Nancy Levinson on architecture
Monday, November 27, 2006
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
I'm posting for the first time in weeks, and what I'd intended to do is to review The Perfect $100,000 House, a new book in which architecture critic Karrie Jacobs recounts "a trip across America and back in pursuit of a place to call home." I enjoyed the book: I liked traveling along with Jacobs as she sought out architects and homebuilders around the country—ex-hippie design-builders in Vermont, prefab architect-entrepreneurs in Missouri and Texas, alternative energy communards in New Mexico, idealistic professors in Kansas and Alabama, etc. etc. But what I liked most about the book weren't any of its particular profiles, but rather its driving (so to speak) idea: The Perfect $100,000 House is a road book, which means that it is an unabashedly old-fashioned book. I say this as a compliment: to hit the road in your Volkswagen Cabrio in seach of a good affordable house is coast-to-coast (and back) affirmation of the value of experience over ethernet—of the superior understanding of places and persons that comes from encounters that are grounded, sensual, multi-dimensional . . . old-fashioned. Nowadays none of us needs to log 14,520 miles (!) to learn about the Rural Studio, or Rocio Romero's modernist prefabs, or Dan Rockhill's Studio 804, or any of the estimable enterprises Jacobs visits. Nowadays all we need to do is to log on, and follow Google wherever it goes.
I've been thinking a lot lately about this tension between real and virtual, between on-the-ground and online—a tension that seems to me inevitable and ongoing as our culture migrates more and more from print to web, from public theater to private screen, from communal connection to micro-niche market. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this won't be that review I set out to write, but instead my last post on "Pixel Points." I've had a great time blogging on Arts Journal, but I've just gone on my own cross-country journey: I've moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Phoenix, Arizona, to take on the directorship of the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory, a program recently begun by the College of Design at Arizona State University. Stay tuned for our updated website: the Phoenix Urban Research Lab will be a mix of think tank, project design center, lecture and conference venue, and publications generator, and via all of these activities an advocate for progressive urban thinking, in the Southwest and beyond. Boston to Phoenix is, of course, a big transition—from harborside to high desert, from compact colonial settlement to sprawling modern metropolis, from old urbanism to 21st-century urbanism . . . still a work-in-progress, and all the more exciting for being so.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Architecture to Landscape
The monograph is the workhorse of architectural publishing. It's at once the easiest genre to do (pick the projects, collect the images, convince a famous colleague to contribute a foreword, get a graphic designer to give it some glamor, and then you're practically ready for the book party) and to disdain ("effectively, a great big practice brochure," as Kester Rattenbury noted in an Icon overview of architectural publishing). But lately I've been thinking that the monograph is ripe for rehabilitation—that the problem isn't that these big fat picture books are self-promotional but that they're formulaic. S, M, L, XL, after all, managed to be a six-pound advertisement for the career—the mystique—of Rem Koolhaas and an inventive exploration of the genre. With its unexpectedly compact trim size and unabashedly bloated page count, it upended the coffee-table conventions of the category and inspired more than a few extra-thick imitators. (Whether this particular development has been salubrious is still open to debate. In his very smart review of the publication, Martin Filler described S, M, L, XL as "user-hostile," and personally I suspect the unwieldy volume is more grazed than read . . . which may of course have been exactly the point.) What makes the monograph especially ready for more such reconceptualizations is the Internet. The rise of digital communications and the proliferation of professional web sites are freeing the monograph from its traditional role. Now that the chronological and/or typological record of projects can be web-based, the monograph no longer need function as a large-format, perfect-bound curriculum vitae. Now the monograph can be—well, whatever its author-designers want it to be. Ideally this sort of freedom will challenge practitioners to make books that are both conceptually rigorous and beautifully wrought—to toss the template and see the making of a book as an invigorating creative journey.
An elegant case in point is Architecture To Landscape, a monograph on two houses by architects Salvatore LaRosa and Ronald Bentley, both of whom are partners in the New York firm B Five Studio. Edited by James Russell (whose authorial credits include the AJ blog "Sticks and Stones," and who is—necessary disclosure—a friend) and designed by Lawrence Wolfson, the book is an elegant and thoughtful study of two private houses, and of how they were shaped to relate to the particularities of their landscapes. One house is deep in the woods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania; it happens to be the architects' own weekend place, a comparatively modest structure created over many years, in a process that began with the LaRosa and Bentley camping on the property in order, as Russell writes, "to come to intimate terms with the site." The other house is an estate in Easthampton, New York, and it isn't modest at all; but you might say it wears its wealth with pleasing reticence. The residences are lovely, and so is the design of the Easthampton landscape, by Douglas Reed of Reed/Hilderbrand. But what really interests me here is how richly the book presents the projects. The key decision, I think, was to devote the entire volume to just two buildings. Architecture to Landscape features dozens of photographs (by no fewer than seven photographers), and not just the beauty shots that you might have already seen (both houses have been published previously, in professional magazines and also in the New York Times Magazine). We see the Bucks County house evolve over more than a decade, and we see it also in different seasons, in both color and black-and-white images. Architecture to Landscape also includes plans and elevations and—a lovely touch—a scattering of tiny images of design influences, which range from Asplund's Woodland Chapel to Mies's Jackson Hole Resort House to Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown's Brant House. This sort of illustrative depth is extremely rare in architectural publishing (even in El Croquis), and it draws you in, as do the thoughtful essays (by Russell, Gary Hilderbrand, and Peter Rowe).
Architecture to Landscape does not push the boundaries of the genre, as did Koolhaas and his co-author Bruce Mau. But it does—with its clarity of conception and intensity of focus—exemplify a very satisfying approach to revitalizing the print monograph in our age of endlessly accessible electronic imagery.
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Buildings . . . and Books
Back to blogging . . . but with a bit of a shift. In an earlier post I delve into what seem to me the contradictions of architecture critique—the deepening disconnect between the globalized media culture, which is instantaneous, evanescent, and damn near everywhere, and the art of architecture, whose works remain stubbornly solid and three-dimensional, demanding actual presence and real time. So I'd like now to make this weblog less about architecture—about what is singular and local—and more about the literature of architecture—about what is conveniently portable and widely available. Which is not to imply that leafing through a monograph on the oeuvre of Herzog and De Meuron is any substitute for experiencing their buildings; but if time or money are too tight to manage the tour—the trips to Basel and Beijing, to London, Munich, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—then you might as well discover the Allianz Arena and the Dominus Winery (etc.) in the pages of a book or the pixels of a website.
