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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Thursday, June 30, 2005
    Freemarket Tower

    Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
    — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

    The reviews are in — and if the new(est) Freedom Tower were a Broadway show, the producers would already be striking the set. The critics have been unsparing, the metaphors plentiful. David Childs's latest compromise of a Ground Zero high-rise — with its newly bunkered-up base and blandly symmetrical shaft — has been likened to a "crystalline Popsicle," a "gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top," an "85-story piece of folded graph paper," and, in an online discussion, to a "huge hypodermic needle" and grotesquely over-scaled "perfume bottle." Slightly gentler assessments rate the design as "monumentally ordinary," "fundamentally . . . conventional," and "highly derivative." And some keen observers have suggested that the artistic failure of Childs's latest redesign — a redesign of his and Libeskind's redesign of Libeskind's competition-winning design — is woefully beside the point, since the point of Ground Zero redevelopment has always been not architectural invention but rentable space. Which makes the sorry spectacle even sorrier — for of course this most talked-about development deal of the decade has yet to attract any tenants.

    And here the most relevant questions have lately come from observers beyond the world of architecture — questions about the wisdom, the ethics even, of the misbegotten building. As Frank Rich argued in an op-ed that ran in the New York Times on Memorial Day weekend: "The simple question that no one could answer the day after 9/11 remains unanswered today: What sane person would want to work in a skyscraper destined to be the most tempting target for aerial assault in the Western world?" And as Ron Rosenbaum asked in an essay in a recent New York Observer: "Who needs an empty gesture when others may have to pay for it with their lives? . . . The discussion should not be about how to save 'Freedom Tower,' but rather: Who will save us from 'Freedom Tower'?"

    Something to ponder as we prepare for the big Independence Day holiday . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 4:45 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
    Remembering Nanna Ditzel

    A brief note on a matter that has gone surprisingly unmentioned by most of the design press: One of the great Danish designers of the past half century has recently died. Nanna Ditzel never attained the international prominence of some of her illustrious compatriots — of, say, Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, Hans Wegner, or Poul Henningsen, to name just some of the designers who made Denmark such a powerhouse of postwar modernism — but in her homeland she was a hero, the unofficial first lady of design, a prolific craftswoman whose work was much honored and widely exhibited.

    In a career that lasted almost six decades — beginning in 1946, when she and her first husband, Jørgen Ditzel, set up a studio in Copenhagen, and ending only a few months ago, when she became ill — Ditzel designed hundreds of objects in diverse media. She was best known for her furniture — for early projects in that unfussy and affordable idiom that become known as Scandinavian Modern (e.g., the egg, a hanging chair of woven cane, and the toadstool, a set of stackable pine seats for children), and for later creations in a more exuberantly decorative mode (e.g., the eye-catchingly chromatic bench for two, and the Trinidad stacking chair). But she also designed textiles, tableware and, especially, jewelry. In the mid-1950s she began what would be a long association with Georg Jensen — the first woman to design for the prestigious company — and over the years she crafted a series of sensuous silver brooches, pendants, and bracelets, some of which are still in production and viewable on the Jensen site (where not even the droid-like models mar the elegance of the work).

    The politics of reputation is always a puzzle. Ditzel's comparatively modest profile (at least on this side of the Atlantic) has possibly something to do with gender (but no! I am writing on a balmy summer day, and I won't roil it with post-feminist angst). Or maybe it owes to the fact that none of her many designs has become one of those objects so immediately recognizable — like Jacobsen's Series 7 chair, or Henningsen's artichoke light — that it hovers in that uncertain zone between icon and cliché. Or perhaps it was due, as is so often the case, to temperament; perhaps Ditzel was content to enjoy the kudos of her design-savvy countrymen (and women), and let the rest of us discover her when we might.

    My own introduction to Ditzel's work came by way of that incidental research tool that is eBay, where the powersellers have cannily perceived the value of creative cross-referencing (and where this week a seller is offering one of Ditzel's Jensen pieces from the early '60s, a curvy sterling brooch set with a simple black pearl). But no matter the means, Nanna Ditzel's work is worth knowing. Perhaps her death will inspire our design periodicals to explore her life and career. In the meantime, for an overview of both, I recommend the graceful obituary in a recent Guardian, written by design historian Penny Sparke.

