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Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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Michael Webb

Wednesday
Dec102014

Cinema as Art

A scene from Nightcrawler, one of the films showing at the Hammer's Contenders series. Image courtesy Hammer Museum.There are too few opportunities to enjoy the art of cinema at its best. It requires an near-miraculous fusion of all the elements, perfectly projected on a big screen to an appreciative audience. If you don't have a private screening room you are limited to the American Cinematheque, and a handful of Academy offerings. To fill the void, the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater is hosting The Contenders, a series of nine new releases selected by the Museum of Modern Art Film Department. The goal is to show features from around the world that are up for awards and deserve enduring fame. Most have had limited theatrical distribution, crowded out by mindless blockbusters and the endless stream of Hollywood drivel. As a bonus, directors and actors will engage in post-screening discussions. 

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Monday
Dec082014

Book Review: Carlo Scarpa

Courtesy Phaidon

Carlo Scarpa. Robert McCarter. Phaidon, $125

Though Carlo Scarpa was never licensed to practice architecture and was repeatedly sued by representatives of the profession, he created a unique and enduring body of work, in his native Venice and its hinterland. He was revered as a teacher, excelled as a glass designer, and his mastery of detail is memorialized in the adjective "Scarparesque." In contrast to Gio Ponti, who popularized modernism and had an international practice, Scarpa stayed close to home, working more as an artisan than as a formgiver.

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Monday
Dec012014

Book Review: Earthly Magic

Courtesy Gibbs-Smith.

Mickey Muennig: Dreams and Realizations for a Living Architecture. Mickey Muennig. Gibbs Smith. $50

Too many organic architects, from Frank Lloyd Wright on, become preachy and dogmatic when they contrast their work with mainstream modernism. Mickey Muennig is as down to earth and direct in words as he is in the woodsy houses he has concealed in the folds of Big Sur. Born in Joplin, MO, 80 years ago, he was nicknamed Mickey by his sister because she thought he resembled Disney's mouse, and the moniker stuck. Drawings by Bruce Goff inspired him to study with that maverick in Norman, Oklahoma, and soon after he settled in Big Sur. It's one of the world's magical places, where verdant hills shear off at the waterline, and the coast highway snakes through forests and meadows with the sparkle of the ocean far below. The Coastal Commission has kept it pristine, and the few rustic buildings merge into the landscape. From the start, Mickey bonded with the land, designing houses that are rooted and airy, open and sustainable. He sculptured spaces from wood beams and poured concrete, winning approval from the authorities and enchanting a succession of clients.

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Monday
Nov242014

Book Review: Havana Modern

Courtesy RizzoliHavana Modern: 20th Century Architecture and Interiors. Michael Connors. Rizzoli. $65

An idealized portrait of the crumbling Cuban capital, which offers very incomplete coverage of the modernist treasures of the 1940s and 1950s. The subtitle is more exact: The early decades of the 20th century saw a wonderful flowering of Beaux Arts and Art Déco, including a scaled down version of the US Capitol and the exuberant Bacardi Building. Those decorative styles occupy more than half this book, but the images must have been extensively photo-shopped to achieve such pristine elegance. In reality most of these houses and public buildings are shabby and decayed, even on the verge of collapse.

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Monday
Nov172014

Book Review: Chinese Museums

Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

New Museums in China. Clare Jacobsen. Princeton Architectural Press. $50.

An invaluable compilation of 50 museums, completed or begun in the past decade, all over China. Jacobsen has selected these projects for their architectural value, and she has cast a wide net, from MAD's Ordos Museum—a scale-less blob that anchors a raw new development in Inner Mongolia, to the Museum of Handcraft Paper, a woodsy cluster by Trace Architecture in a remote southwestern village. There's a good mix of Chinese and Western firms, and the Pritzker Prize laureates include Wang Shu of Hangzhou.

In her introduction, Jacobsen explains how China (like the oil-rich states of the Middle East) is racing to catch up with the West, building trophy museums as a badge of status.  There were 2,571 museums in the PRC at the end of 2011 (as against 17,500 in the US) including showcases for tap water, public security, and pickles. It's a reprise of Japan in the 1980s, where the smallest provincial town had to have a new museum, regardless of whether there was anything to display or any perceived demand. There, elaborate structures were raised to celebrate sand, sunsets, and a reconstructed earthen dam. China is even worse off: Many of its historic treasures were carried off by the retreating Nationalists in 1949 or were vandalized during the Cultural Revolution. Contemporary art is a controversial subject many state-run museums prefer to avoid. Jacobsen quotes Xie Xiofan, deputy director of the National Art Museum of China: "Of the many new museums being built in China, some fulfill real, actual demands; others answer no real needs and are more unstudied," he says. "In many cases architects are experimenting, designing museum buildings through trial and error."

That's no bad thing; good architects deserve an opportunity to express themselves, and China offers more opportunities to test new ideas than the timid US and economically depressed Europe. Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin was vastly more impressive when it was empty; today it is crammed with tchotchkes and the interior has lost its elemental power. Many of these museums raise the bar for architecture in coarsely developed cities, provide a civic hub, and may eventually attract good exhibits. They could prove very good investments in the future of the world's next great power.