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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Friday, October 21, 2005
    Beyond the Front Porch

    The six-day Mississippi Renewal Forum—centered in Biloxi and concluded earlier this week—hasn't lacked for heavy hype. Earlier this week the New York Times ran an Arts Section story in which reporter Robin Pogrebin recounted the visiting architects and planners' tour of Biloxi ("Armed with box lunches, the Biloxi troupe boarded a bus in the morning. First stop: City Hall. . ."); apparently paraphrased architect Stefanos Polyzoides's ruminations on rebuilding ("It's like the Three Little Pigs fable . . . If you rebuild hurricane-flattened houses out of brick, they will have a better chance of withstanding any repeat of the 30-foot surges that churned this city into what looks like a war zone today. But brick is expensive. And it does not necessarily reflect the wood-porch aesthetic that Gulf Coast residents so treasure. . ."); and offered what must surely be reductive snippets of the designers' brainstorming ("the talk turned to how to transform the beachfront strip into something closer to the French Riviera. . ."). But alas, the Times piece failed to convey what would seem to be the essential information about the Mississippi Renewal Forum: that the design charrette was organized by the Congress for New Urbanism, led by the Miami-based New Urbanist Andres Duany, held under the auspices of Gov. Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, and underwritten by a million-dollar grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (Here I must note that these omissions have been remarked upon—and then some—in a recent post by the always intrepid Guttersniper, who helpfully linked to this informative report in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., which provided all the who-what-when-where-why of the event.)

    Beyond any specific news stories, though, what seems notable is that already the architectural battle lines of post-hurricane reconstruction are being demarcated. Already the New Urbanists are making a pitch for their popular brand of neotraditionalism (what National Public Radio describes as "a way of developing more compact, diverse and walkable mixed-use communities" and what the real estate blog Polis breezily dismisses as "white picket fence crapola"), while more progressive architects and critics are warning that this approach will produce a kind of NOLA Land, a Biloxi World, a theme park of Gulf Coast architectural pastiche (in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Tulane dean of architecture Reed Kroloff argues, without specifically mentioning New Urbanism, that "the worst thing that could happen is a bad 21st-century version of a great 19th-century home"; in a critique earlier this week in the New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff does refer specifically to New Urbanism, disparaging it as "a sentimental and historicist vision of how cities work").

    I do agree with Kroloff and Ouroussoff, et al. (in an earlier post I described my misgivings about this most zealous of architectural crusades). And yet at this point I can't help wondering: Isn't it too soon—just weeks after Katrina, and maybe days before Wilma, with thousands still lingering in temporary shelters, with enormous economic and engineering challenges still awaiting federal action—to be arguing about architectural style? Isn't it premature to be debating about wood porches and period details? Perhaps it's inevitable: certainly it's easier to imagine the rebuilding of wood porches than to envision the reengineering of networks of pumping stations and miles of levees (as evidently it was easier for our feckless Commander-in-Chief to anticipate lounging on the porch of the house that would arise from the "rubbles" of Trent Lott's destroyed home than to grasp the scope of the disaster).

    The hard fact that is easy to overlook in the arguments about retro styling versus forward thinking is that whatever gets built—no matter whether neotraditional or neomodernist—will look new and raw and unmellow. No reconstruction project will be able to replicate what took decades and centuries to make—the buildings that weathered and aged and were then repaired and refurbished, the live oaks and magnolias that softened and shaded the buildings. Another uncomforting fact—at least in the short term—is that whatever gets built today will come to look, after a century or so of seasons, as gracefully ripe as the historical structures destroyed by Katrina.

    But of course a design debate will be an essential component of reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast—a spirited and substantive debate that embraces not just aesthetics but infrastructure, environment, technology, and economics. In that same Christian Science Monitor interview, Reed Kroloff argues that New Orleans might find new vitality as "the center for sustainable modular housing." In the November Metropolis, editor Susan Szenasy outlines a similar vision. "As thoughts of rebuilding New Orleans and the gulf region turn to action," she writes, "some important questions must be raised. At the heart of the matter is finding efficient and humane ways to combine high technology with the area's natural and cultural resources. The design community—with its admiration and respect for the city's creativity and beauty—can play a key role in making the New Orleans region sustainable. Who else will take up the cause of exploiting the area's abundant sun and wind, and the new possibilities these bring for architecture and planning in this hot and humid place with abundant water, itself a potential energy resource?"

    New possibilities for sustainability: these aren't as easily sketchable as neo-quaint cottages and homey front porches, but they'll give us a lot more to debate.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:00 am | Permanent link
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
    Around New York

    Some downtown news: Last week Ground Zero once again made the front-page headlines. This time the dismaying—but unsurprising—report was that the International Freedom Center, like the Drawing Center, is out of the sixteen-acre picture. By now, of course, after so much has gone so wrong, it is hard to work up much indignation. That both organizations—one of which proposed exploring the historical connections between September 11 and the Civil Rights Movement, the Soviet Gulag, Tiananmen Square, etc.; the other of which is dedicated to "the significance and diversity of drawings throughout history"—were deemed programmatically inappropriate precisely because they might sponsor controversial exhibitions is only the latest stage in what Ada Louise Huxtable described six months ago as "the progressive downgrading and evisceration of the cultural components" of the site. Still, it was unsettling to open the New York Times last Friday morning and read—right next to a bittersweet piece on Truman Capote that evoked an earlier Manhattan, a lost Manhattan of Breakfast-at-Tiffany's and Black-and-White Balls—that just one day after Gov. Pataki gave the heave-ho to the cultural group, his chief of staff announced plans for a half-million square feet of retail space at Ground Zero, and that the business-community breakfast where the plan was discussed—held at the un-Tiffany-like Sheraton Hotel—was attended by "a table full of Wal-Mart executives," eager to emphasize "their commitment to building in New York City." The chairman of Port Authority, which owns the site, denied that the agency was "planning a big Wal-Mart"; but disillusioned observers of Ground Zero—and aren't we all?—might still wonder whether the biggest store on the planet will prove demonically persuasive. Talk about the high cost of low price.

