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


Recalling Saarinen's Mastery

Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (Image by Ezra Stoller)The A+D Museum is flourishing as a hub of activity, raising public awareness of architecture and design. Its current exhibition, Eero Saarinen: a Reputation for Innovation, is on display through January 3rd, and it provides a good introduction to the varied work of this American master. Here are the classic achievements—the St Louis Arch, the TWA Terminal at JFK and Dulles Airport in Virginia—all completed after his premature death in 1961 at age 51. How many more masterpieces might there have been if he had lived as long as his father, the Finnish master Eliel Saarinen? Here, too, are examples of the furniture Eero created for Knoll: the Grasshopper and Womb chairs, and the Tulip chairs and tables that banished what he called “the slum of legs.” A revelation of the A+D show is the 1939 competition-winning design for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art, which was intended to complement, in its architecture and emphasis on contemporary work, John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art, then under construction on the north side of the Washington Mall. It’s an accomplished work for a 29-year-old, who was beginning to emerge from the long shadow of his father.


BOOK REVIEW: Color, Light, Time and If Cars Could Talk

Different as their content is, these two books belong together as exquisite miniatures; exemplars of quality over quantity, and the intimacy of a book you can hold in one hand as easily as a smart phone.  Lars Müller is based in Zurich and upholds the Swiss tradition of crisp, unpretentious modernism in all his publications. Balcony Press, the publisher of Form, has fewer resources but puts them to good use—notably in this delectable paperback with its searing yellow cover and geometrical spreads that herald each essay. Designer Sarah Carr merits an award—for her artistry and for demonstrating anew that no digital screen will ever match the aesthetic pleasure of a well-printed book.

Color, Light, Time contains essays by Jordi Safont-Tria and Sanford Kwinter on the themes Steven Holl explores in his recent buildings, and a series of brief notes by the architect.  As in other books by and about this cerebral architect, it covers a broad range of perceptual and philosophical issues, and the text is woven together with sketches and photographs that bring these varied projects to life. Poetic and haptic, they offer—at every scale—a rich source of inspiration for practitioners and unalloyed delight for connoisseurs of the art of architecture.

Steven Holl: Color, Light, Time
Lars Müller, $45

If Cars Could Talk is a collection of short essays by an architect and urban designer who has been deeply committed to the livability of cities since he worked in Boston and New York under the last generation of idealistic mayors, and has spent the past three decades trying to redeem Los Angeles. It’s an unenviable task, for this sprawling metropolis lacks effective leadership, and its players and the institutions they represent are, in the main, parsimonious, philistine, and parochial. Happily, his bow-tied cheeriness has preserved his sanity, his projects have been widely realized (most recently in China), and he wages the fight for humane design with gusto. In these stimulating essays, he challenges the dominance of cars and plop developments while offering an alternative vision of a mobile city with abundant green space and an intelligent use of technology. In a better world, he’d be an ideal candidate for mayor of LA—but one doubts he would succumb to that delusion, having witnessed the fate of New York Mayor John Lindsay.

If Cars Could Talk: Essays on Urbanism
by William Fain
Balcony Press,  $35


BOOK REVIEW: The London Square

From street level, London can seem overpowering--a vast, crowded metropolis that crushes the human spirit--but from a viewing gallery it becomes a green city. Expansive parks, leafy squares, and lovingly cultivated back yards: a triumph of planting over building. The native love of gardening found full expression in residential squares that were planted and enclosed—in contrast to the paved civic squares of the continent. In Europe, plazas and piazzas began life as market places or as forecourts to the ruler’s palace; in London and a few provincial cities such as Bath and Edinburgh, it was a developer’s tool—a way of adding value to a new residential quarter. In The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a British landscape designer, traces in scholarly (sometimes tedious) detail the evolution of the London square, from the Italianate ensemble of Covent Garden (which soon acquired a market and lost its cachet) to the flowering of the form in the Georgian era, and the steady erosion of these oases over the past century.

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The John Entenza House, renovated by Michael Folonis, FAIA
Too few potential clients have experienced the pleasure of living in a well-designed modern house—which is why so many cling to familiar historicist styles. The Case Study House Program was intended to create models for rational living and win over the uncommitted, but tract home builders offered the illusion of a customized product at a competitive price, easy financing and instant acceptance. Over the past 20 years, AIA/LA has showcased the latest work of its members in a succession of self-guided house tours and now it has added a new attraction: a monthly, architect-guided tour to an updated modern classic. These tours should demonstrate that good design is timeless, no matter how confined the space, and show how the frugality of the Great Depression and the post-war era can be subtly enriched to accommodate contemporary cravings.

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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