I've got a lot of books in the queue, and they range from sobering (The Destruction of Memory, by Robert Bevan, about the fate of buildings in war) to seductive (Architecture to Landscape, an elegant monograph on several houses by B Five Studio, with landscapes by Douglas Reed and Gary Hilderbrand) to sweeping ([Re]Reading Perspecta, an 823-page compendium of the first fifty years of Yale's architecture journal, the shipping weight of which is, according to Amazon, 9.54 pounds).
But I'll begin with a book I read earlier this year. Celluloid Skyline, by architect James Sanders, explores the New York City created onscreen in a century of cinema. Published a few years ago, the book is an unusual hybrid history of architecture and film, and it ranges with impressive erudition from the early shorts created by pioneers like Thomas Edison, who set up shop in a West 28th Street walk-up and cranked out titles like What Happened on Twenty-third Street, to the hypersophisticated mixes of image and sound created by contemporary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. Sanders, who practices architecture in Manhattan, argues that the New York of the movies "provides a fascinating mirror to the real city, to its booms and busts, its crooked mayors and master builders, its waves of immigration, growth, decline, rebirth." He argues too that "the movie city, the mythic city, is ultimately more than a mere mirror. It is a place unto itself, an extraordinary cultural construct spanning hundreds of individual films, from works of genius by Wyler, Hitchcock, and Scorsese to the most routine 1930s 'Manhattan Melodrama.'" This is a marvelous premise for an inquiry into the interconnections between architecture and film, and also into the increasingly flimsy boundary between screen-world and real-world: into how all those larger-than-life images projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second have colonized our consciousness. For instance: I am writing this on a hot night in mid-July, sitting and sweltering in my apartment, where somehow I've neglected (i.e., been too cheap) to install an air conditioner, and so the fan is whirring, and across the street my neighbor's fan is whirring too . . . and what comes pleasantly to mind are scenes from Billy Wilder's The Seven-Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe, playing a character known only as The Girl, explains to her enamored neighbor that the city has gotten so sticky that she's taken to keeping her underpants in the fridge . . . and better yet, scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with its memorable summer-in-the-city set, which gives us deep-focus views of mid-'50s neighborhood life in Greenwich Village, when AC was still upscale and people kept their windows wide open and some even dragged a mattress onto the fire escape and slept outside.
The book contains a terrific chapter on Rear Window, which includes a fascinating description of how the film was shot—entirely on a single soundstage at Paramount Studios, as it turns out. ". . . Rear Window's set completely filled Stage 18, one of the biggest on the Paramount lot, 98 feet wide by 184 feet long," writes Sanders. "During the six weeks required for its construction, Hitchcock himself could be seen roving around every corner, delighting in its complexity and verisimilitude, overseeing the smallest details. When completed, the $100,000 set included thirty-one individual apartments, twelve of them fully furnished, and featured a complete drainage system to avoid flooding during the rain scenes."
Celluloid Skyline is packed with this sort of wonderful detail, with information that lets us glimpse the man behind the curtain, so to speak, and yet somehow leaves intact our vision of the dream city.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Catching up on reading—and weblogging—I want to recommend "Home Alone," a terrific essay in this month's Atlantic, in which the professor and critic Terry Castle comes clean about her addiction—to shelter magazines. Castle teaches at Stanford and specializes in 18th-century English literature—her books include Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction—but she's apparently passed many an enraptured hour paging through the décor glossies. Castle knows her House and Garden and Met Home, her House Beautiful and Architectural Digest and World of Interiors, her Dwell and Wallpaper and Nest, and, as a sister addict (though naturally I tell myself I subscribe for professional reasons) I can't help but agree about their dependably narcotic effects. Castle writes: "An ex-girlfriend (we split up in part over closet space) informs me I am a 'house-porn addict,' and although the term is exactly the sort of metrosexual-hipster cliché, cheeky yet dull, that one finds every Thursday in the New York Times House & Home section, it does get at the curious feelings of guilt, titillation, and flooding bourgeois pleasure—relief delivered through hands and eyeballs—that such publications provide."
Clearly Castle is in no position to moralize. But she's too sharp not to have some fun with the pretensions of the genre, and she's on target about the most curious contradiction of shelter lit: how month after month the magazines offer the slick spectacle of sophisticated homeowners plunking down pots of money to make places that express inimitable personal style, only to concoct predictable variations on one of the styles du jour. For architects, it can get more than a little uncomfortable to confront the implicit limits of originality—including one's own. I remember a conversation I had years ago with a friend, soon after we'd graduated from architecture school and had started working in a design firm. Had I noticed, my friend asked, that our apartments, and the apartments of our other architect friends, looked more or less the same—that despite our efforts to be innovative, fresh, quirky, etc., we'd all somehow contrived the same mix ("mix" being, of course, one of the operative concepts of ambitious home décor) of period architectural detail and contemporary furniture (Bauhausian knockoffs and Ikea placeholders, usually—though I recall one friend who so resisted the purchase of non-pedigreed furniture that he lived for years with a reverse-snob sofa-equivalent made of plywood and paint cans), of wood floors and threadbare Orientals, of Artemide lamps and (this being the late '80s) Alessi kitchenware and maybe even some outré Memphis-style bric-a-brac. Obviously we couldn't escape the décor-zeitgeist. Here is Castle on the double message of the magazines:
"That the 'express yourself' ethos of the shelter mag is both illogical and manipulative should go without saying. While encouraging you to find your 'personal style,' the [magazine] also wants to show you how. Even my own fanatically considered décor, I’m forced to admit, may be part of some greedy stranger’s business plan—a version of that nostalgic 'vintage' or 'Paris flea market' style heavily promoted to urban college-educated women of my generation throughout the United States and Western Europe over the past decade or so. (Other incessantly marketed 'looks' now vying for dominance in Shelter-Mag Land: 'mid-century modern'—a variety of Baby Boomer Rat Pack retro distinguished by funky space-age design, Case Study houses, pony skins on the floor, and, if you’re lucky, lots of Eames, Mies, and Corbu—and the more minimalist, Asian-inspired 'W Hotel' look, involving wenge wood, stark-white walls, spa bathrooms, dust-mite-free bedding, solitary orchids in raku pots, etc. Chacun à son goût and all that, but the latter mode—like the frigid minimalism of the British cult architect John Pawson—always strikes me as simply the latest twist on twentieth-century fascist design.) But whether my never-ending quest for antique finials, faded bits of toile de Jouy, old postcards, and other quirky 'flea-market finds' is a product of disposition or suggestion, I am, I realize, as much a slave to commodity fetishism as any McMansion-owning reader of Architectural Digest—hideous bible of parvenus from the Hamptons to Malibu."
