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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Saturday, October 30, 2004
    Red and Blue Development

    This week's Boston victory— a world-historical event here in New England — has gotten some of us wondering: is the triumph of the Red Sox somehow good for the blue states? A harbinger of another winner from Massachusetts? This line of inquiry is clearly more than a little kooky — not to say faith-based — but plainly it's symptomatic of this bi-polar election season.

    Architecture and urbanism haven't been much of a presence in the political debate, but you don't need to be a disciple of Jane Jacobs to trace a pretty clear line from the Iraqi battlefield to the American lifestyle — from the war we're fighting to maintain our oil supply to the three-ton cars we're driving and the pseudo-rural communities of faux chateaux we're building out past the last suburban edge. By now the story is familiar: we've become an exurban nation of far-flung, large-lot subdivisions and golf-course-like office parks and big-box malls, of underfunded public transit and rickety, near-bankrupt railroads. And the topic has never been a political winner. The last president who urged us to make sacrifices — to drive smaller cars and turn down the thermostats and bundle up — was Jimmy Carter, and the last candidate who talked up energy and the environment, sprawl versus smart growth, was Al Gore.

    The enviro-politics of land-use patterns might be one of those perennially unsexy topics, but lately I've had a good time on some websites that suggest that "smart growth" might be more than just a slogan. There's the Smart Growth site itself, which explains the goals driving the public/private coalition: that the current pattern of locating new buildings and infrastructure on once-rural land is energy inefficient and environmentally irresponsible, and that new development should instead, in the words of Smart Growth's executive summary, aim for "restoring community and vitality to center cities and older suburbs." Smart growth, it continues, is "town-centered, is transit and pedestrian oriented, and has a greater mix of housing, commercial, and retail uses. It also preserves open space and many other environmental amenities."

    The National Resources Defense Council, which is part of the Smart Growth network, has its own page called Smart Growth/Sprawl, which features diverse exemplary projects. These range from an inner-city Boston initiative to reopen a public transit station and develop vacant lots to the city of Atlanta's Atlantic Station, a brownfield redevelopment that aims to densify the city's midtown with several million square feet of houses, offices, stores, restaurants, and theaters. Another site, part of an online journal called Terrain, is Unsprawl, which shows case studies from around the country, including a community of energy-efficient affordable homes near downtown Tucson and a mixed-use district in San Diego planned around a vacant Sears Roebuck. And the Sierra Club, which has made stopping sprawl a big part of its agenda, has a jam-packed, hyper-linked anti-sprawl page of reports and analyses, which includes also some engaging before-and-after snapshots of modest but effective urban projects, such as adding a light-rail line along a boulevard in Kendall, Florida.

    It's hard to judge the success of these design projects simply from their presentations on the web. But it's clear that these kinds of development strategies — projects that are incremental and additive rather than big-scale and clean-slate, projects that feature public transit and welcome pedestrians and encourage public life — will only become more valuable. And while they haven't gotten much attention in the architectural magazines — the renovation of an old department store isn't as photogenic as a curvy new museum — that too might be changing. Recently I was on the jury of an "unbuilt architecture" competition; one of the submissions we talked a lot about was a plan for new housing built atop a vacant commercial franchise on one of those nowhere/anywhere suburban strips. In the future it's likely that such projects won't remain unbuilt. Nowadays adventurous architects and agile developers are seeing new possibilities for city and suburban redevelopment in all sorts of unlikely, ragged-edge places, from dead shopping centers and cheesy strip malls to demobilized military bases and abandoned industrial zones.

    Of course, Smart Growth — uppercased or not — has a long way to go before it's business-as-usual. Not surprisingly, proponents of sustainable development confront all sorts of obstacles, from public disinterest to real estate interest. Property-rights advocates and free marketers argue that Smart Growth is an urban-elitist attack on the middle-class suburban dream, and others argue that new technologies, from telecommunications to alternate energy, are making anti-sprawl arguments irrelevant. This is, I'd respectfully suggest, hogwash. Homeowners who've been priced out of good central neighborhoods and commuters who do a lot of what's called "windshield time" know that Smart Growth makes all kinds of quality-of-life, not to mention environmental and economic, sense. There's no doubt that someday the topic will muscle its way to a more central place in the political landscape. Let's hope it does so before we fight more "preemptive" wars to feed the beast.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:00 am | Permanent link
Friday, October 22, 2004
    Beyond the Brand

    Buildings and their architects exist out there in the big wide world, but only some of them get to exist in the media, too. This is one of those agonizingly unfair facts of professional life that can reduce designers to despair. Certainly the press coverage of last week's big Ground Zero announcement — that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. had selected Frank Gehry to design a performing arts center and Snohetta to design a museum complex — was notable less for even-handed content than for brand recognition.

