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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

Thursday
Aug022012

BOOK REVIEW: African Metropolitan Architecture and David Adjaye: Authoring


A massive portfolio of photos on African cities, and a collection of discussions at Princeton on the relationship of art and architecture show two sides of a provocative British architect who is beginning to make his mark in America. “Africa has always been a point of reference for me,” writes David Adjaye, who had a peripatetic childhood as the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and has now reconnected with his roots. He traveled to all but one of the 53 African states (wisely omitting Somalia) studying the relationship of buildings to climate and landscape, and photographing the gritty reality of their capitals. This research fed into his competition-winning design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC—a building of extraordinary originality amid the banalities that line the Mall—and a series of commissions in Africa.

The photos are grouped geographically—desert, forest, mountain etc—in six paper-bound volumes, plus a slim collection of essays. It’s a dramatic way of articulating the radical differences within a continent that most Westerners ignore except for the latest civil war or massacre. Adjaye wants to play up the diversity and vitality of his homeland, observing that “the colonial city existed primarily for purposes of trade and administration but, since independence, the same cities have become symbols of modernity…The identity of each modernity can supply incredible richness.” That sounds good and it may be true, but Adjaye’s photos don’t support his assertion. What we see is squalor bordering on the chaotic; shabby relics of colonialism swallowed up in a tide of gimcrack construction and unregulated signage. Even Asmara, which a veteran Ethiopian architect describes as a “modernist city of unparalleled beauty and serenity [that] has survived unscathed from years of war,” appears derelict in these images.

African Metropolitan Architecture
by David Adjaye
Rizzoli International, $100

 

Authoring is an edited transcript of discussions Adjaye had with three artists—Teresita Fernandez, Jorge Pardo, and Matthew Ritchie--while teaching at the Princeton School of Architecture. It recalls a similar dialogue between Frank Gehry and Richard Serra that the Weisman Institute hosted 20 years ago. Adjaye studied art and has, to an even greater extent than Gehry, achieved a fusion of the two disciplines—in houses, galleries and installations. He is an outspoken critic of form for form’s sake. “Architecture is, at its essence, a way to think about civil society and translate the building requirements beyond the basic needs of the clients,” he declares. “Thinking, and the process of idea generation, is far more important than perfecting a technique.” It’s an ideal he practices (his Idea Stores in London’s East End have created a new model for branch libraries) and one hopes his students at Princeton take it to heart.  Authoring challenges received ideas and much current practice in art and architecture, and, like all of Lars Müller’s books, it is elegantly produced. It’s a stimulating read that should get you thinking.

David Adjaye: Authoring; re-placing art and architecture

Lars Müller, $45

Monday
Jun252012

BOOK REVIEW: Thomas Heatherwick: Making



Over the past 20 years, Thomas Heatherwick has produced a stream of innovative designs on an ever-larger scale, culminating in the spiky marvel of the British Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. In this massive survey of 140 works, past, present and to come, Heatherwick explores the ideas that inform every project, and the ways they were realized. Brief texts accompany abundant illustrations in this personal exploration of a prolific career. In an exhibition that is on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum through September 30, the creative process is brought to life though animation, and it’s easy to imagine an e-book that would do the same.

Heatherwick’s range is dazzling, from chairs and temporary installations to roll-up bridges and a power station that morphs into a green mountain. Electricity pylons that disfigure the landscape are transformed into gauzy skeins. A beachfront café evokes the rolling surf in undulating shells of welded steel, and an outdoor pool is canopied with a cats-cradle of wood spars resembling those that wash up on the shore. An unrealized design for the Olympic Velodrome captures the dynamic energy of cycle racing to a far greater degree than Michael Hopkins’ iteration. Heatherwick has even redesigned the double-decker London bus, and the gleaming prototypes are drawing admiring glances as they ply route 38 from Victoria to Hackney. As you close this book you wonder if there’s anything he cannot do. Even Leonardo would have been impressed by the fertility of his invention.