For the record, my own shelter-mag jones has never gotten as desperate as Digest. Not necessarily because of the parvenu problem, but because most of the stuff it publishes—20,000-square-feet of faux-cozy in Sun Valley, over-plush and lugubrious Park Avenue triplexes, etc.—reminds me of that scene in The Philadelphia Story where the journalist Macauley Connor/James Stewart is shown around the Main Line mansion of the heiress Tracy Lord/Katharine Hepburn, and he mutters, "You'd have to be as rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this."
Castle speculates too on the reasons for the popularity of interior mags. Personally I've always assumed that our growing home-obsession could be explained much the way we explain eating disorders: as a way of taking charge of something, when so much is beyond control. The demands of domesticity, the volatility of the work-world, not to mention the bad politics and policies of our hapless leaders: when these seem much too much, how comforting—how compensatory—it is to curl up on your perfect licensed-reproduction of a sofa. (Perhaps you caught that recent segment of This American Life, which chronicled one man's decade-long search for the ideal couch, including his fixation—something I understand, actually—on the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Frank?) In any case, though Castle doesn't see redoing your living room as a hedge against anorexia nervosa, she does view the interiors itch as an understandable—albeit pricey—response to geo-political anxiety:
"How to understand such collective absorption? One might moralize, of course, and simply write off the phenomenon as yet another example of life in obscene America—home of the fat, spoiled, and imbecilic. . . . [Yet] [o]ne could as easily argue, it seems to me, that house porn, like the billion-dollar business of home improvement itself, is symptomatic—of a peculiar disquiet now haunting ordinary American life. However callow it may seem to point it out, being middle-class these days means feeling freaky a lot of the time. The heebie- jeebies are definitely a problem. The issues here are deep ones. Home—no less than the cherished 'homeland' of dismal fame—seems in desperate need of securing. The precariousness of All We Hold Dear is dinned into our heads daily. It’s hardly feckless to feel scared or neurasthenic at times.
"Might paging through a shelter mag be seen—in an analytic spirit and with a certain Freudian forbearance—as a middle-class coping mechanism? As a way of calming the spirit in bizarre and parlous times? House porn, I’m beginning to think, could best be understood as a postmodern equivalent of traditional consolation literature—Boethius meets Mitchell Gold. Though shamelessly of this world—and nowhere more so than in the glutted and prodigal U.S.A.—it’s as spiritually fraught, one could argue, as the breviaries of old."
For the rest of the essay, click here, while the link is still live.
Monday, December 5, 2005
Here in Boston 2006 has begun gloomy and overcast, snowy and rainy and icy—excellent weather for curling up with the papers and catching up on the year's-end most-notable-of-2005 lists. But the latest round of annual print retrospection has seemed to me curiously unsatisfying—which is not to say that the architecture critics of our major papers didn't find worthwhile issues to articulate (Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times zeroes in on the increasingly distressing gap between image and power: the fact that architects, although more celebrated than ever, remain politically ineffectual) and admirable buildings to applaud (Robert Campbell in the Boston Globe listed more than a dozen projects, focusing on museums around the world and science buildings in metropolitan Boston; rather less energetically, Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times expressed enthusiasm for three new buildings: Zaha Hadid's BMW plant in Leipzig and science center in Wolfsburg, and Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Música in Porto).
No, the problem with the end-of-year summaries hasn't really to do with any of the individual critics or their surveys; the problem is that these annual lists expose what have become the limitations of the enterprise. The shortcomings of mainstream architecture criticism have, of course, been the focus of ongoing scrutiny—not to say of unflattering comparisons with that marvelous mid-century moment when critics like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and Reyner Banham managed to be both erudite and popular. The latest such scrutiny you might already have seen—I refer to the extended treatment of the topic several weeks ago in The Architect's Newspaper (no longer accessible, alas, on the paper's website). The paper's editors, Cathy Lang Ho and William Menking, do not pussyfoot around the problem. "Architecture criticism has devolved over recent years," they write, "from being consciousness-raising, progressive, and pleasurable to read—a standard that Ada Louise Huxtable worked hard to define from the moment she became The New York Times's and the country's first full-time architecture critic over 40 years ago—to being ad hominem, celebrity-obsessed, object-centric, and obtuse—a trail blazed by Herbert Muschamp, who was the Times architecture critic for 12 years before retiring last year. Is it any wonder that no one—professional or lay reader—wants to read criticism anymore?" From this blunt beginning the editors then orchestrate an eight-page, multi-vocal feature that mixes interviews with long-established newspaper critics (this group—presumably exempt from the devolutionary drift—includes Ada Louise Huxtable, Allan Temko, Paul Goldberger, Michael Sorkin, Robert Campbell, and Deyan Sudjic) and insightful overviews by Joan Ockman, Marisa Bartolucci, and Vittorio Gregotti. Skeptical readers might want to puzzle out the politics (gender, geographic, aesthetic) that resulted in the particular selection of critics to interview and to review. But overall the section is a smart summary of the scene, and it hits a lot of the sensitive spots, including the fascination with fame ("chasing celebrities," in Huxtable's succinct dismissal) and the insidious effects of the brand-market mentality (or, as the irrepressible Sorkin puts it: "The majority of critics nowadays are simply flacks: There are too many fashionistas and too few street fighters.")
Yet nowhere does this ambitious survey hit the most sensitive spot of all. Nowhere do any of the critics acknowledge the rise of the World Wide Web, the pervasive presence of the Internet, the digital revolution that is altering both journalistic practice and architecture culture. "Alas, there's no Lewis Mumford on the horizon," writes Marisa Bartolucci. Who would disagree? But I wonder whether the real issue is not that there is no Lewis Mumford on the horizon; I wonder whether the real issue—the deeper issue—is that the socio-economic and professional-intellectual frameworks that supported his career—and those of the generation that followed—have weakened to the point of disintegration. Mumford began writing about architecture in the 1920s, Huxtable and Temko in the '50s, Campbell and Sorkin and Goldberger in the '70s—in retrospect the twilight of a still-analog era when print was the unrivaled medium of intellectual life, when serious-minded newspapers and periodicals could still aim to guide the culture, to be "general interest," sometimes "large circulation," and not infrequently "for-profit." For clearly critical influence depends not just upon the ability of the critic but upon the presence of a large and ready readership. Mumford became hugely influential—Colin Rowe called him "an American Ruskin"—not only because of his capacious intellect and prodigious output, but also because in mid-20th-century America there still existed something like a cohesive culture, a culture with discernible bounds, common touchstones, acknowledged authorities. It was a culture in which there flourished a lively and combative public-intellectual journalism, and a certain style of big-picture, ultra-confident criticism—Mumford on architecture, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg on art, Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal on books, James Agee and Robert Warshow and Pauline Kael on the movies, etc. etc.