    Most of the newspapers headlined Gehry and sidelined Snohetta, and in so doing reinforced the status quo of the respective status of the architects. The story in the New York Times, for instance, Gehry Is Chosen to Design Ground Zero Performance Center, devoted most of its word count to the world-famous designer of Bilbao while dutifully noting that a "little-known" Oslo practice "named for a Norwegian mountain peak" was to design the site's "other" major cultural building.

    The problem isn't that the paper should be so fascinated by Gehry, who is at this point so important and influential that almost anything he does attracts the attention of the press, from winning commissions to tete-a-teting with architecture buff Brad Pitt. (But still . . . is it picky to wish that the reporter had been slightly more skeptical when confronted with the information, supplied also by the LMDC press release, that the architect "couldn't contain tears" during his site visit? And isn't it a bit of a stretch to mention, as token of some blood-bond with Manhattan, that the Toronto-born, L.A.-based architect's father was "raised in Hell's Kitchen"? By now, of course, this sort of manipulative sentimentality has become the default setting for Ground Zero public relations . . . but that's another story.)

    The problem is that the press should be so apparently incurious about the comparatively unknown architect chosen to build the 250,000-square-foot complex that will house the Freedom Center and the Drawing Center. It's a problem because the fact that Snohetta isn't better known hasn't to do with the firm's work — which is inventive and impressive — but with its media visibility, its presence in the pages of our major papers. Reputations in architecture rarely hinge on anything that's quantifiable or demonstrable — on a batting average, say, or the mapping of the human genome. Reputations in architecture depend upon the attention of the press. But lately we seem so much in the grip of dull celebrity culture that even newspapers are more or less content (or constrained) to focus mainly on the big names already in boldface. Which tends to produce one of those tedious cycles in which cause and effect endlessly blur: media attention leads to plum projects which leads to more media attention which leads to even plummier projects. . . .

    All of which means, I think, that it's especially exciting and newsworthy when a non-celebrity firm — one not (yet) part of the predictable group that shows up on all those interchangeable usual-suspects shortlists — wins a prize project. The only one of Snohetta's buildings that I've seen in person is the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin, which was at the time under construction and off limits; but what I could see beyond the construction fence made me want to see more. So does the firm's web site, which shows tantalizing glimpses of its best known international projects to date, including the Library at Alexandria and the (under construction) Turner Contemporary Art Centre in Margate, England, and also of its Norwegian projects like the Fishing Museum at Karmoy, the Sandvika Cultural Center, and the Lillehammer Art Museum.

    No doubt Snohetta's days of being labeled "little known" are limited. Which is all to the good; and it would be even better if this surprise selection emboldened other patrons of architecture to make the non-celebrity choice.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 5:10 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
    Departure and Debut

    Magazines come and magazines go. Lately we've seen the arrival of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and the departure of Nest. Comparisons are probably invidious, but they're irresistible, too.

    Nest wasn't everyone's cup of oolong souchong, but it was the sort of periodical that's become increasingly rare, not to say endangered: a magazine shaped by the passions and ideas of its leading editor. Nest was, as such, one of the strangest, smartest, most idiosyncratic and eccentric periodicals ever to maintain a quarterly publication schedule. The book-like magazine was the brainchild and labor of love of Joseph Holtzman, who edited and art directed every issue, and who also funded the project from his personal fortune. Apparently the funding was unstinting; at one point, according to the Times ("The Death of Nest," by Fred Bernstein, which ran on August 17 of this year), Holtzman sold a Matisse bronze to support his magazine.

    The Matisse bronze supported the magazine in the style to which we readers became accustomed. Nest had the hint of a format, but it was a restless format that sought endless variation, constant stimulation. Each issue had its own theme, its particular editorial and visual motifs, and within each issue the graphic design varied from one article to the next, with lavish layouts that combined art, photography, pattern, pop images, and typography. Production extras and gimmicks were also part of the mix. The cover of issue no. 19, titled "Warp and Woof," was overlaid with a piece of what the editors termed "pinstripe plastic weave," created by design doyenne Andrée Putman. On issue no. 20, titled "Cut/Uncut," a tongue depressor was pasted onto the cover — an ordinary doctor's-office, phallic-symbol tongue depressor, except for the logo of Nest incised onto one end. It was a rare issue that didn't come with stuff inside as well, with colorful gatefolds and elaborate inserts. Issue no. 3 offered a sample of wrapping paper designed by Todd Oldham, and no. 17 included a tear-out of the sheet music for Stephen Sondheim's "Every Day a Little Death." The party favor in no. 6 was especially complex: a model (for us readers to assemble) of the Quinta del Sordo, the long-gone summer retreat of Francisco Goya, complete with miniaturized reproductions of the painter's murals.

