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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Tuesday, November 30, 2004
    Bookstore Urbanism

    The post-Thanksgiving stories were the same this year as always: the tryptophan torpor had just about lifted, and the retail rush was on. Newspapers featured front-page photos of superstores packed with pre-dawn shoppers eager for deals. In my local paper the advertising inserts outweighed the editorial offerings, and as usual consumer electronics seemed high on holiday wish-lists, with Target and Best Buy and Circuit City trumpeting camcorders, DVDs, iPods, MP3s, rear-projection and plasma-screen TVs. There's nothing wrong with this bounty of entertainment technology: the bigger the screen, the better the view of all that gravitational blood spatter on CSI, and of all that ominously cheery suburban-snake-pit decor on Desperate Housewives.

    As the shopping (holiday) season gets going, though, I've been thinking less about big-ticket digital gadgetry than about the older, humbler technology of the book — surely one of the most durable and successful media of mass communication ever invented. I've been thinking about books because here in Cambridge, Mass., another independent bookstore has shut its doors. A month ago, after almost three decades in Harvard Square, WordsWorth Books went out of business. The immediate cause was bankruptcy, but the bigger trouble was Amazon — and beyond Amazon, of course, there's that ever expanding universe of home-theater options that doesn't leave much room for reading.

    The demise of another independent bookseller is clearly bad for books — for book making and publishing as well as selling. By now the story is depressingly familiar: the independents are run by people who care as much (or more) about books as about the bottom line, people who'll take a chance on non-blockbuster, not to say obscure, volumes, urging them on customers with passionate personal endorsements. The loss of the independents makes it hard to find certain kinds of books — books that straddle categories, for instance, or that aren't by brand-name authors, or that deal with complex subjects, or that might take years to sell through their print runs. Even more troubling, the loss of the non-chains ultimately makes it hard to publish these sorts of books, too. Publishers in my field — publishers of books on architecture, art, and design — worry a lot about the loss of the independents. They worry, and with reason, that the big-box retailers won't want to bother with titles on design theory, or on architectural history, or on art movements other than Impressionism.

    But the loss of independent bookstores has consequences not just for books. It affects places, too. Bookstores enliven their environs; in elusive but somehow palpable ways they contribute to the social and commercial metabolism of neighborhood strips and suburban centers and town squares and metropolitan avenues. Bookstores often house cafes or wine bars; they host readings and art exhibits; they're open at night, welcoming browsers long after the clothes boutiques have closed. Some of them function as de facto social centers, community living rooms. A lot of this is obvious, when you think about it; but most of the time it's easy not to notice what a large role a modest commercial establishment can play in the life of a place. Certainly the social value of bookshops isn't much considered in the official discourses on urban design. In this sense bookstores are akin to the ordinary enterprises that architects and urban historians have recently begun to explore — small-scale set-ups that enrich our suburbs and cities and yet rarely figure in big-picture planning. In Everyday Urbanism, for instance, editors John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski have put together a provocative collection of essays about all sorts of places and activities — community gardens and playgrounds, street vendors, garage sales, flea markets, and food trucks, to name just a few — which are easy to overlook and which make up what Kaliski calls "the taken-for-granted everyday that surrounds us." The everyday urbanists want to shift our attention from the large-scale projects and plans — the big cultural center, the major retail corridor — that dominate the public discussion on city-making and to make us look instead at what might at first seem banal and unexceptional, even dinky and down-at-heels. Most provocatively they argue, in Crawford's words, that "lived experience should be more important than physical form in defining the city."

    Local bookstores aren't quite as raffish and casual as the alleyway markets and backyard barbershops of Everyday Urbanism; but they are the kinds of places you can come to count on, and realize how much you value only when they're gone. This past summer St. Johnsbury, Vermont, pop. about 7,500, advertised for a bookseller to come and set up shop. The new store would replace a much-loved bookstore/cafe that had closed earlier in the year, leaving what residents perceived as a big gap in the small town — so big that St. Johnsbury is offering seed money and rent breaks to attract a capable bookseller. "We've got long winters and educated citizens, and we need a bookstore," says Barbara Morrow, executive director of St. Johnsbury Works, a non-profit downtown development agency. Morrow told me that in the past months they've gotten many inquiries — "some dreamy, some serious" — and remain hopeful about the prospect of a new bookshop.