Today that cohesion has all but disappeared; for years now the general-interest consensus has been fracturing apart, and not much of it has survived the rise of the decentralizing technologies of digital communication. "Architecture criticism has lost its place in public dialogue," write the editors of The Architect's Newspaper. This seems unfortunately to be the case. But it might then be useful to ask: Where is that public dialogue likely to take place? What might be its sturdiest platforms? Many of the professionalized mainstream venues are now retrenching: major metropolitan newspapers scramble to survive (at the Boston Globe, half a dozen veteran arts reporters recently accepted the paper's buyout offer, leaving the culture desk depressingly depopulated) and intellectually ambitious periodicals persevere usually as non-profits, official or de facto (Harper's is underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation, for instance, and for years the red ink of The New Yorker was tolerated by its corporate parent Condé Nast); meanwhile fledgling new media generate flabbergasting quantities of content, an ever-present online multiverse of image, information, text and hypertext. Which is not to assert anything as categorical or apocalyptic as "the end of print"; but which is to suggest that old and new media together are now shaping the discursive culture of the field, and that the future of design criticism depends in some measure on the ability of print and web publishers to develop new and prosperous journalistic platforms. Four decades ago Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, and in the very first sentence he got straight to the point: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” It is still a bit of a shock, and now we might rephrase: "The media are the message."
The outlines of a multi-media, print-and-web architecture culture are still emerging, but it's not too soon to discern one of the big challenges for criticism: the Web has made the culture unprecedentedly—amazingly and impossibly—global. Architecture has been international in outlook for years, but until lately this was mainly a matter of keeping up with the foreign journals and new monographs, attending lectures and exhibits, (sometimes even) traveling. Today this manageable world-view has exploded into a superabundance of instant-access globalism at once exhilarating and exhausting. It's not that more architecture is being made around the world, it's that we are more aware of the architecture being made around the world. Years ago—way back in the 20th century—you might have sprung for a subscription to The Architectural Review, or El Croquis
or A+U or Baumeister, and every few weeks the periodicals would appear in the post and there'd be a few dozen new projects to view. Now the pace is nowhere so leisurely; now you can boot up the laptop and click on Archinect, or Arcspace, or Arch News Now, or butter paper australasia or Design Observer or dutcharchitects.com—to gloss quickly through just the first four letters of my alphabetized bookmarks—and navigate the endlessly interlinking and hyperlinking world of omnibus portals—a virtual portfolio of global architecture, the contents of which are continuously shifting and expanding.
You can see the challenge for architecture criticism—at least as construed as a type of arts review, the weightiness of which hinges inevitably upon the degree to which the reviewer's experience is comprehensive. How can any individual critic gain comprehensive experience of a field whose boundaries have become so vast, so perceptually extensive? The ambitious literary critic can place an order for next-day delivery and stack a season's reading on the bookshelf; the movie critic can become an encyclopedic authority on the basis of trips to the local multiplex and a Netflix subscription. In disadvantageous contrast, the architecture critic is confronted by a multi-continental production, the range and plenitude of which defy any effort to achieve extensive knowledge. Just to remain au courant with the far-flung projects of the big-name firms would require tireless travel (not to mention an ample expense account), and it certainly wouldn't leave much time to track the less-promoted work of promising young practitioners. How to choose what to review? How to define the critical beat?
Nowadays the pressure, or the temptation, is to pursue the global beat, which means usually the big-name beat: a natural temptation, for the global is glamorous. Yet the global beat tends to produce criticism that seems paradoxically slight, criticism that is noncontextual, episodic and fragmentary, directed more to remarkable moments than to complex narratives, the kind of criticism that Ho and Menking characterize as "celebrity-obsessed, object-centric." But what if these characteristics say less about the talents of the critics than the limits of the genre? Herbert Muschamp was notorious for his loyalty to "a small coterie of avant-garde architects" (to quote Clay Risen in the New York Observer); but in retrospect this might be understood also as tacit admission that there really is only so much that anyone can experience and assimilate. This might account too for Ouroussoff's listing of a mere three projects by two architects (talk about a small coterie) in his roundup of the year's best.
So here it might be worth considering that much of the criticism that seems now so exemplary was largely local: that critics like Mumford, Huxtable, and Sorkin all found their voices—hit their critical strides—as keen and close observers of the New York scene. Mumford, who began writing the "Skyline" column for The New Yorker in the early '30s (and would continue until the early '60s) was both a champion of progressive architecture and a five-borough populist; he covered not just major projects like Rockefeller Center and the '39 World's Fair but also cheap lunchrooms, shop windows, neighborhood playgrounds, and public housing. In the '60s and '70s, Huxtable eloquently advocated for both high-modern design and historic preservation, but she was especially expert at teasing out the intricacies of bureaucratic planning and real estate financing, the politics and money that were transforming the multi-layered and fine-grained prewar city into the world capital of what she called "death by development." And Sorkin, Village Voice critic in the Age of Reagan, carried on where the other two left off: to read his Voice pieces now is to revisit a city in the early stages of what has since metastasized into full-blown Disneyfication and terminal Trumpitude. (Recommendations: Sidewalk Critic, a delightful selection of Mumford's '30s criticism; Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, a collection of Huxtable's journalism for the New York Times; and Exquisite Corpse, Sorkin's cris de coeur of the '80s.) And of course the tradition of local criticism, of ongoing and detailed exploration of a metropolis, continues today in the thoughtful work of Blair Kamin, at the Chicago Tribune, and David Dillon, at the Dallas Morning News.
I do realize that good criticism, and a lively critical culture, cannot be reduced to any simple opposition between "local" and "global," and that ambitious writers will always seek wide experience; and in any case, the local and global exist on a continuum, with each informing and influencing the other. But it does seem that much of the best criticism has resulted from sustained and ardent engagement with a particular place: engagement that allows the critical observer to gain
comprehensive knowledge not just of the architecture of the place—the ordinary as well as exceptional buildings—but also of the diverse forces—civic, social, political, economic, regulatory, demographic—that shape the architecture. Mumford never studied architecture—his last degree was his diploma from Stuyvesant High School—but he was an indefatigable and brilliant student of New York City, which he called his "true university."