    Clearly all this design ran the risk of over-design. Nest was always skimming the edge of the precious, always threatening to become one of those publications in which aesthetics outflanked ethics and sensibility got the better of sense. Created and shaped by a rich gay man living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and committed to the pursuit of the artful life, it might have worked well enough as an insider effort, a communiqué to the cognoscenti. And on first glance that's what it looked like; but extended scrutiny revealed more. Somehow this quirky, mannerist periodical managed to be disarmingly open and unexpectedly inclusive. Like most design magazines, Nest was on the lookout for beautiful objects and places, and it showed its share of Baroque palaces and Paris apartments. But unlike most design magazines, it didn't shrink from the damaged and down-and-out, the marginalized and disturbing. Features on artful lofts and English estates shared editorial space with stories on uncomforting topics: the Greenwich Village attic apartment of a photographer who'd lost his sight, for example, or the group of old refrigerator railcars retrofitted to become housing for migrant workers in eastern Washington. The magazine ran unsettling pieces on an old Jewish cemetery in Poland and on a contemporary orphanage in Russia. And it seemed curiously eager to remind us of wars hot and cold: Nest ran a piece on the buildings and trees that survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and another on the bomb shelter constructed decades ago in West Virginia to house the U.S. Congress, should the Capitol be the target of nuclear attack.

    This sympathetic mix of the fortunate and the flawed, of winners and losers, art and apocalypse, made Nest unique among design publications. Much of what Holtzman and his editors and designers showed was artful and expensive, but just as much seemed improvised and even dingy. Some of the places were grand but just as many were more or less a mess, with worn wood floors and cracked plaster and dying houseplants and rusty appliances. Which seemed to be the point: the world was beautiful and ugly, but nothing was so ugly that it couldn't be cared for and loved.

    Clearly Nest required intensive editorial and design energy, and it isn't surprising that Holtzman is ending the effort. He could've gone on paying the bills or he might have pursued selling the title to a corporate publisher; but he seems to have preferred a clean and clear exit. All of which underscores one of the depressing realities of periodical publications: magazines of literary and artistic ambition are no longer viable as for-profit enterprises. They're too risky and inventive to attract much advertising — Nest never had more than a few ads — and so they've become philanthropic projects, endeavors whose creation and survival depend upon institutional or corporate underwriting or personal money.

    And so one wonders about the Times's new style magazine. Will T leverage the reputation of its weighty sponsor and commission substantive and searching, or at least inspired and interesting, reportage on design, architecture, fashion, and art? Reportage that explores provocative topics — the diverse aesthetic, political, and economic issues raised by our designed environment? One can hope . . . but on the evidence of last Sunday's edition, T seems to be following in the Times tradition of trend-centric, brand-name design coverage: brief updates on the latest projects of familiar figures, predictable features on artfully cluttered city apartments and modernist homes in the Hamptons. And it seems also to be conforming to that design-magazine model in which editorial and commercial are merged ever more smoothly and insidiously: a lot of the editorial content, which takes up less than half of T's 158 pages, consists of catalogue-like reports that tell us not only what's hot but also where to buy it (phone numbers or web sites helpfully provided) and how much it costs (more than most of us can afford).

    This sort of content/consumer blur is standard practice for design publications these days — at least for publications not supported by independent money or culturally ambitious benefactors. Still, when the New York Times is involved, it's hard not to hope for more. It's hard not to hope that our best newspaper will want to view coverage of architecture and design not merely as a sort of editorial bonbon, weightless distraction for readers fatigued by the meatier coverage of election politics and global conflict.

    Maybe T should give Joseph Holtzman a call.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 6:15 pm | Permanent link
Monday, October 4, 2004
    What's (No Longer) New

    Autumn is here, time of theatrical premieres and concert series, farmers' markets and foliage viewing — and in architecture the season of lectures and symposia, on topics ranging from sustainable design to concrete technology. But the perennial theme — or idée fixe — of design discourse continues to be modernism. This fall Columbia University is sponsoring a series of talks linked by the theme Modern Architecture, American Modernity, and just this past weekend the vigilant conference-goer had a choice of two events: Modernism Unplugged (the reference is to MTV), or, at Yale, When Modernism Was Modern.

