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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Thursday, July 20, 2006
    Buildings . . . and Books

    Back to blogging . . . but with a bit of a shift. In an earlier post I delve into what seem to me the contradictions of architecture critique—the deepening disconnect between the globalized media culture, which is instantaneous, evanescent, and damn near everywhere, and the art of architecture, whose works remain stubbornly solid and three-dimensional, demanding actual presence and real time. So I'd like now to make this weblog less about architecture—about what is singular and local—and more about the literature of architecture—about what is conveniently portable and widely available. Which is not to imply that leafing through a monograph on the oeuvre of Herzog and De Meuron is any substitute for experiencing their buildings; but if time or money are too tight to manage the tour—the trips to Basel and Beijing, to London, Munich, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—then you might as well discover the Allianz Arena and the Dominus Winery (etc.) in the pages of a book or the pixels of a website.

    I've got a lot of books in the queue, and they range from sobering (The Destruction of Memory, by Robert Bevan, about the fate of buildings in war) to seductive (Architecture to Landscape, an elegant monograph on several houses by B Five Studio, with landscapes by Douglas Reed and Gary Hilderbrand) to sweeping ([Re]Reading Perspecta, an 823-page compendium of the first fifty years of Yale's architecture journal, the shipping weight of which is, according to Amazon, 9.54 pounds).

    But I'll begin with a book I read earlier this year. Celluloid Skyline, by architect James Sanders, explores the New York City created onscreen in a century of cinema. Published a few years ago, the book is an unusual hybrid history of architecture and film, and it ranges with impressive erudition from the early shorts created by pioneers like Thomas Edison, who set up shop in a West 28th Street walk-up and cranked out titles like What Happened on Twenty-third Street, to the hypersophisticated mixes of image and sound created by contemporary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. Sanders, who practices architecture in Manhattan, argues that the New York of the movies "provides a fascinating mirror to the real city, to its booms and busts, its crooked mayors and master builders, its waves of immigration, growth, decline, rebirth." He argues too that "the movie city, the mythic city, is ultimately more than a mere mirror. It is a place unto itself, an extraordinary cultural construct spanning hundreds of individual films, from works of genius by Wyler, Hitchcock, and Scorsese to the most routine 1930s 'Manhattan Melodrama.'" This is a marvelous premise for an inquiry into the interconnections between architecture and film, and also into the increasingly flimsy boundary between screen-world and real-world: into how all those larger-than-life images projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second have colonized our consciousness. For instance: I am writing this on a hot night in mid-July, sitting and sweltering in my apartment, where somehow I've neglected (i.e., been too cheap) to install an air conditioner, and so the fan is whirring, and across the street my neighbor's fan is whirring too . . . and what comes pleasantly to mind are scenes from Billy Wilder's The Seven-Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe, playing a character known only as The Girl, explains to her enamored neighbor that the city has gotten so sticky that she's taken to keeping her underpants in the fridge . . . and better yet, scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with its memorable summer-in-the-city set, which gives us deep-focus views of mid-'50s neighborhood life in Greenwich Village, when AC was still upscale and people kept their windows wide open and some even dragged a mattress onto the fire escape and slept outside.

    The book contains a terrific chapter on Rear Window, which includes a fascinating description of how the film was shot—entirely on a single soundstage at Paramount Studios, as it turns out. ". . . Rear Window's set completely filled Stage 18, one of the biggest on the Paramount lot, 98 feet wide by 184 feet long," writes Sanders. "During the six weeks required for its construction, Hitchcock himself could be seen roving around every corner, delighting in its complexity and verisimilitude, overseeing the smallest details. When completed, the $100,000 set included thirty-one individual apartments, twelve of them fully furnished, and featured a complete drainage system to avoid flooding during the rain scenes."

    Celluloid Skyline is packed with this sort of wonderful detail, with information that lets us glimpse the man behind the curtain, so to speak, and yet somehow leaves intact our vision of the dream city.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 9:30 am | Permanent link



About Nancy Levinson
I like to think of architectural journalism as an extension of architectural practice. More

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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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