Friday, October 21, 2005
The Post-disaster Disaster
In recent weeks I've been logging travel miles, sans laptop, which hasn't left much time for weblogging. I've been to San Francisco, where I saw the brand-new De Young, and to Dallas/Fort Worth, where I saw the now-classic Kimbell; both of which museums, so extraordinary in their very different ways, raise intriguing issues about the evolution of the art-building as icon, issues I'd like to delve into sometime soon.
But first I want to persist with the ongoing story of post-Katrina reconstruction, and to respond to readers who felt that my last post, on the Mississippi Renewal Forum, was a bit rough on the New Urbanists and their design ideas for rebuilding a dozen or so Gulf Coast towns. David Sucher, in particular, of City Comforts, argued that I failed "to separate urban site plan—which is the core of New Urbanism—from architectural style"; and then wondered whether I and other critics would "really prefer to have Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry—as opposed to Andres Duany et al.—taking lead roles in helping Mississippians in their rebuilding." Perhaps I was too hard on the New Urbanists' efforts to advocate pedestrian-oriented communities; though I'd still argue that the popular appeal of the movement is based less on its planning principles than on its neotraditional pattern books; which means that developers often forsake the principles—the emphasis on regional planning, mixed uses, multi-family housing, transit corridors, et al.—and focus on the period decor, on the porches and porticoes, the gables and gambrels.
But certainly I wasn't suggesting that the better strategy would be to round up Koolhaas and Gehry, or any of the usual stars, to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. (Although here the intrepid follower of Koolhaas's oeuvre, built and unbuilt, might recall that his Office for Metropolitan Architecture has not shied away from the grand geo-hydrological gesture: in the plump and prodigal late '90s, OMA proposed that in order to accommodate the expansion of Harvard University, the cities of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., should redirect the course of the Charles River). No, what the reconstruction needs right now is not celebrity aura or iconic buildings; given that hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless and displaced, that insurance claims and mortgage payments are bollixed up in bureaucracies, that electric and gas service are spotty, and that essential infrastructure requires large-scale repair and region-wide redesign, it seems still too soon to be debating matters of architectural style. (The Mississippi Renewal Forum and the Congress for New Urbanism have just co-produced a "A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods"; but considering that many coastal residents were uninsured, who exactly will be rebuilding, and with what resources?) Today, three months after Katrina, it's appallingly plain that what the Gulf Coast needs is strong and unswerving federal commitment—commitment to developing interim and permanent housing, to paying insurance claims and helping the uninsured, and, most of all, to reconstructing the infrastructure, the levees and dams and wetlands, that most agree are vital to ensuring the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
But in recent weeks the leading story of the reconstruction has become the story of the lack of such commitment: what some are already calling "the disaster after the disaster." Here, for instance, is New Orleans writer John Biguenet, in an op-ed in the New York Times on Thanksgiving eve: "New Orleans is on the verge of death, but still, just as in the days after our levees crumbled, the government dithers, refusing to offer an unequivocal commitment to provide protection against Category 5 hurricanes. Why is this so crucial an issue? After what we have been through in the last three months and face in the coming year, there is not a homeowner or a business executive who will invest insurance proceeds in rebuilding if we are to remain vulnerable to a similar catastrophe every hurricane season. Anything short of protection against Category 5 hurricanes will condemn the city to a slow death."
Here is New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss, in a Nov. 27 op-ed in the Washington Post: "At the site of the worst urban disaster in American history, we are a city obsessed. Rebuilding New Orleans is our breakfast-table conversation, our lunchtime chatter, our pillow talk. But while we talk, we also wait. . . . Above all we are waiting for Congress and the federal government to decide that New Orleans deserves strong levees—stronger than the sorry system, designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers, that collapsed, wrecking our neighborhoods. We want word from Washington that a great American city will not be left to die. . . . New Orleans has become two cities—an enclave of survivors clustered along the Mississippi River’s crescent and a vast and sprawling shadow city where the water stood, devoid of power and people. The ancient heart—the French Quarter and Uptown—is throbbing with commerce and signs of life from the hardiest returnees. But cross Freret Street, and you enter a dim realm. The neighborhoods that extend from there to the lake are comatose. At night, I drive through darkened and abandoned streets, past acres of housing that marinated in polluted floodwater for weeks, past blocks where I know people died, unable to escape the storm, past the homes of poor, middle-class and affluent New Orleanians—all devastated alike. . . . The vastness of this destruction is almost impossible to fathom. . . . "
And here—alas—is a report from the Nov. 30 Times-Picayune, with the understandably exasperated headline "Recovery Chief Coy on Levee Overhaul": "President Bush's hand-picked federal coordinator for Hurricane Katrina recovery hinted a stronger levee system is in order for the New Orleans area, but he offered no specific commitments or timetable for meeting that goal. . . . Donald Powell, a former Texas banker and chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who stepped into the role this month as the president's front man leading Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco in Baton Rouge and later toured the hurricane-ravaged state in a Blackhawk helicopter. . . . Although Powell was noncommittal when pressed about whether he would recommend the White House support a levee system designed to withstand a hit by a Category 5 storm, he did say he 'anticipated upgrading' the area's flood protection. . . . Powell said he does not see himself as a chief executive of the recovery effort, but rather a listener and facilitator to carry a message back to Washington. . . ."
Well, as the always wise and quotable Molly Ivins slyly asks in her Nov. 17 column: "Which Bush crony will be the next Brownie?" For the "message" would seem to be blaring through loud and clear, in print and online. In addition to publishing Biguenet's pre-holiday cri de coeur, the New York Times has followed the story tenaciously, with substantial articles on the inadequacy of the levees and on the logistical and financial difficulties of restoring power to New Orleans, and with editorials on the "post-Katrina housing debacle." The web site of the Times-Picayune, NoLA.com: Everything New Orleans, publishes in-depth news on recovery and rebuilding, with stories that range from the straightforward (a report on New Orleanians who are homesick in Houston) to the mordant (a lifestyle piece on the FEMA Cantina, a weekly potluck supper-cum-survivors' support group, with dishes like "Katrina Cauliflower au Rotten," "Levee 'Leak' Soup," and "'You're Doing a Heckuva Job' Brownies"). It also features a photo gallery, with images that offer more information—more message—than the aerial view from a Blackhawk. And the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch, sponsored by the Institute for Southern Studies, features original reporting as well as articles from diverse print and web sources, with the goal of promoting a "democratic and accountable reconstruction of the South." Recent stories probe the administration's contracting priorities (e.g., "Of some $3.1 billion in business awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone, only 12 percent has gone to contractors based in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana . . .") and describe the growing political activism of citizens of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.
