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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Wednesday, February 23, 2005
    Mind the Gap

    In a recent cyber-browse through the online literature, I noticed that my last post, on "neotraditional travel," was mentioned in the American Society of Landscape Architecture's The Dirt and in David Sucher's City Comforts, and that in both cases my comments were read as a defense of New Urbanism. This isn't exactly what I'd intended, and so I'd like now to add some postscriptive thoughts — partly to clarify what I might have left vague in remarks that ranged (rather loosely) over a lot of ground, and partly to give some sense of my critical leanings.

    In bringing up neotraditionalism — which had been so helpfully hyped by the New York Times — my point was mainly to suggest that the enthusiasm is misdirected: that much attention is paid to the cosmetics of neotraditional styles — fanciful Victoriana, foursquare Craftsman, etc. — and not enough to the benefits of neotraditional planning — transit options, bustling downtowns, clean air, etc. This is hardly surprising. The appearance of a building is comparatively easy to achieve (some Tudor trim here, a dash of French Provincial appliqué there); a complex pattern of regional development (the configuration of roads and rails, the mix of residential, commercial, institutional and industrial uses) is the result of long-range civic commitment and ongoing political negotiation.

    Clearly this is treading on New Urbanist territory. For two decades now the movement has been staking a claim on certain ideas about how to design what are often called "traditional neighborhood developments." With a lot of success, too: since the late '80s New Urbanism — and especially its most mediagenic promoter, Andres Duany, of the Miami-based practice Duany Plater-Zyberk, and its flagship project, Seaside, an upscale vacation village on the Florida coast — has attracted extraordinary attention. The movement has been endlessly dissected at its own annual congresses and at university symposia, and it's been praised and vilified in countless articles by scholars and journalists. By now the debate is dug-in, the positions familiar. New Urbanists claim that they're promoting transit-based, town-like alternatives to bulldoze-and-build greenfield developments; critics counter that they're just tarting up suburban subdivisions with corny ornament. Or worse: years ago in the Times the ever-modernist Herbert Muschamp, always alive to the psychodynamic life of buildings, accused the New Urbanists of creating "Potemkin villages for dysfunctional families."

    No doubt dysfunctional families have gained a toehold in the lofts of Tribeca as well; but still, I'm with the critics here. Living in what you might call the Old Urbanist town of Cambridge, Mass., I am grateful for the convenience, the everyday ease, that comes with good public transit and dense walkable neighborhoods clustered around corner stores and small-scale retail strips. But New Urbanism hasn't become a phenomenal success because it promotes mixed-use zoning and multi-family housing and metropolitan light rail; it's become a phenomenal success because it is closely linked with a comfortably quaint aesthetic, with what Ada Louise Huxtable, in The Unreal America, has called "the genre of romantic recall." Style isn't the issue, New Urbanists will insist; and in principle it isn't. But in practice it's style that sells; and it's style that has made New Urbanism not merely a movement but a brand. Style is — of course — hard to argue with. Either you like something, or you don't. Either you stroll happily through a tidy New Urbanist town and admire the Italianate clock tower and the shingled cottages with the gabled roofs . . . or you feel (count me in) as if you've wandered into a warmed-over exercise in postmodern parody. That is — maybe — an exaggerated view of the usual range of aesthetic response. But somehow we've got to the point, in mass-market housing design, where architectural invention and exploration are mostly unsought, if not downright unwelcome.

    Actually we got to that point a while ago, and the impasse, the gap between professional aspiration and public taste, is big and serious. Here again, on this worrisome gap, is the perceptive Huxtable: "In architecture, there is a growing chasm between architects and their clients, between professionals and public, a distancing of builders and their users, a widening gap between an increasingly complex and hermetic art and a product designed for instant appeal and quick commercial success. Into this gap has come escape architecture — the user-friendly substitutes, the buildings-in-costume, and the pretend-places favored by preservationists, builders, investors, and the consuming public."

    And with that, I am on the road for a few days, to join the consuming public in Central Park that has made such a big hit of The Gates. One friend (an architect) has called them the "Gates of Hell." Another (not an architect) has described them as "orange schmattes . . . but great fun." Talk about gaps.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 8:00 am | Permanent link
Monday, February 14, 2005
    Neotraditional Travel

    In its latest pronunciamento, the New York Times House & Home section has anointed neoclassicism as a style once again on the rise. Not the cheeriest news to read in the morning paper. Hadn't the last wave of neotraditionalism, the postmodernist surge of the '80s, left in its wake more than enough faux-Tuscan flotsam and pseudo-Palladian jetsam? (Or, as the editors at Archinect succinctly put it in their link to the Times piece: "Does this make you shudder with fear?")