    Some uptown news: Last week the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from Joan Didion's latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the excerpt, "After Life," Didion recounts in reportorial, almost forensic, detail the death of her husband of forty years. "[A]t approximately 9 o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003," she writes, "my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table at which he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. . . . When the paramedics came I tried to tell them what had happened, but before I had finished they had transformed the part of the living room where John lay into an emergency department. One of them (there were three, maybe four, even an hour later I could not have said) was talking to the hospital about an electrocardiogram they seemed already to be transmitting. Another was opening the first or second of what would be many syringes for injection. . . ." Didion describes with equal austerity, and power, her months of grief: "Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. . . . Such waves began for me on the morning of December 31, 2003, seven or eight hours after the fact, when I woke alone in the apartment."

    I thought "After Life" painfully unsentimental and deeply moving. But what I've been thinking about is its curious presentation in the magazine. The Times chose to accompany Didion's spare and eloquent text with a series of illustrations of the Didion/Dunne apartment. In the opening spread there is a photograph of Didion, looking pensive and frail, standing in what looks like the foyer; to her right is a portrait of Dunne by Eric Fischl, and, to the right of that, part of an etching by Richard Serra. On the next page there is a closely cropped shot of the living room focusing on a small dining table—"the table where Dunne had his heart attack," the caption says—flanked by Chippendale chairs; in the foreground a branching orchid hovers above a 1966 photograph of Didion and her and Dunne's daughter Quintana. Next there is a large photograph of the living room, a comfortable, stylish room with a marble mantelpiece, herringbone parquet floor, slip-covered chairs—"Dunne usually sat in the white chair"—a Cy Twombly lithograph, and shelves crowded with books and photographs. Finally there is a small image of a notepad personalized with Didion/Dunne letterhead, across which are three pens—"idea catchers," the caption tells us.

    The photographs, by photojournalist Eugene Richards, are excellent. And yet their presence is unsettling, for these moody and atmospheric images are a strange blend of crime-scene noir and shelter-magazine luxe. Are we meant to fix on the fact that we are seeing the chair in which Dunne was sitting when his heart stopped beating? Or to imagine the used syringes left scattered on the floor? Or do the images allow us to be distracted from Didion's narrative of sudden death and long grief? Do they soften its sting by showing us the enviably spacious and indeed beautiful Upper East Side apartment the two writers shared? The effect is, perhaps, a bit of both. As an ardent admirer of Didion's writing—what John Leonard once called her "ice pick/laser beam/night-scope sniper prose"—I wish the Times had held back and left the language alone on the page, or simply shown photos of Didion and Dunne over the years. But as a fan of the celebrated author, I was shamelessly eager to peer into her world: to scan the books in the living room shelves (biographies of Iris Murdoch and Vanessa Bell, essays by Jan Morris and George Orwell—were these the British shelves?) and the objets on the mantel (hurricane lamps, seashells, glass bottles), to imagine the author pacing the apartment, perhaps finding some solace in her lovely works of art, the Fischl and Twombly and Serra.

    Actually, the Times story wasn't the first in which I'd relished such an up-close-and-personal view. The Didion/Dunne apartment has been published previously, in Metropolitan Home, or maybe Elle Decor, probably five or six years ago (I can't remember, and the pages that I clipped and saved have no footers or headers with publication information). To someone who years ago had to tape up the spine of a much-read copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (a $3.45 Dell paperback, catalogued under "Sociology"), and who had practically inhaled The White Album and After Henry, this six-page spread, titled "History and Attitude" and written by Didion and Dunne themselves, was almost embarrassingly fascinating. How could it not be, with its twenty-three color photographs, all offering the intrepid fan clues about the domestic settings that nurtured the famous essays and novels; I am thinking, for instance, of the vignettes of the author's office (on her desk a no-nonsense blotter, Luxo lamp, vase of fresh roses, and, in a frame, her rejection letter from Stanford, dated April 25, 1952) and of various tabletops with artful arrangements of idiosyncratic and meaningful mementos (an old silver tea service next to a mid-'70s FBI flier about the kidnapped Patricia Hearst; a grouping of family photos alongside a March 1970 telegram to Didion reporting on weekly casualties in Vietnam).

    Clearly I'm not in much of a position to be too editorially puritanical about the mixing of hard words with easy images. Not that I haven't tried to be: About half a dozen years ago, when I was editing Harvard Design Magazine, I wrote to Didion to invite her to contribute. I had just read "Last Words," a marvelous essay she published in The New Yorker about Ernest Hemingway and the posthumous transformation of the author's famous style—and lifestyle—into a marketable brand. Didion focused largely on the literature, but she referred also to the introduction, by Thomasville Furniture, of the "Ernest Hemingway Collection," with motifs based on his residences in Havana, Ketchum, Key West, and Kenya. In my letter to Didion I wondered whether she might have more to say on this topic—"on the odd ways in which artists' lives are memorialized through the fetishization of their houses and accouterments, and further on the ways in which such efforts actually replace engagement with the very work that presumably makes the bric-a-brac interesting." Maybe I was feeling a bit hypocritical even then; nowadays we want not just the work but the life, too. But I'd still love to read whatever Didion had to say on the subject; no pictures needed.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 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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