    Also, at the right, I've posted a new list of books — books about designers both famous and not so famous.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, June 16, 2005

    Here in New England we have just wilted through the first heat wave of not-yet-summer . . . so maybe it was the ozone haze and the AC drone that made the recent US architecture news seem like such a blur — a déjà vu of museum projects by Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano, of bold, Bilbao-like art barns that have been jettisoned by jittery boards of directors or elegantly recessive additions that seem likely to get the go-ahead. Culture palaces by architectural eminences are, of course, nothing to sniff at — though one does begin to sympathize with the exasperation that seems to have prompted a recent Architectural Record piece with the borderline impertinent headline: "Is Renzo Piano America's Default Architect?" Well, perhaps our high culture potentates have got to play it safe, to choose their architects from that preferred list of Piano-Gehry-Koolhaas, Foster-Hadid-Calatrava, of stars super enough to be entrusted with high-profile plans and big-donor egos. Still, it came as a relief, in the cool, dim stacks of a Harvard library — where the gratifyingly comprehensive design collection ranges from oversized photo albums on the new American house to bound dissertations with spines that have remained poignantly uncracked — to happen upon a slender volume with an intriguing title: Snooze: Immersing Architecture in Mass Culture.

    The work of a Rotterdam design collective called Studio Sputnik, Snooze extends the inquiry begun a generation ago by architects like Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, in Learning from Las Vegas, and continued more recently by Lars Lerup, in After the City — the exploration of how architecture, so long a redoubt of high culture, might interact with popular culture and mass media. Or, as the authors put it, right at the start: "The lifestyle magazine Wallpaper* has a clever title. The asterisk refers to the subtitle: 'the stuff that surrounds you.' That is what this book is about: the spatial environment as a sum of the stuff that surrounds you, in the broadest sense of the word: the city and the landscape, but also the immaterial world that surrounds us: adverts, radio and television broadcasts, fashion hypes. In short, mass culture." One might, of course, expand the list of what makes up mass culture — surely the lurid celebrity trial now constitutes a category of its own, ditto the omni-media Paris Hilton — but there's no doubt that all this stuff — insubstantial and ephemeral but ever-present and powerful — does indeed surround us, and that it poses a challenge to architects. How do you make buildings meaningful nowadays, when the mood and image of a place can be set as much by promotional campaigns for sneakers and cars as by works of architecture? Can a profession that continues to fetishize the heroic, the individual genius-creator and the singular masterwork, be anything but marginal in an economy that favors quick delivery, fast turnaround, and mass consumption?

    Snooze contends — reasonably, I think — that for a long time architects have tended toward one of two approaches to mass culture: either that of the reformer, the idealist and utopian who knows "what is good" and is eager to use that knowledge to improve the world, or, more recently, that of the pragmatist, the practical "surfer on the swell of the age," who is content to "take things as they are." From the authors' perspective — as youngish architects, still in their first decade of practice — both attitudes have outlived their usefulness, and they propose, with disarming non-insistence, a middle ground between idealism (which can tilt toward elitism) and pragmatism (which can curdle into cynicism). They describe this middle ground as akin to avant-pop — a term popularized in the mid-'90s by the literary critic Larry McCaffery, who wanted to capture the unexpectedly rich blending in contemporary art of avant garde and pop culture — and suggest that this sensibility, with its fertile mix of the progressive and the popular, offers architects a productive approach to the "pluriform extravaganza" of mass culture.

    The Sputniks are thus informed by sources both high and pop, i.e., by architectural theory and marketing strategy. Two books in particular have served as inspiration: Lerup's After the City, in which the author, an architecture professor at Rice University, an émigré from Sweden living on the 28th floor of a Houston high-rise, reflects on the unbounded American metropolis of suburbs and highways that has replaced the historical European city of districts and streets; and The Experience Economy, in which the marketing consultants — or "provocateurs," as their web site has it — Joseph Pine and James Gilmore argue that the service economy that succeeded the industrial economy is itself evolving into an economy in which businesses sell not just goods or services but life-style experiences — in which, for instance, Starbucks offers us not merely a paper cup of pricey espresso but also the opportunity to sip that espresso in the reassuringly upscale setting of a brand-name coffeehouse.