Thomas Heatherwick: Making
The Monacelli Press, $75

Friday
Jun222012

BOOK REVIEW: Sight and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls


Provocative, timely, and compellingly readable: this is an even more valuable survey than Victoria Newhouse’s 1998 study, Towards a New Museum (updated in 2007). There, she explored the relationship of art and architecture with a keen critical eye; now she adds the sense of hearing, examining the design and performance of new halls, as experienced by players and audience, and as they respond to (or ignore) their surroundings.  It’s timely because, for better and worse, grandiose music venues have begun to supplant museums as must-have trophy buildings, even in China where they have no relevance to traditional culture and are often mis-used.  It’s provocative, because Newhouse is unflinching in her criticisms, and it’s readable because she distills a mass of information and observation in lively prose.

There’s a historical survey of the musical theater, from ancient Greece to the 19th-century landmarks in Vienna, Amsterdam and Boston that provide a standard of excellence to which every new hall is compared. Then come chapters on the transformation of Lincoln Center, the eclecticism of recent work, the hubris of the Chinese authorities, and prestige projects in the making. Thirty new and upcoming projects are analyzed in detail, with input from musicians who have performed in these spaces, and the acousticians who worked on them. Newhouse questions the disconnect between boldly expressive architecture and conventional theater plans, and asks whether good design can rejuvenate the audience (as it clearly has in Gehry’s New World Center in Miami, and Walt Disney Hall).  Her book will be an invaluable resource for architects, acousticians, clients, and music-lovers, and inspire everyone to look and listen with the passion she summons.

Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls
by Victoria Newhouse
The Monacelli Press, $50

Monday
Apr232012

MUSTS IN MAY


Early May brings two events that every architect and aficionado should try to attend. The AIA/LA Spring Home Tour on May 6 includes four exceptional properties in Pacific Palisades by Barbara Callas, William Hefner, Michael Lehrer and William Wagner (above). Sponsored by Gruen Associates, the tour offers a rare opportunity to view houses of great originality that are hidden away in canyons leading down to the ocean. For tickets and information, click here.

 

Aqua Tower, Chicago, by Studio Gang. Photo by Steve Hall (c) Hedrich Blessing.On May 8 at 7:30pm, LACMA hosts Jeanne Gang in its Distinguished Architects Lecture Series. Winner of the MacArthur “genius” award and head of Studio Gang Architects, she’s been acclaimed for the Aqua apartment tower—a stunning addition to the Chicago skylines.

Her collective of architects, designers and thinkers have enriched the fabric of their home city and created a rich array of provocative projects. These are chronicled in Reveal Studio Gang Architects (Princeton Architectural Press, $45) and the book makes one eager to witness her presentation. Tickets may be ordered by calling 323.857.6010 or at lacma.org. Parking in the Pritzker Garage on Sixth Street, east of Fairfax, is free after 7pm.

Wednesday
Apr112012

BOOK REVIEW: Venice in Solitude

© Christopher Thomas, 2012On my first trip to Venice in 1963, I arrived at 3am, dropped my bags at the hotel and strolled though the deserted city, delighting in the watery reflections and the skyline etched black against the pale light of dawn. I’ve never repeated that nocturnal exploration, but looking at Christopher Thomas’s magical images I think I shall. The German photographer went to live in Venice and every night he would set off with his large format camera and tripod to capture a specific view or detail in long exposures. Relying on street lamps, the moon, or the faint glow of dusk  and dawn, he created monochromatic compositions of extraordinary beauty. Misty or pin-sharp, they show the piazza and the neighborhood campi, the canals and bridges, polished pavers and fanciful facades in all kinds of weather. There are no people. “It is an attempt to recover the serenity of Venice found in images from the nineteenth century and to release the city from mass tourism,” he writes.  

All that needs to be said about Venice has already been written, as Goethe noted two centuries ago. The poems of Albert Ostermaier that are interleaved with the photographs are trifling. However it’s good to read the afterword by Antonio Foscari, an architect and professor who restored La Malcontenta, his family’s Palladian villa. He praises the “genial intuition” of Thomas that he could capture on film only one aspect of a city that eludes comprehension, even by those few residents whose roots run deep.

Venice in Solitude
Photographs by Christopher Thomas
(Prestel, $49.95)