    But of course this sort of style soothsaying doesn't usually amount to much. "What's next?" is the perennial question on the agenda of design-page editors (and their advertising reps), and lately the answer is an anything-goes, random-mix eclecticism (which is, needless to say, dandy for ad sales). Then again, the Times story — with its photos of a neoclassical palace in Atlanta and an Arts-and-Crafts manse near Dallas, both recently built — did stir up that sturdiest of style biases: mistrust of the modern. In the past decade neomodernism might have set the pace in high-design studios and leading-edge schools, but it never really caught on in the less rarefied and vastly larger world of speculative construction, where market-savvy developers have for a long while now been building shopping malls that vaguely mimic Main Street and rambling suburban villas that look comfortably (and resaleably) retro.

    Neomodern versus neotraditional — or city vs. suburb, blue vs. red, call it what you will — is a big, prickly, even obnoxious topic. Which I'm happy now to drop, for what interests me here is its connection to another story in the news: the Bush administration's proposal, in its latest budget, to eliminate funding for Amtrak — to zero out, as they say in wonk-speak, our impoverished but essential and dependable national railroad. It seems that we Americans need little persuasion to accept the decorative styles of the past; and these days the neotrad look is exerting particular appeal because, according to the Times, it is "a reassuring counterpoint to today's technological upheaval" — apparently all those ogee moldings and Corinthian columns act as a kind of architectural Prozac for homeowners with high-powered jobs and fast-paced lives. But it seems also that we are not so attached to the settlement styles of the past — to traditional development and transportation patterns in which cities and regions were linked not just by roads but also by railways. Today's old-style homes, all those porticoed neo-Georgians and red-roofed Spanish-revivals, are likely to be located in greenfields out beyond the last suburban edge, and they're sure to include gargantuan garages in which to park those three-ton living-rooms-on-wheels that help take the edge off the endless commuting that is an inevitable part of exurban life. In contrast yesterday's traditional houses, all those roomy Victorians and gabled Queen Annes, were built on comparatively tight lots in pedestrian-friendly suburbs well served by metropolitan and intercity rail lines.

    This was a settlement pattern — a way of building and connecting neighborhoods and towns, cities and regions — that made a lot of sense. And still does, no matter whether you frame the big geopolitical picture — energy, environment, security — or the tighter view of daily life — transit options, sane traffic, thriving downtowns, lively city centers. And so a battle is looming in Congress to save the railroad (this Boston Globe editorial eloquently summarizes the painfully apparent, depressingly familiar reasons for doing so). But a rail network shouldn't be such a hard sell, should it? A big part of the problem is that here in the U.S. we've neglected the system for so long that it's come to seem negligible — the ride feels slow and creaky, the carriages look worn and dumpy, the snacks are microwaved and shrink-wrapped. Here in the U.S. the train seems sort of antiquated — a system that hasn't looked sharp and run fast since the days when men wore fedoras.

    The Europeans and Japanese haven't been so neglectful of their rails. They've been investing generously in the present and future of train travel — in grand and gleaming new stations (I've listed some, on the right) and in super high-speed trains. If New York and Chicago were in Japan, you could travel the 800 miles between the two cities in about four and half hours; Amtrak's Lakeshore Limited will test your patience — and your joints — for almost nineteen hours. And for more than a generation the Germans and Japanese have been digging deep into their pockets for magnetic levitation, or maglev, train technology — an idea hatched almost a century ago by American rocket scientist Robert Goddard, patented in the '60s by engineers at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and more or less ignored here ever since. Japan's Railway Technical Research Institute, whose web site features all sorts of envy-provoking statistics, reports that maglev trains there have reached test speeds of 360 mph — that's New York to Chicago in two hours and fifteen minutes.