    The intermingling of academic disquisition and business bestseller leads the authors — after a good deal of analysis and lots of over-busy graphics, including perforated pages and colorful gatefolds — to develop their idea of "snooze city." The metaphor refers to the snooze function of an alarm clock — that all but indispensable feature that lets us linger in that "unstable equilibrium between sleeping, dreaming, and waking consciousness," in that "midpoint . . . between dreaming and doing." Accordingly snooze city refers not to actual places and buildings but rather to the sorts of atmospheres and experiences that might be encouraged by places and buildings. Snoozy places — e.g., market squares, roadway rest stops, hotel lobbies, city parks, beaches — offer open-ended, non-scripted, often spontaneous and unpredictable experiences; unsnoozy places — e.g., amusement parks, health clubs, gated enclaves, themed malls — tend to prescribe and predetermine a relatively narrow range of experiences.

    A lot of this is — you are no doubt sensing — somewhat vague. But it seemed to me appealingly vague, and maybe inevitably so, for the authors are trying to analyze not what is solid and quantifiable but what is elusive and unstable: they are trying to understand why some places feel charged with pleasant and dynamic potential while others feel dull, limiting and claustrophobic. And here is the challenge for designers: the traditional city, the city that you studied in school, the city that the New Urbanists are struggling valiantly but unsuccessfully to recreate, is suffused with snooze — with possibilities for diverse and unprogrammed experiences. How can the "snooze quality" of the older city be translated to the contemporary suburban metropolis, with its very different spatial and architectural vocabularies? I'll confess that the Sputniks' answer to this question seemed unconvincing, or at least under-developed — the architect-authors offer charmingly goofy drawings and urge designers to deploy business strategies like mass customization in order to make places that are non-rigid, uncoercive, open to diverse and user-determined experiences.

    And yet this lack of a developed response didn't seem especially troubling. What is valuable about Snooze is the articulation of a sensibility, the mapping out of a search. How might architecture shake off the fixation on aspirational monuments and extend its reach to include — well, the stuff that surrounds us, the alternate universe of entertainment media and the prosaic sprawl of the endless 'burbs? This is by now a decades-old challenge, one explored not just by Venturi/Scott Brown and Lerup, but also by Reyner Banham, in books like Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and by Koolhaas the critic (not architect), in essays like "Whatever Happened to Urbanism?" and "Junkspace." And yet somehow it remains a tough sell, partly because it offers such dubious access to the field's sparkling prizes — to those genius-seeking high-art commissions — and partly because it's a hugely perplexing dilemma — one that inevitably calls into question the contemporary relevance of a profession dominated by genius-heroes and exceptional projects.

    Time to press that snooze button, and dream about the possibilities.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 10:45 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, June 2, 2005
    Beyond Criticism

    Arts criticism has been pronounced dead so often that it seems reasonable to wonder whether the latest pulse-taking, in the Los Angeles Times, might be prematurely gloomy. But "Critical Condition," by reporter Scott Timberg, was uncomfortably convincing in its glum prognosis. How could it not be, when Dave Hickey, one of our most soulful and successful critics, author of the gorgeous Air Guitar, goes on record with his blunt assessment of the irrelevance of the role: "I do think that we're over. Being an art critic was one of those jobs like nighttime disk jockey or sewing machine repairman: It was a one- or two-generation job. . . . I'm like Wolfman Jack. The times have passed me by." Personally I think the Vegas-based Hickey still has a few sessions left to play in the down-at-heels lounge of arts critique; but there's no doubt his point is serious, and most of those interviewed, including theater director Robert Brustein, media critic Frank Rich, and NEA chair Dana Gioia, were just as unhopeful. The decline of print and rise of the Internet, the diminished stature of the press, the mistrust of authority and the discrediting of high art, the fading of the public intellectual, the fragmentation of audiences — all were fingered as factors in the waning influence of criticism. So too was the galloping commercialization of culture, especially as exemplified by the media-tainment packagers that have transformed Broadway into a colony of the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood into a remake machine for mid-century comic books and half-forgotten TV — for the sort of stuff that's critic-resistant, more or less direct-marketed to the entertainment consumer. Does it really matter what bones a critic might find to pick with the latest multiplex merchandise, which this summer will include the widescreen treatments of Bewitched and — this should be more unbelievable than it is — The Dukes of Hazzard?

