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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Friday, September 17, 2004
    First Post

    I'm delighted to be writing about architecture for Arts Journal. After twenty years in the field, first as practitioner and now as journalist, I've come to see architecture as intriguingly contradictory — a provocative and ambiguous mix of art and business, of craft, science, and technology. And these days the contradictions are especially perplexing, for the field is changing in ways few of us could have anticipated a generation ago. Back then, when I started design school, architecture was understood as a serious, even lofty pursuit — an art discipline that balanced innovation and tradition, a profession that promised a heady blend of creativity and service and that sought unabashedly to improve society through good design.

    But of course, back then, as my studio-mates and I were sharpening our pencils and fastening our Maylines to our drafting tables, just about the only computers on campus were the big mainframes sealed off in temperature-controlled safe zones. Back then the days didn't move to the tempo of the digital, of instant messaging, high-speed bandwidth, double-clicking, multi-tasking. That computers are revolutionizing our lives is clear enough; but as with any large historical change in progress, it's hard to get a grip on its extent and effects — its effects not just on our desktops and workdays but on our pulse rates and mental states.

    It's not too soon to say, though, that the digital revolution is causing architecture to undergo pervasive and maybe profound transformations. Somehow the high-minded profession I entered in the early '80s has in the last quarter century been repositioning itself — morphing and accelerating into a fashionable art practice and consumable commodity, a form of media spectacle, a chic and arty precinct of the ever-growing corporate-entertainment empire that's colonized our screens, our homes, our cities, our everywhere. The repositioning has so far been subtle, and of course, it's been less an autonomous movement within architecture than a more or less defensive reaction to socio-economic forces catalyzed by the electronic media, including the whiplash pace of change, the speeding-up of just about everything, the triumph of celebrity culture, the worship of newness, the rise of branding, the consolidation of entertainment corporations, and more generally, the ascendancy of business culture and its relentlessly efficient absorption of art culture.

    Architects argue a lot about this, or at least, they argue about the symptoms, which range from the dominance of star architects to the sidelining of social issues like ecological design and affordable (or nowadays middle-class) housing. But whatever the terms, the argument seems to me to boil down to some big questions. What's the role of architecture in contemporary life? What's the role of an ancient art — an art whose works are large, heavy, immobile, costly, durable — in a quick-moving culture addicted to the instant, obsessed with the new and the next? What's the role of a profession trained to plan for the future in a society that's moving too fast to think ahead? What's the role of an inescapably three-dimensional, experiential, utilitarian medium in a world where omnipresent screens stream unending images at once marvelous and unbuildable?

    I realize that in suggesting a trajectory for architecture from analog-era idealism to digital-driven spectacle I've run the risk of being overly schematic, maybe even sentimentally retrospective — always a perilous position in a future-besotted society. And I realize as well that I've been referring to "architecture" as if it were a unified entity, rather than a complex enterprise whose diverse factions, which include such friendly antagonists as academic intellectuals and corporate designers, rarely pass up the chance for lively debate. The questions I've posed have no easy or obvious answers, and I'd love to debate them here at Arts Journal. I'll welcome your thoughts.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 5:06 pm | Permanent link



About Nancy Levinson
I like to think of architectural journalism as an extension of architectural practice. More

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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.


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.

Prefab Modern
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. More


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