And these are just a few of the sources documenting the post-disaster disaster: today when you Google “post-Katrina,” you get more than a million and a half hits, and tomorrow it’ll surely be more. That the recovery is moving so slowly, that so much time is being lost, is shaping up to be not just a huge political-economic issue but also the most extraordinary infrastructure-architecture challenge of our era.
But of course there are signs of hope and optimism. How could one not, after all, be impressed by the gallows-humor resilience of a city where, at a festival a month ago, people were sporting tee-shirts asking “Got Mold?” And when the rebuilding begins, it's a good bet that there'll be no shortage of inventive architectural solutions, solutions variously prefab, green, and sustainable. More on all that, very soon. . . .
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Beyond the Front Porch
The six-day Mississippi Renewal Forum—centered in Biloxi and concluded earlier this week—hasn't lacked for heavy hype. Earlier this week the New York Times ran an Arts Section story in which reporter Robin Pogrebin recounted the visiting architects and planners' tour of Biloxi ("Armed with box lunches, the Biloxi troupe boarded a bus in the morning. First stop: City Hall. . ."); apparently paraphrased architect Stefanos Polyzoides's ruminations on rebuilding ("It's like the Three Little Pigs fable . . . If you rebuild hurricane-flattened houses out of brick, they will have a better chance of withstanding any repeat of the 30-foot surges that churned this city into what looks like a war zone today. But brick is expensive. And it does not necessarily reflect the wood-porch aesthetic that Gulf Coast residents so treasure. . ."); and offered what must surely be reductive snippets of the designers' brainstorming ("the talk turned to how to transform the beachfront strip into something closer to the French Riviera. . ."). But alas, the Times piece failed to convey what would seem to be the essential information about the Mississippi Renewal Forum: that the design charrette was organized by the Congress for New Urbanism, led by the Miami-based New Urbanist Andres Duany, held under the auspices of Gov. Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, and underwritten by a million-dollar grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (Here I must note that these omissions have been remarked upon—and then some—in a recent post by the always intrepid Guttersniper, who helpfully linked to this informative report in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., which provided all the who-what-when-where-why of the event.)
Beyond any specific news stories, though, what seems notable is that already the architectural battle lines of post-hurricane reconstruction are being demarcated. Already the New Urbanists are making a pitch for their popular brand of neotraditionalism (what National Public Radio describes as "a way of developing more compact, diverse and walkable mixed-use communities" and what the real estate blog Polis breezily dismisses as "white picket fence crapola"), while more progressive architects and critics are warning that this approach will produce a kind of NOLA Land, a Biloxi World, a theme park of Gulf Coast architectural pastiche (in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Tulane dean of architecture Reed Kroloff argues, without specifically mentioning New Urbanism, that "the worst thing that could happen is a bad 21st-century version of a great 19th-century home"; in a critique earlier this week in the New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff does refer specifically to New Urbanism, disparaging it as "a sentimental and historicist vision of how cities work").
I do agree with Kroloff and Ouroussoff, et al. (in an earlier post I described my misgivings about this most zealous of architectural crusades). And yet at this point I can't help wondering: Isn't it too soon—just weeks after Katrina, and maybe days before Wilma, with thousands still lingering in temporary shelters, with enormous economic and engineering challenges still awaiting federal action—to be arguing about architectural style? Isn't it premature to be debating about wood porches and period details? Perhaps it's inevitable: certainly it's easier to imagine the rebuilding of wood porches than to envision the reengineering of networks of pumping stations and miles of levees (as evidently it was easier for our feckless Commander-in-Chief to anticipate lounging on the porch of the house that would arise from the "rubbles" of Trent Lott's destroyed home than to grasp the scope of the disaster).
The hard fact that is easy to overlook in the arguments about retro styling versus forward thinking is that whatever gets built—no matter whether neotraditional or neomodernist—will look new and raw and unmellow. No reconstruction project will be able to replicate what took decades and centuries to make—the buildings that weathered and aged and were then repaired and refurbished, the live oaks and magnolias that softened and shaded the buildings. Another uncomforting fact—at least in the short term—is that whatever gets built today will come to look, after a century or so of seasons, as gracefully ripe as the historical structures destroyed by Katrina.
But of course a design debate will be an essential component of reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast—a spirited and substantive debate that embraces not just aesthetics but infrastructure, environment, technology, and economics. In that same Christian Science Monitor interview, Reed Kroloff argues that New Orleans might find new vitality as "the center for sustainable modular housing." In the November Metropolis, editor Susan Szenasy outlines a similar vision. "As thoughts of rebuilding New Orleans and the gulf region turn to action," she writes, "some important questions must be raised. At the heart of the matter is finding efficient and humane ways to combine high technology with the area's natural and cultural resources. The design community—with its admiration and respect for the city's creativity and beauty—can play a key role in making the New Orleans region sustainable. Who else will take up the cause of exploiting the area's abundant sun and wind, and the new possibilities these bring for architecture and planning in this hot and humid place with abundant water, itself a potential energy resource?"
New possibilities for sustainability: these aren't as easily sketchable as neo-quaint cottages and homey front porches, but they'll give us a lot more to debate.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Around New York
Some downtown news: Last week Ground Zero once again made the front-page headlines. This time the dismaying—but unsurprising—report was that the International Freedom Center, like the Drawing Center, is out of the sixteen-acre picture. By now, of course, after so much has gone so wrong, it is hard to work up much indignation. That both organizations—one of which proposed exploring the historical connections between September 11 and the Civil Rights Movement, the Soviet Gulag, Tiananmen Square, etc.; the other of which is dedicated to "the significance and diversity of drawings throughout history"—were deemed programmatically inappropriate precisely because they might sponsor controversial exhibitions is only the latest stage in what Ada Louise Huxtable described six months ago as "the progressive downgrading and evisceration of the cultural components" of the site. Still, it was unsettling to open the New York Times last Friday morning and read—right next to a bittersweet piece on Truman Capote that evoked an earlier Manhattan, a lost Manhattan of Breakfast-at-Tiffany's and Black-and-White Balls—that just one day after Gov. Pataki gave the heave-ho to the cultural group, his chief of staff announced plans for a half-million square feet of retail space at Ground Zero, and that the business-community breakfast where the plan was discussed—held at the un-Tiffany-like Sheraton Hotel—was attended by "a table full of Wal-Mart executives," eager to emphasize "their commitment to building in New York City." The chairman of Port Authority, which owns the site, denied that the agency was "planning a big Wal-Mart"; but disillusioned observers of Ground Zero—and aren't we all?—might still wonder whether the biggest store on the planet will prove demonically persuasive. Talk about the high cost of low price.