    Contributing to the nail-biting about arts criticism was the recent announcement that the National Arts Journalism Program was shutting down due to lack of funds. For more on the unfortunate demise of this unique program, I recommend an eloquent post by fellow Arts Journal blogger Jan Herman. For a sense of the scope of its research and advocacy efforts, I recommend the NAJP's own web site (while the links are still simmering). And to anyone with an interest in architectural criticism, I recommend an informative report that the NAJP published a few years ago. The Architecture Critic is more statistical than evaluative, more focused on quantity of criticism than on quality of critical performance, and as such its main message is sound-bitingly simple: "Architecture is the smallest niche of the smallest beat of the smallest department at most newspapers."

    Architects often puzzle about this paucity: about why the large and costly constructions in which we pass our lives, and which are the most conspicuous shows of our civilization, should command so little space in the mainstream press. Probably this is why we grouse so much about the critics, especially when they seem overly partisan or pusillanimous: when there's so much to say, and so few to say it, you naturally want your professional reviewers to be independent to the point of unsociability, to be fearless in the face of occupational-hazard unpopularity. But of course the scarcity of architectural criticism has less to do with the limits of particular practitioners than with the limits of the genre itself. For a long while now mainstream architectural journalism has been mostly synonymous with architectural criticism — with reviews of significant buildings. But you don't have to browse through too many Arts or Entertainment or Weekend sections to see that critiques of buildings are an odd, uneasy fit amid all the reviews of movies and plays and TV shows, of music and dance and literature — of arts that are easily accessible and (often) widely distributed, arts that you can affordably experience simply by visiting a local theater or gallery, buying a book or CD, or tuning in HBO.

    You can see the categorical mismatch: noteworthy works of architecture aren't mass-produced and they don't open nationwide; they are more spatial than visual, as likely to be located across the country as across the city, and many are private not public — all of which means that if the newspaper or magazine has cultural ambitions and ready cash (this last is, alas, an increasingly dubious proposition), the architecture critic is likely to be reviewing works that few readers will ever experience, either because the buildings are far-flung or off-limits. (It's actually a tantalizing — and pricey — dilemma: architecture culture has become so marvelously global that even the most frequent-flying critic is hard put to keep pace; you'd have to be on a perpetual post-graduate wanderjahr just to make it to all the openings.)

    I'm not sure this matters much to anyone except architectural journalists (and I'll confess I've been concerned that this post runs the risk of unseemly self-interest — except that "self interest" and "architectural journalism" are such obviously incompatible concepts). Then again, the distance between critics and readers might help explain why the NAJP survey tallied up so few column inches on architecture in our nation's papers. It's one of the rules of the critical game: critics do their liveliest work when they speak to knowledgeable readers — better yet, to crazy-passionate fans. For a recent New Yorker Anthony Lane wrote an irresistibly readable review of a movie he described as all too resistible; realizing we'd need no introduction to George Lucas's quarter-century-spanning series, he lit unceremoniously, and gleefully, into Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. Architecture critics, of course, unlike film critics, can't assume that readers will join them on the common ground — or galaxy — of shared experience and inside information; architecture critics are not writing about what has been for decades the most popular and dynamic of the arts, but instead about a discipline that is highly specialized, even rarefied, a field whose public image is often forbiddingly esoteric.

    What's really at stake here is not — I hasten to add — the health of a journalistic sub-specialty. What really matters isn't the gap between architecture critics and newspaper readers but the gap between architects and the public. And for all the usual reasons; as the NAJP researchers argue in their report: "Architecture is the most public art form and curiously, the least subject to public debate. In the absence of public discourse over architecture, control of new construction inevitably falls into the hands of bureaucrats and developers." (And sometimes this happens no matter how over-heated the discourse, as the ever-escalating fiasco of Ground Zero shows.) Reviews of buildings are good stories, but usually narrow ones. So here I'd like simply to extend the point I made at the end of my last post: that it's time to enlarge the scope of mainstream architectural journalism, to move beyond the tight focus on beautiful and often remote objects and consider buildings and places of all sorts, and in terms not just of aesthetics but of technology, ecology, politics, economics, race, class, etc. Why not plunge into the un-pristine worlds of big boxes and dead malls? Or explore the state of green buildings and of creepy surveillance technology? Or look into the murky future of middle-class housing in our coastal cities? The results of this broader and more enterprising outlook might not be so easily slotted into the arts pages . . . but as the uncheery reports from the L.A. Times and NAJP suggest, all architecture criticism has to lose is its tenuous and tiny (though smartly appointed) niche.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 4:00 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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