    It's hard to argue with a bargain. But it's harder to warm to the idea that at some point it'll be difficult to buy anything — from a good book to a widescreen HDTV — from any entity smaller than a mega-store, virtual or big-box. The global emporia are kind to our pocketbooks, but they're hell on our downtowns.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
    New Modern

    Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old fashioned quite suddenly. —Oscar Wilde, The Ideal Husband

    Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and immovable. —Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life

    This week, after half a dozen years of planning and construction, the Museum of Modern Art is reopening its Midtown Manhattan doors. And while architecture lovers around the country are planning trips to New York — here in Boston we're checking the Amtrak timetables — the reviews are coming in. And already a consensus is emerging: critics are applauding the renovation and expansion by Yoshio Taniguchi, a thoroughgoing refurbishment that not only shows what 425 million bucks can buy but that also gives new coherence to the collection of structures — the original 1939 building by Edward Durell Stone and Philip L. Goodwin, the 1964 addition by Philip Johnson, the 1984 residential tower by Cesar Pelli — that makes up the Modern.

    The selection of Taniguchi, way back in the late '90s, came as a surprise. Most of the architects that MoMA invited to compete for the coveted job were the sort of global-circuit celebrities who work as hard at maintaining their public profiles as at designing their projects. On a list that included figures like Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, and Herzog & de Meuron, Taniguchi seemed an odd extra: an architect who'd never built a project outside his native Japan, an exacting designer who didn't teach or lecture, who shied away from interviews, who preferred to devote his days to creating buildings.

    Taniguchi's comparatively low visibility might have worked to his advantage. An institution as powerful and prestigious as MoMA needs no aura but its own — it can afford to bypass the bigger names. And in any case the museum wasn't betting on an untested up-and-comer. That Taniguchi's MoMA is inspiring passionate admiration will come as no surprise to anyone who's looked carefully at the architect's work in Japan — at, for instance, the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum, or at the Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art in Maragume.

    But if the new MoMA is eliciting praise for the clarity and elegance of its high-modernist design, it is also provoking thoughts on what has become an inevitable tension: the high-priced new quarters underscore the maturity of modernism as a movement and the museum's own passage from avant-gardist upstart to establishment grande dame. Never mind that from the outset — the museum opened in November 1929 — the Modern has been the philanthropic project — the cultural property, in a sense — of some of the country's richest and most powerful business dynasties. In architecture as in art, the modern movement was for a long time linked with the very idea of being modern, of being new and daring, and in recent decades it has served as model to those with avant-gardist aspirations, to those architects who aim to create works that do not merely please and accommodate but that somehow challenge and provoke.

    It is the enduring power of this epater-les-bourgeois legacy that accounts, I think, for the careful hedging in Nicolai Ourousoff's mostly positive critique of the museum, Art Fuses With Urbanity in an Aesthetically Pure Redesign of the Modern (now that's a handful of a headline), in the New York Times. Ourousoff starts by calling the building "comforting" and goes on to caution that it "may disappoint those who believe the museum's role should be as much about propelling the culture forward as about preserving our collective memory. This is not the child of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director who famously envisioned the Modern movement as a torpedo advancing relentlessly toward the future. Its focus, instead, is a conservative view of the past . . . ."; and he ends by describing the project as embodying an "aesthetic purity" that "seems hard to digest today. For decades now, the most revolutionary architects have sought to probe the darker corners of the imagination. . . ." Neo-avant-gardists are forewarned in similar terms in Paul Goldberger's assessment in the New Yorker. In Outside the Box, Goldberger recounts the history of the architect selection process: " . . . the museum snubbed the radicals [like Koolhaas and Tschumi] and hired Taniguchi, who represents not the cutting edge of architecture but, rather, a carefully-wrought, highly refined modernism — a cool and reserved aesthetic that has more in common with the Modern's original credo than with the expressive direction of recent architecture and museum design."