    But enough gazing into a future that we long ago passed up . . . now if only we looked to the past not just for design ideas but for travel tips, too.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 3:10 pm | Permanent link
Monday, February 7, 2005
    Ground Zero-Sum

    "Will the Freedom Tower's Spire Survive?" This was the leading question posed by a recent headline in the New York Times. The article that followed gave no definitive answer, but it did suggest that Daniel Libeskind's iconic spire — which the architect considers "the most important remaining element from his otherwise largely unrealized design for the signature skyscraper of the new World Trade Center," as the reporter put it — had been downsized from skyward-soaring symbol of liberty to negotiable line item. Thus have architectural concerns — not to say "visions" — been elbowed unceremoniously aside in the business of rebuilding Ground Zero.

    Not that this is news. I've just read Up From Zero, by Paul Goldberger, and Sixteen Acres, by Philip Nobel, each of which recounts the sorry saga of how Ground Zero devolved from a sanctified site — the project-of-the-century that would at once memorialize national tragedy and renew Lower Manhattan — into an ultra-ordinary New York City real estate deal — a parcel of land whose future is being plotted by corporate accountants and political tacticians.

    Dollar-hungry developers, power-mad politicos, ego-crazed architects: these are the main players in this drama-without-heroes. Inevitably it is depressing, and yet fascinating, to read these annals of recent history — of the early days after 9/11, when blasé New Yorkers dared (very temporarily) to hope that the rebuilders would aim higher than the bottom line; of the impassioned public meetings at which citizen activists had (very briefly) their moment at the microphone; of the back-room politicking and public grandstanding by which the governor, the mayor, and assorted ambitious operatives of quasi-public agencies worked to manage the process, the message, and the money; of the misbegotten efforts of architects to fashion at once powerful images that would seize the public imagination and megastructures with enough rentable space to placate the leaseholders; of the rise and fall of Daniel Libeskind, nominal winner of what turned out to be a Potemkin competition to select a master planner; and of the inexorable political and economic pressures that enabled the developer who'd leased the Twin Towers shortly before their destruction to exert ultimate control of the project, neutralizing the artistically-oriented Libeskind and installing the more commercially-minded Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as chief architect of Freemarket — er, Freedom — Tower.

    Up from Zero is vintage Paul Goldberger: a work of well-crafted and diplomatically balanced reportage that benefits from the author's three decades on the New York architectural scene. As critic first for the Times and now for the New Yorker, Goldberger has enjoyed access to the powerful and well-connected, and he's made ample use of his insider's entrée, producing a clear and informative narrative that shuttles briskly from public meetings to backroom negotiations, from architectural studios to corporate suites (John Whitehead, retired head of Goldman Sachs and chair of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, had, we learn, "paintings by Pissarro, Renoir, and Matisse, as well as a roomful of art-auction catalogs" in his "elegantly furnished office in a Midtown skyscraper").

    But it will come as no surprise to longtime Goldberger readers to learn that the book is evenhanded . . . maddeningly so. Over the years the author has shown himself to be the quintessential nonpartisan, the perennially detached observer who can see all sides of any issue — a predisposition that has made him the least nervy, most noncommittal of critics, and which surely accounts for his bland and bromidic prose, in which assorted convenient qualifiers ("seems," "might," "probably," "somewhat," "almost," "quite," etc. etc.) are deployed to blunt the edge of every evaluation. No matter whether the subject is a high-profile public meeting ("It was hard to be certain whether the point of the event was really to generate ideas or just to create the impression of democracy. . ."); or the design competition that produced the Libeskind plan ("Depending upon whom you talked to, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's Innovative Design Study was either an impressive turnaround after a grim start or a brilliant ruse designed to fool the public. Actually, it was a little bit of both. . ."); or the Freedom Tower design unveiled in December '03 ("[It] was better than some of the versions that had been worked on over the preceding weeks, but it could hardly be called distinguished. . ."), the author remains firmly equivocal. It's a critic's prerogative, of course, not to make up his mind. But Ground Zero is such a momentous story — such a volatile and controversial mixing of architecture and commemoration, politics and money — that it's hard not to wish that someone so close to unfolding events had been bolder and more incisive.

    Sixteen Acres suffers from no shortage of nerve. Nobel is an independent journalist who writes for diverse design periodicals, and clearly he hasn't gotten as up-close as Goldberger has to some of the power players — or at least, if he's had the opportunity to admire the art in Whitehead's office, he isn't saying. But he makes up for the gaps in his Rolodex with abundant critical insight and intellectual energy.

