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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

Monday
Jun232014

Exhibition Review: Underwhelmed by the Venice Biennale

A recreation of the Do-mi-no house, Le Corbusier's conceptual design of 1914,stands at the entrance of the Central Pavilion at this edition of the Venice Binnale. Photograph Michael Webb.

Any pretext to revisit La Serenissima is welcome, and the Biennale offers a recurring excuse. It allows you to wander around the crumbling brick halls and still waterways of the Arsenale—arguably the most fascinating place in the city—and admire the zoo of architectural curiosities in the Giardini. The tide of mass tourism doesn't extend this far, though the obscenely large yachts moored along the quay are evidence of another kind of predator. This year's architectural Biennale was directed by Rem Koolhaas who insisted that it open in early June and run six months, as does the art exposition. Hopes ran high that his prestige and creative imagination would generate a memorable show.

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Monday
Apr282014

Book Review: Light Work

Nordic Light: Modern Scandinavian Architecture. Henry Plummer. Thames & Hudson, $40.

First published in hard cover in 2012, this paperback edition is a great bargain, for the author's 500 photographs capture the sensual beauty and bracing simplicity of architecture that enshrines light as a precious commodity. These are buildings that, like hardy plants, are adapted to long dark winters, and brief but brilliant summers. And they've found an ideal chronicler, for Plummer, Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Illinois, studied light-art with György Kepes and apprenticed to photographer Minor White. Light is his passion and this new study rivals his earlier book, The Architecture of Natural Light.

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Monday
Apr212014

Book Review: At the Intersection of Old and New

Old Buildings, New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations. Françoise Astorg Bollack. The Monacelli Press, $50.

A New York architect who specializes in the restoration and reinvention of historic buildings has written the best book to date on adaptive re-use. What marks it off from earlier surveys is the critical intelligence of her writing and the freshness of her choices. "An old building is not an obstacle but rather a foundation for continued action," she writes, and every paragraph conveys her passion for enhancing the beauty and utility of found structures, ranging from a ruined pigsty to the noblest monuments. In each, an architect who shares her skill has devised an appropriate strategy for creative intervention. And each building is explored in detail, with an image from Google Earth to show its surroundings, plans and drawings, and close-ups of finishes and details.

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Wednesday
Mar052014

FORM on Design: Iconic Modern Furniture Reissued

Herman Miller has updated some of its classic designs, including Eames Aluminum Group outdoor chairs. Image courtesy Herman Miller.

Living in the apartment where the Eames prototyped their first designs in the 1940s, I've always been fascinated by the subtle changes iconic pieces undergo as they are first put into production and later revived. Herman Miller, which began as a traditional Michigan furniture maker, was introduced to modernism by Gilbert Rhode in the 1930s, and again by George Nelson, who was their director of design, 1945-1972, a tenure no-one is ever likely to match. He designed an entire range of basic furniture himself in a year, and then brought in his friends, Charles and Ray Eames, who have been the company's household gods ever since. Over the years, as Herman Miller put a greater emphasis on the contract market, some of the Eames's designs went out of production. A few were pirated, European rights went to Vitra, but most of the drop-outs have been brought back in sparkling new editions.

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Wednesday
Feb262014

FORM on Design: Drawings in Houston

Menil Drawing Institute at dusk, looking past the west entrance courtyard. courtesy of Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection.

Johnston Marklee have won plaudits for their houses and they have now triumphed over several larger firms for a coveted commission: the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) in Houston. The late Dominique de Menil had refined taste and great wealth—a rare combination—and she patiently sought very best in art and architecture. The main museum, which opened in 1987, is still Renzo Piano's best—for its springy grace and luminous interiors. She established a leafy campus around that building, preserved a row of old houses to accommodate visiting artists, and created several satellite galleries, including Piano's understated shrine to Cy Twombly. For its future growth, the board commissioned a master plan from David Chipperfield, which will replace three massive apartment blocks with new housing and the MDI.

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