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


REVIEW: Brasilia-Chandigarh: Living with Modernity

Brasilia-Chandigarh: Living with Modernity
Photographs by Iwan Baan
Essays by Cees Nooteboom and Martino Stierli
(Lars Muller Publishers, $60)

Le Corbusier planned and designed the civic core of Chandigarh, the new capital of India’s Punjab region, and Oscar Niemeyer designed the buildings that fleshed out Lucio Costa’s plan for Brasilia. Both cities represented the last mad thrust of modernism as a revolutionary force that would sweep away the past and start anew on a clean slate. Carefully composed images dazzled the world and then became a familiar part of modernist iconography. Fifty years on, these two cities have grown explosively and taken on a character that has little to do with their founders’ vision.

Iwan Baan, the flying Dutchman who photographs the latest iconic buildings around the word, has captured the surreal juxtaposition of monuments and everyday life. People, parked cars, and a torrential downpour upstage the architecture. An improvised game of cricket, an Indian passion, is played on a scrubby field beside the Chandigarh parliament building. Children play in dusty streets and bureaucrats doze over stacked papers that may never be read. The images are soft and hazy—a deliberate choice by one of the world’s most accomplished photographers and one of its most exacting publishers.





Disaster can be turned to advantage and the CSU campus in Northridge, devastated by the 1994 earthquake, has been rebuilt and has gained a facility—the Valley Performing Arts Center—that will benefit students and the population at large. Ten years in the making, it was driven to completion by CSU President Jolene Koester, who shared the vision that inspired Dale Franzen to collaborate with the Santa Monica Community College in the creation of the Broad Theater. VPAC is a much larger complex, comprising a 1700-seat multi-purpose auditorium, a 180-seat black box, classrooms, support spaces, and a studio for the KCSN public radio station. It was designed by HGA Architects of Minneapolis, a specialist in this field, and lead architect Kara Hill saw it through to completion before leaving to establish her own firm.

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Kahn in Venice

Kahn presenting his model

One of the great what-ifs of architectural history is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood: a congress center that Louis Kahn designed as a tensile bridge spanning a canal in the Arsenale of Venice. Had it been realized, it might have rivaled the Kimball Museum, the Salk Institute, and the Parliament of Dhaka among his masterworks.  But the client was Venice, a museum city dedicated to mass tourism, which prefers mediocre replicas to inspired originals. Kahn died in 1974 before his design was completed, and it joins the Frank Lloyd Wright palazzo of 1953, and Le Corbusier’s hospital of 1964, as one of the lost opportunities for La Serenissima to infuse the old with the best of the new. Only now, with Calatrava’s footbridge across from the station, and David Chipperfield’s extension to the San Michele Cemetery have the Venetian authorities begun, haltingly, to address the present day.

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REVIEW: SCI-Arc Gallery 2002-10

SCI-Arc Gallery 2002-10
(AADCU SCI-Arc Press, $50)

For the past eight years, SCI-Arc has invited a succession of avant-garde architects, many of whom practice and teach in LA to create an installation as a collaborative venture in the SCI-Arc gallery. This handsome paperback documents 35 structures, and reprints the discussions between the participants and Eric Owen Moss—who contributed an installation of his own. The gallery is an awkward space, skinny and tall, and that challenges architects to defy its limitations. Each project is fabricated by students in-house and becomes an extension of the studios that give this school its reputation for turning out hands-on problem solvers.

Some of the structures are pieces of buildings in the making: Michele Saee tested his concepts for the swirling glass facades of the Publicis drug store in Paris, and Jakob & Macfarlane were clearly thinking about their City of Fashion on the Seine. Others are largely conceptual, including Steven Holl’s elegant Porosity and Griffin Enright’s Keep Off the Grass. There’s a wonderful mix of ideas and it should encourage more aficionados of the new to venture downtown and see each project as it is staged. Joshua White has done a good job of documenting process and the final product in his photographs, but nothing beats the experience of walking through these high-tech follies.


REVIEW: Casa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House

Casa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House
Text by Alan Hess, Photographs by Alan Weintraub
(Rizzoli International, $75)

As an ardent communist, Oscar Niemeyer has always preferred to build in the public realm rather than design houses for affluent individuals, though he did create a gem for himself in the hills above Rio. The same is true for Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lino Bo Bardi; as a result, most of the houses in this nine-decade survey are unfamiliar. What’s remarkable is how well even the earliest examples have survived the shifts of fashion and the ravages of a sub-tropical climate. One admires the author’s industry in tracking down and gaining entry to so many private domains, and delights in the variety and the way that they have been cherished. Most are footnotes to the history of modernism in Brazil, but this is a handsome and welcome addition to the growing number of English-language books on the Latin American legacy.