    That the best architecture ought to be cutting-edge, even revolutionary, has become one of the critical orthodoxies of the field; and to be sure, it's a seductive proposition. Who wants to be old-hat and unoriginal? But surely by now it's apparent that genuine newness — the true paradigmatic shift, the idea or invention that cuts a real break with the past — is rare, and the revolutionary rarer still, and that the surest way to fail at creating something new is to set out specifically to do so. And surely it's apparent also that while architectural works are often innovative in their own terms — in terms, for instance, of concept or structure or technology — they have limited capacity to convey vanguard artistic or cultural ideas in the more obvious terms of form or style. The hitch is the medium itself. Buildings take heaps of money and lots of time to make, and inevitably they've got to fulfill programmatic as well as artistic agendas — they're too slow and expensive and utilitarian to function as agents of the new. Especially these days, when, as critics like Thomas Frank and Naomi Klein have persuasively argued, in books like The Conquest of Cool and No Logo, the transition from leading edge to market saturation is whiplash fast. By the time a new idea is expressed in the form of a building, it's surely become less innovative than fashionable.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:31 am | Permanent link
Saturday, November 6, 2004

    It's post-election, and here in the bluest of the blue states the mood is, well, blue. And nowhere was the morning-after melancholy more palpable than in Copley Square, in the heart of Boston, where earlier this week the big stage with the videos and spotlights and speakers, the stage where John Kerry would have celebrated his victory, was being dismantled. The symbolism was almost too blatant: the empty platform, the blank screens, the banner with the slogan "Kerry/Edwards ~ A Fresh Start for America" beginning to fray, the "America" coming undone. More than a few of us were watching the crews disassembling the set, carting away the Stars and Stripes backdrop built to frame a new president. Some people were taking photographs — the detritus of defeat does make for a poignant photo-op — but most just wanted to commiserate about the victory party that never was, the future that wouldn't happen.

    Architecture — the built environment — almost never makes it onto the real-news pages of the morning paper. Mostly it's tucked away in the lifestyle section, where it functions as a kind of well-appointed, easy-on-the-eyes relief from the jaw-clenching anxieties of the front page; after the grim war reports and nervous political analyses and dire economic prognostications, it's soothing, sometimes downright narcotic, to turn to pictures of to-die-for rural retreats and next-wave metrosexual decor. Almost always the media present architecture in terms more stylish than substantial, as a modish practice concerned mainly with consumer taste and signature design, with historic masterworks and contemporary icons. Which seems to me reductive; for if you widen the perspective, you can see architecture as more than a collection of individual buildings on some art-historical timeline; you can see it as the whole of our complex, continuous and extensive constructed world, a world shaped not just by taste and aesthetics but by politics and policies — by laws and codes that determine land use, building safety, housing affordability, transportation systems, infrastructure development, energy use, and environmental quality.

    It's almost too obvious to point out that one of the chief responsibilities of those who govern is to safeguard our built and natural worlds — all our cities and suburbs, streets and roads and highways, railroads and airports, reservoirs and power stations, rivers, wetlands, coastlines, parks, forests, wilderness preserves — to ensure that they function for today and endure for tomorrow. "Building for the future": it's one of those too-easy, ready-made phrases. But it ought to be more than a platitude. To any serious-minded national leader it's at once a challenge and an obligation. And so surely it's beyond partisan politics to worry — as the Iraq war intensifies and billionaires enjoy their tax breaks and the national debt edges up to $7.5 trillion— that we're not so much building the future as mortgaging it.

    In the centennial year of 1876, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 19th century was completed after almost two decades of construction. Central Park was more than a gift to New York City. It was a gift to the future on the part of its creators, who knew they'd never live to see the saplings of the early years become the mature trees of today. Today, of course, we're better at constructing golf courses than public parks. Perhaps it's no coincidence that at the Bush-Cheney '04 online store, the golf pullover — "black microfibre/cotton . . . side seam pockets, matching trim . . . embroidered logo" — is sold out.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:00 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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