Adengo had experience designing furniture and participating in research and advocacy focused on urban communities, her most well-known projects include transformative architecture in Uganda. 

Found in Bujuuko, Uganda, The Bujuuko Schools consists of three series of one-story buildings that stretch across the sloping land. The school’s were designed with passive techniques to establish comfortable interiors throughout the region’s dry and rainy seasons. Adengo also designed the school to echo the larger community’s appreciation for the outdoors, providing a seamless connection between their interior and exterior. 

Still under construction, the L-Building is another of Adengo’s most talked about projects. The mixed-used construction found in Wakiso, Uganda is primarily made of locally sourced clay brick, constructed at the Uganda Clays Factory nearby. The brick is not only used in its traditional building method as a wall, but also as brick-screen and flooring throughout the building. 

The L-Building, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture

Beyond her architectural work, Adengo has taught at The New School and Pratt Institute in New York, the University of Johannesburg’s School of Architecture and Uganda Martyrs University. 

Adengo is a pioneer for modern Ugandan architecture, transforming the lives of many in the country. Although she passed away in July 2022, her studio, Adengo Architecture, still an active practice today, continues to welcome clients around the world interested in sustainable, affordable architecture and custom furniture.

Scottsdale Public Art: Pinball Wizard

Scottsdale’s appreciation for art enables artists to publicize their talents and add to the environment’s imaginative aesthetic year-round. From initiatives like IN FLUX Cycle 10 to classic installations like Knight Rise, Scottsdale proudly embraces the impact behind sharing art with others. Today, we’re spotlighting Scottsdale’s latest addition of public art, Pinball Wizard

Completed in June 2022, Old Town Scottsdale welcomes Pinball Wizard as the city’s newest public art installation. Public Artist Annette Coleman worked with Scottsdale Public Art to design and construct the vibrant project using colored glass. Coleman is well-known for her illustrative mosaic public art installations, many of which reside in Colorado, and embraces a public art philosophy rooted in stimulating inspiration and creating community. 

Pinball Wizard resides at the Stetson Plaza Splash Pad at the Scottsdale Waterfront and features 30 disco-like mosaic orbs and various mosaic waves built into the environment. Designed to catch light from every angle, the myriad of shapes and bright colored glass in Coleman’s design embraces the playful attitude that already fills the area. 

Annette Coleman installing Pinball Wizard, Courtesy of Scottsdale Public Art
Annette Coleman installing Pinball Wizard, Courtesy of Scottsdale Public Art

Drawing inspiration from her appreciation for the outdoors, specifically water, wind, flora and fauna, Coleman included various serpent-shaped waves throughout the concrete wall of the splash pad. Her inspiration behind Pinball Wizard, and many of her other projects, also draws from television shows, games and science productions, and other pop culture references. 

Pinball Wizard brings a splash of color to the already lively surrounding at Scottsdale’s Stetson Plaza Splash Pad. Visit the public art yourself and hear more from Coleman about its creation here

Alfresco Cooking in Optima Communities

Warm weather, fresh air, and BBQs are all defining aspects of the perfect summer. Across all of Optima’s communities, we provide residents with abundant outdoor space to celebrate living well, and to engage with each other around alfresco cooking and dining. 

Our passionate approach to design creates a linkage between architecture and nature throughout each of our communities, but it’s in Optima Kierland, Optima Sonoran Village, Optima Signature, Optima Lakeview and our latest project, Optima Verdana, where residents will find extensive amenity spaces that include outdoor kitchens and communal grills on their sky decks, and additional private grills in select terraces. 

For those who are fans of alfresco cooking and dining, here’s your chance to hone your grilling skills with the great American staple — the hotdog. Whether you’re a pro or just getting the hang of it all, here are two great recipes to get you up to the sky deck with your chef’s hat and tongs…

Chicago-style hot dog
Chicago-style hot dog

Chicago-Style Hot Dog

Since Optima’s roots are in Chicago, we have to highlight the classic Chicago-style hot dog. The best part about the Windy City staple is how easy it is to prepare! All you need is a hot grill and all of the delish garden-fresh ingredients! Find the recipe here

Sonoran hot dog
Sonoran hot dog

Sonoran Hot Dog

While Chicago is famously known for its unique take on the hot dog, Arizona propels the standard bite to a whole different level with the Sonoran hot dog. Like its standard cousin, the Sonoran is topped with tasty condiments, but what makes it unique is its bacon-wrapped exterior. Find the recipe here

The outdoor kitchens, communal grills and private grills are just some of the many ways we design our residential and communal spaces to invite the outdoors inside. Connecting to nature is an easy way to take some time and connect to yourself and to the environment around you.

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