Some uptown news: Last week the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from Joan Didion's latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the excerpt, "After Life,"
Didion recounts in reportorial, almost forensic, detail the death of her husband of forty years. "[A]t approximately 9 o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003," she writes, "my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table at which he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. . . . When the paramedics came I tried to tell them what had happened, but before I had finished they had transformed the part of the living room where John lay into an emergency department. One of them (there were three, maybe four, even an hour later I could not have said) was talking to the hospital about an electrocardiogram they seemed already to be transmitting. Another was opening the first or second of what would be many syringes for injection. . . ." Didion describes with equal austerity, and power, her months of grief: "Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. . . . Such waves began for me on the morning of December 31, 2003, seven or eight hours after the fact, when I woke alone in the apartment."
I thought "After Life" painfully unsentimental and deeply moving. But what I've been thinking about is its curious presentation in the magazine. The Times chose to accompany Didion's spare and eloquent text with a series of illustrations of the Didion/Dunne apartment. In the opening spread there is a photograph of Didion, looking pensive and frail, standing in what looks like the foyer; to her right is a portrait of Dunne by Eric Fischl, and, to the right of that, part of an etching by Richard Serra. On the next page there is a closely cropped shot of the living room focusing on a small dining table—"the table where Dunne had his heart attack," the caption says—flanked by Chippendale chairs; in the foreground a branching orchid hovers above a 1966 photograph of Didion and her and Dunne's daughter Quintana. Next there is a large photograph of the living room, a comfortable, stylish room with a marble mantelpiece, herringbone parquet floor, slip-covered chairs—"Dunne usually sat in the white chair"—a Cy Twombly lithograph, and shelves crowded with books and photographs. Finally there is a small image of a notepad personalized with Didion/Dunne letterhead, across which are three pens—"idea catchers," the caption tells us.
The photographs, by photojournalist Eugene Richards, are excellent. And yet their presence is unsettling, for these moody and atmospheric images are a strange blend of crime-scene noir and shelter-magazine luxe. Are we meant to fix on the fact that we are seeing the chair in which Dunne was sitting when his heart stopped beating? Or to imagine the used syringes left scattered on the floor? Or do the images allow us to be distracted from Didion's narrative of sudden death and long grief? Do they soften its sting by showing us the enviably spacious and indeed beautiful Upper East Side apartment the two writers shared? The effect is, perhaps, a bit of both. As an ardent admirer of Didion's writing—what John Leonard once called her "ice pick/laser beam/night-scope sniper prose"—I wish the Times had held back and left the language alone on the page, or simply shown photos of Didion and Dunne over the years. But as a fan of the celebrated author, I was shamelessly eager to peer into her world: to scan the books in the living room shelves (biographies of Iris Murdoch and Vanessa Bell, essays by Jan Morris and George Orwell—were these the British shelves?) and the objets on the mantel (hurricane lamps, seashells, glass bottles), to imagine the author pacing the apartment, perhaps finding some solace in her lovely works of art, the Fischl and Twombly and Serra.
Actually, the Times story wasn't the first in which I'd relished such an up-close-and-personal view. The Didion/Dunne apartment has been published previously, in Metropolitan Home, or maybe Elle Decor, probably five or six years ago (I can't remember, and the pages that I clipped and saved have no footers or headers with publication information). To someone who years ago had to tape up the spine of a much-read copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (a $3.45 Dell paperback, catalogued under "Sociology"), and who had practically inhaled The White Album and After Henry, this six-page spread, titled "History and Attitude" and written by Didion and Dunne themselves, was almost embarrassingly fascinating. How could it not be, with its twenty-three color photographs, all offering the intrepid fan clues about the domestic settings that nurtured the famous essays and novels; I am thinking, for instance, of the vignettes of the author's office (on her desk a no-nonsense blotter, Luxo lamp, vase of fresh roses, and, in a frame, her rejection letter from Stanford, dated April 25, 1952) and of various tabletops with artful arrangements of idiosyncratic and meaningful mementos (an old silver tea service next to a mid-'70s FBI flier about the kidnapped Patricia Hearst; a grouping of family photos alongside a March 1970 telegram to Didion reporting on weekly casualties in Vietnam).
Clearly I'm not in much of a position to be too editorially puritanical about the mixing of hard words with easy images. Not that I haven't tried to be: About half a dozen years ago, when I was editing Harvard Design Magazine, I wrote to Didion to invite her to contribute. I had just read "Last Words," a marvelous essay she published in The New Yorker about Ernest Hemingway and the posthumous transformation of the author's famous style—and lifestyle—into a marketable brand. Didion focused largely on the literature, but she referred also to the introduction, by Thomasville Furniture, of the "Ernest Hemingway Collection," with motifs based on his residences in Havana, Ketchum, Key West, and Kenya. In my letter to Didion I wondered whether she might have more to say on this topic—"on the odd ways in which artists' lives are memorialized through the fetishization of their houses and accouterments, and further on the ways in which such efforts actually replace engagement with the very work that presumably makes the bric-a-brac interesting." Maybe I was feeling a bit hypocritical even then; nowadays we want not just the work but the life, too. But I'd still love to read whatever Didion had to say on the subject; no pictures needed.
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
Unwatering New Orleans
Is there a risk of national attention drifting away from the Gulf Coast? asked the host of an NPR talk show during a recent hour devoted to the post-Katrina recovery. A fair question, to say the least. Katrina was an epochal event, and we live in a momentary age.
But now that what the Army Corps of Engineers refers to as the "unwatering" of New Orleans is proceeding apace (look here, for the Corps' detailed diagram of "New Orleans Vulnerabilities"), the long and grueling reconstruction will soon begin — less a news story than a history chapter. And as many have noted, we've got an opportunity — you might even say an obligation — to reconstruct it right. Or, in the case of New Orleans, as right as possible; I say this because (thanks to a link on the indispensable Archinect) I've just read a fantastically good article by John McPhee. Published eighteen years ago in the New Yorker — and still posted, I hope, on the magazine's archive page — "Atchafalaya" is an extraordinary piece of literary reportage, a fascinating account of the massive, heroic and hubristic efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the Mississippi from moving its course westward, from being captured by the Atchafalaya River — a natural occurrence that would effectively have destroyed the economies of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. McPhee's article is in the old, rambling-elegant New Yorker manner — but at 28,449 words it seems to me not a comma too long; not when the author describes so powerfully and precisely the engineered unnaturalness of the delta:
The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand — frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier — arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.