    And last week an international group of architects and historians gathered in New York for Import/ Export: Postwar Modernism in an Expanding World, sponsored by a group called DoCoMoMo — the lilting acronym stands for Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement. I'm a member of the organization because I believe in the preservation of the modernist legacy; and the conference was enjoyably eclectic, with presentations on such artifacts of twentieth-century culture as the United Nations (the complex is now slated for thoroughgoing renovation/restoration) and the Brussels Atomium (built for an international exhibition in the Fifties, it's a 335-foot-high model of an iron molecule, not to mention a wonderfully weird monument to the erstwhile atomic age).

    It's easy to appreciate that the work of DoCoMoMo — and of groups like the Recent Past Preservation Network — highlights some provocative contradictions. It's clearly a lovely irony that modern architecture, once touted as the style that would put an end to the cyclical revival of historic styles, is now itself an historic style and thus the proper concern of preservationists (many of the buildings now meet a key criterion for being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which is that they be at least fifty years old). And certainly the goal of preserving modern architecture plunges one headlong into prickly questions of fashion and taste — into what can seem the impossibly big gap between professional judgment and popular appeal, between the buildings praised by architects and those that please the public.

    The successful preservation of an aging building usually depends upon the building attracting some sort of constituency, some sizable cohort of citizens who'd miss the place if it were gone and who are willing to lobby for its survival. But of course modern architecture — the glass and steel office towers, boxy brick apartment complexes, institutional structures of poured-in-place concrete — was never much embraced by the public. Where the designer saw sleek and elegant artworks, the nonprofessional seemed instead to see ungainly places of unwelcoming austerity. The rise of preservation in the mid-Sixties was largely a reaction against postwar modernism (that the movement that was to have ended historicism did more than anything else to galvanize its champions only deepens the irony). The public that rejected the modern movement much preferred the traditional and vernacular buildings that were the focus of the early preservationists — all those commodious Queen Annes with elaborate ornament and fanciful woodwork, historic districts with brick sidewalks, main streets with quirky storefronts.

    The discord is by now familiar, and, I think, unfortunate. It widens the divide between design profession and general public, and it encourages the sort of polarities that flatten distinctions — distinctions between good and bad buildings, no matter whether modern or traditional. And ultimately it is fixated on questions of (mere) style. The essential tension between traditional and modern, old and new, hasn't really to do with whether you prefer Biedermeier or Bauhaus, Eastlake or Eames. The real divide is between past and present. You don't have to be much of a sentimentalist to see that older architecture evokes ways of life that are not so distant and yet irrevocably lost, patterns of living that made a certain sense. The family farm, the roadside diner, the streetcar suburb, the bustling center city — all fit together into a gratifyingly comprehensible whole, especially when compared with our own endless agglomerations of agribusiness landscapes, fast-food pitstops, sprawling subdivisions, nowhere mega-malls, decaying main streets, franchised and branded city centers — what Rem Koolhaas aptly calls "junkspace." No wonder postwar modernism had so rough a reception: it stood for the new — the march of progress, the promise of technology, the nuclear era, the city of tomorrow . . . call it what you will — in an age when the future came not so much to inspire optimism as to provoke anxiety.

    But modern architecture no longer symbolizes the new. Now it's part of the mix that makes up our world. Will its public image shift accordingly? With age and use, not to mention decent upkeep, will the buildings seem pleasingly mellowed, comfortably familiar? Will they become objects of affection or nostalgia? The perceptual shift has already begun. A generation ago preservationists fought to save Neo-Gothic libraries and Greek Revival churches. Nowadays the agenda has expanded to include structures as diverse as the U.S. Air Force Academy (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's high-modernist magnum opus in the Colorado Rockies, this year listed on the National Register) and the Java Lanes (an unlikely candidate for listing, maybe, but still, the "very last of the authentic Polynesian-style bowling centers in Southern California," according to the lively web site of the Recent Past Preservation Network).

    In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand writes: "Something strange happens when a building ages past a human generation or two. Any building older than 100 years will be considered beautiful, no matter what. Having outlived its period of being out of fashion, plus several passing fashions since that, it is beyond fashion. . . . Since few buildings live so long, it has earned the stature of rarity and the respect we give longevity."

    So who knows, future patrons of the Java Lanes might find themselves bowling in a national landmark. . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 9:30 am | Permanent link



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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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