    Nobel enlarges the story of Ground Zero by setting it in the context of key architectural debates. He cites an influential mid-20th-century polemic, "Nine Points on Monumentality," in which a triumvirate of authors — architect José Luis Sert, painter Fernand Léger, and historian Sigfried Giedion — challenged architects to make truly modern monuments, to devise fresh and vigorous forms that would replace the stale neo-classical motifs that had long been the default mode for major civic architecture. Nobel makes it dismayingly apparent that a generation of architects has failed utterly to rise to this challenge, and he argues that it is this failure, as much as market calculation and political expedience, that has made Ground Zero such a bungle of botched opportunities.

    Sixteen Acres draws a devastating picture of the stylish hothouse of contemporary design culture, where in the years before 9/11 too many architects were fixated on personal agendas or market trends — on creating unbuildable digital worlds, positing arcane theoretical positions, cultivating celebrity profiles, designing consumer toys. The architectural response to Ground Zero included such ill-judged and self-promoting exercises as a January '02 exhibition at the Max Protetch Gallery of drawings for a rebuilt trade center, and, later that year, an illustrated extravaganza in the Times Magazine, for which critic Herbert Muschamp rounded up the usual star designers and instructed them to think big and design high. Nobel dismisses the Protetch show as a "distraction," the Muschamp pageant as "callow aestheticizing," and he sees both as part of the larger, more troubling story of how architectural practice has become blinkered, self-referential, terminally arty, perilously close to irrelevance. Or, as he puts it: "In response to the tragedy, in an attempt to defy it, [architects] were asked to do something they no longer knew how to do: make buildings speak, give them meaning, create symbols for a culture with no common code."

    No wonder Danny Libeskind's spire — meant to echo Lady Liberty, to kiss the sky at 1,776 feet — seems so expendable, so weightless. Turns out it never mattered much after all.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 9:45 am | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
    Glass Houses

    In life Philip Johnson seemed more fearful of being ignored than reviled. So it doesn't seem much of a breach of celebrity protocol to suggest that the publicity-happy inhabitant of the Glass House might have appreciated that the public memorializing of his death has been — how to put it? — zestfully contentious.

    At the heart of the contention is what Mark Stevens, in an op-ed in the New York Times, refers to as Johnson's "embrace of fascism." This embrace, ardent and whole-hearted while it lasted, is the subject not just of the Times piece; it occupies a lot of lines in Andrew Saint's obituary in the Guardian and in Roger Kimball's post on the New Criterion's weblog. What's especially notable, I think, is that those who've fixed most insistently on the architect's dark past have been essayists from the art world or observers from abroad. Most home-grown critics and architects have been more reticent, dutifully alluding to the unsavory Nazi sympathies and then proceeding gratefully to the more palatable catalogue of postwar success.

    I would guess that this is due partly to the fact that in architectural circles Philip Johnson's fascist past has been well known for years. Michael Sorkin's 1988 "Where Was Philip?," published in Spy, was an early and courageous public exposé. Franz Schulze's 1994 biography of Johnson — sympathetic but unauthorized and independent — recounts the history in unsparing detail. (Or at least, if Schulze had more to reveal, it couldn't be more damning than his excerpt of a letter Johnson wrote to a friend in October 1939, after witnessing the invasion of Poland: "Everything was fine and dandy in Berlin. . . . Everyone was taking the war very well indeed. I was lucky enough to get to be a correspondent so that I could go to the front . . . The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.")

    But the reticence has another source, which is the long habit of looking the other way when the nasty topic comes up. That was then, this is now: for a long time that's been the consensus defense, the default demurral. Johnson's then might have had a bit much in the way of jackboots and Jew-bashing . . . but for many years his now featured the fun of swell MoMA parties and the enticement of professional preferment. Those agreeable circumstances surely made it easier to forgive, if not forget.

    But responses to Johnson were rarely uncomplicated. Throughout his long life he was catalytic and controversial, not just because of his early years as a fascist follower but because of his later career as a merrily amoral powerbroker. Johnson was widely courted by architects and critics who appreciated that his endorsement could do nice things indeed for their careers. In a field that demands an uneasy blend of artistic commitment and business savvy, he exemplifed how thorny it could be to align principles (or whatever we're calling them in these post-critical days) and practice.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:25 pm | 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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