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


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)


BOOK REVIEW: A Visual Inventory John Pawson

John Pawson, the British maestro of minimalism, famed for his refined white interiors and perfectly calibrated details, has created an album of personal snapshots. In the introduction he explains that photography is one of his compulsions: “if you don’t record everything, moments slip away and are lost forever.” Culling his collection of a quarter of a million images—an average of 85 a day since he bought his first digital camera in 2003— he has selected a modest 272, arranged in pairs on facing pages.  He likens them to “an archive of a way of looking”, and it’s fascinating to see what caught his eye. There are a few recurring favorites—his own house in London, Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, and Le Thoronet Abbey in Provence—but they are far outnumbered by chance encounters—the ordinary made extraordinary through meticulous framing. What links the landscapes and cloudscapes, the close-ups and aerial views, the textures of wood and stone, form and light, is geometric or organic pattern. He composes images as carefully as he creates interiors. This obsession is, he insists, “not so much a reflection of an ordered mind, as the need to control, as tightly as possible, those limited areas of life that can be controlled.” Even designers who shy away from that intensity will find inspiration and delight as they browse this elegant anthology.

A Visual Inventory John Pawson  (Phaidon, $49.95)

Pawson House, London, England, November 2009


Another L.A.

Installation view Chris Burden Metropolis II, 2010 Three ½ hp DC motors with motor controllers, 12,000 custom manufactured die-cast cars (1,100 for operating, 10,900 for replenishing damaged cars), 26 HO-scale train sets with controllers and tracks (13 for operating, 13 for replenishing damages), steel, aluminum, shielded copper wire, copper sheet, brass, various plastics, assorted woods and manufactured wood products, Legos, Lincoln Logs, Dado Cubes, glass, ceramic and natural stone tiles, acrylic and oil-base paints, rubber, sundry adhesives. 9 ft., 9in. (H) x 28 ft., 3in. (W) x 19ft., 2in. (D). Courtesy of The Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Foundation © Chris Burden Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Next time you are gridlocked on the 405, imagine an alternative LA: a city in which cars speed without stalling or colliding on a network of freeways that loop around an eclectic array of towers. Trains run on elevated tracks and the ground lies forgotten, far below. It’s the city that Filippo Marinetti conceived in his Futurist Manifesto and Fritz Lang brought to the screen in Metropolis. Eighty-five years later, Chris Burden has revived the concept as Metropolis II and this mesmerizing installation is on long-term loan to LACMA, a few steps from Urban Light, his forest of vintage street lamps. Orson Welles described the RKO Studio as “the greatest train set a boy ever had,” and Metropolis II is a kinetic toy to delight frustrated drivers and their offspring.

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All violent revolutions eat their children, and none was more voracious than the Soviet Union in the Stalin era. The trickle of useful idiots from the West who went to Moscow and extolled the tyrant seemed unaware that he had suppressed an extraordinary generation of artists and was busy murdering real and imagined dissidents. One survivor of that early, creative phase was Dziga-Vertov, the made-up name of a revolutionary moviemaker, who made the first Bolshevik propaganda films, kept his head and his camera through the war years, and outlived Stalin by a year. The UCLA Film and Television Archives are presenting a major retrospective of his work at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater, February 17 - March 3.

Seize this rare chance to see sparkling archival prints of newsreels and documentaries that are as fresh as when they were made, 90 years ago. The popular success of Hugo and The Artist has revived interest in the silent era, when movies had as little need of dialogue as ballet. Live music and a dazzling virtuosity of imagery and cutting were the ingredients for the best movies of that era and Dziga-Vertov was one of the most inspired directors. He was also, like Leni Riefenstahl, a passionate propagandist, building support for an evil regime, but there’s no denying his mastery of the medium. Beyond the formal brilliance is a fascinating portrait of the Soviet Union—not as the squalid backwater it was, but as a heroic beacon for humanity. Lies can be very seductive and it’s hard not to be swept along.

For a schedule and to buy tickets, click here.



BOOK REVIEW: The Future of Architecture Since 1889

The Future of Architecture Since 1889
by Jean-Louis Cohen
Phaidon, $75

Don’t be put off by the silly title. Few architectural historians are as lucid and insightful as Jean-Louis Cohen, and this magisterial survey distills his encyclopedic knowledge of the highways and byways of modernism. Rather than an epic narrative of great formgivers, now staled by familiarity, he explores the rich diversity of expression around the world through the end of the 20th century. Each of the 30 chapters focuses on a theme that might easily be expanded into a book, and the 600 illustrations are as eclectic and relevant as the text.

In compressing so much information into 500 pages, this survey could easily have become a dry summary of actors and buildings. Instead, Cohen gives an organic account of how architecture was shaped by social forces, economic growth, war, and advances in technology. He demonstrates the universality of new ideas, juxtaposing concrete frame buildings that were realized around 1910 by Gill, Perret, Maillart and by lesser known architects on a heroic scale in Wroclaw and Talinn.  We see how Peter Behrens progressed from his neo-Renaissance crematorium to the timeless functionalism of the AEG Turbine Factory in just two years, and the close similarity of the Zuev Workers Club in Moscow and Terragni’s Novocomun apartments in Como, both of 1927-29.  Period illustrations convey the shock of the new. This is history as it was lived, with all its contradictions and surprises.

Wisely, Cohen ends his account in the year 2000 with a few short sections on Frank Gehry, OMA, Jean Nouvel and Herzog & de Meuron as firms that define the present, but inevitably this ending feels cursory and anticlimactic. The present is evolving too widely and unpredictably to be encapsulated and analyzed with the authority Cohen brings to the past. Other histories will supplement this one in years to come, but are unlikely to supplant it. This is a must-have for architects, students and anyone who cares about the built environment.