For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina — with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places — it was often called "the American Ruhr." The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. . . . Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
Of course, our current state is an enemy of nature, and our oilman-in-chief has always been an ever-dependable crony of all those petrochemical corporations that "made the river glow like a worm." (No wonder that Molly Ivins, in a recent column on the big fat post-Katrina cleanup contract awarded to Halliburton, gets so exasperated: "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Still, the reconstruction will outlast the current administration — and probably influence the choice of the next. Rebuilding cities and reviving economies, not to mention civil engineering and coastal hydrology — these aren't the readiest talking points. It's easier to editorialize about a tabula rasa. But that is sheer ahistorical fantasy, and it ignores the human dimension, what McPhee describes as "the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent." That ambition will surely prove as powerful as ever. And so will something else, something that Richard Ford evoked when he wrote, in a moving op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month: "It is — New Orleans — the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. A certain kind of person wants to go there and never leave."
Most of us haven't the fortune or flex-time to have whiled away the summer in one of those rambling coastal cottages built a century ago by merchant princes or eccentric industrialists; but last week, along with near-obsessive reading of the print and online post-Katrina reports, I spent a few hours happily lost in the beguiling pages of The Big House. Subtitled "A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home," the book is a memoir, by writer George Howe Colt, of the shingle-style house built by his proper Boston forebears in Buzzards Bay, on Cape Cod, in 1903, and of the five generations that gathered there to swim off the rocky coast, to sail in small wooden boats, to play tennis with wooden rackets on laboriously rolled-out clay courts — to pursue, in short, the Brahmin pleasures of upper-class austerity.
With a graceful mix of familial pride and contemporary perspective, Colt describes the "peculiar combination of wealth and masochism" that for decades made the Big House so characteristic of its kind. Situated on a splendid waterfront promontory, and designed by William Atkinson, a gentleman-amateur architect and brother of the businessman ancestor who commissioned it, the four-story residence had nineteen rooms, seven fireplaces, and a generous encircling porch where the grownups would gather for cocktails in the late afternoon. But none of its seven bathrooms had a shower; only one of the three ancient stoves in the kitchen was even "semifunctional"; the eleven bedrooms were apt to be outfitted with unyielding horsehair mattresses and prickly straw pillows; and guests who might have hoped to find a TV or stereo were out of luck (although the place did have, says Colt "a battered portable radio, used primarily during hurricanes or Red Sox games").
Clearly The Big House is not just a memoir but also an elegy. By the time the book begins, in the early '90s, the place had long since become an anachronism — a summer estate with a servants wing, a 10,000-square-foot gabled and dormered relic of an era when "summer" really was a verb — and the Colts had run short of the wherewithal to maintain it and had put it up for sale. Over the next few hundred pages the author manages to generate considerable suspense as to whether the property truly will be sold, and if so, whether to a subdividing developer or McMansionizing financier. Neither scenario comes to pass, and, although the house does not remain exactly as it was — comfortably tattered, reassuringly scruffy — the resolution is unexpectedly cheerful. But change was inevitable. The world that Colt is remembering is gone. And the world that Colt is remembering is more than the milieu of an anglo-yankee aristocracy; ultimately he is memorializing a certain idea about summer, an idea of summer as a season of permissible regression, of vacation times when we dress down, sleep late, leave the machines unplugged and the hours uncommitted, when we reinvigorate ourselves for the quickening of autumn.
This idea of summer has hung on — certainly in the ad copy of resort realtors and Ralph Lauren collections — but as a practical matter it's become pretty tenuous. So too have the kinds of places and landscapes that it inspired. Colt imagines a room from the Big House preserved in a museum: a "New England Summer House Bedroom" that would capture the unselfconscious informality of a mid-20th-century summer vacation, right down to the iron bedstead, the painted pine furniture, and the lamp made from an old wine bottle filled with sea glass. But you needn't have ancestors who prepped at Groton to understand Colt's curatorial impulse. By now a lot of Cape Cod has earned its place in that archive of resort life of the recent past. Like George Colt, I spent childhood summers on the Cape; but since we were second- and third-generation middle-class Jews the place we returned to year after year wasn't a roomy shingle-style pile but a beach shack with a screen porch. It was part of a cottage colony developed in the '20s, and when we started renting there, in the '60s, not much had changed. The cottages shared a broad secluded beach and a dilapidated clay tennis court (the Colts would've approved). The landscape was beach grass and scrub pine. The architecture was no-frills: the house had an electric heater but no telephone — if you wanted to make a call, you could walk down the road to the pay phone. But who wanted to make a call anyway? That was part of the point of the time away: you could let the din die down.
Today the cottage by the beach has got phone service. And a lot more: in the mid-'80s a developer bought the weathered old colony and poured a pot of money into de-rusticating the cottages and genericizing the environs. The houses were enlarged with second floors and poshed up with new appliances and cable connections. The beach grass and scrub pine were dug up and replaced with neat patches of grass. A familiar story, I know: Cape Cod has been suburbanizing for a generation, and much of what was once maritime is now manicured. But more has changed than the architecture and landscape. The well-appointed little villas by the beach, with their telecom links and high-maintenance lawns, seem less about getting away from it all than about carting it all along with you. No wonder that today's time-off is increasingly a matter of what a friend of mine calls "engaged retreat." You might be sitting on the porch gazing at the water, but you've got the iBook on your lap and the cell phone in your pocket, and you're calculating the relative stresses of checking email while on holiday or facing the inbox when you get back.
So I understand George Colt's nostalgia. "For nearly a century," Colt says at the start of the book, "my family has thought of the Big House as an unchanging place in a changing world, a sanctuary we have assumed we would always be able to return to, as would our children and our children's children." Maybe it's a boomer predisposition, a natural emotional response to living in a time when change feels less evolutionarily organic than challengingly quick. You feel too young to feel so old — to see places that had endured and evolved, maybe even the scenes of your childhood, change so suddenly and irrevocably. The Big House is a moving tribute to the power of architecture to embody and evoke the past, and to make you feel, despite everything, that it isn't really past.
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| DESIGN FILE ||
Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.
The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."
For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.
Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.
Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.
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Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.
The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture
The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.
David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili.
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