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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

Entries in architecture (23)

Monday
Nov242014

Book Review: Havana Modern

Courtesy RizzoliHavana Modern: 20th Century Architecture and Interiors. Michael Connors. Rizzoli. $65

An idealized portrait of the crumbling Cuban capital, which offers very incomplete coverage of the modernist treasures of the 1940s and 1950s. The subtitle is more exact: The early decades of the 20th century saw a wonderful flowering of Beaux Arts and Art Déco, including a scaled down version of the US Capitol and the exuberant Bacardi Building. Those decorative styles occupy more than half this book, but the images must have been extensively photo-shopped to achieve such pristine elegance. In reality most of these houses and public buildings are shabby and decayed, even on the verge of collapse.

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Monday
Nov172014

Book Review: Chinese Museums

Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

New Museums in China. Clare Jacobsen. Princeton Architectural Press. $50.

An invaluable compilation of 50 museums, completed or begun in the past decade, all over China. Jacobsen has selected these projects for their architectural value, and she has cast a wide net, from MAD's Ordos Museum—a scale-less blob that anchors a raw new development in Inner Mongolia, to the Museum of Handcraft Paper, a woodsy cluster by Trace Architecture in a remote southwestern village. There's a good mix of Chinese and Western firms, and the Pritzker Prize laureates include Wang Shu of Hangzhou.

In her introduction, Jacobsen explains how China (like the oil-rich states of the Middle East) is racing to catch up with the West, building trophy museums as a badge of status.  There were 2,571 museums in the PRC at the end of 2011 (as against 17,500 in the US) including showcases for tap water, public security, and pickles. It's a reprise of Japan in the 1980s, where the smallest provincial town had to have a new museum, regardless of whether there was anything to display or any perceived demand. There, elaborate structures were raised to celebrate sand, sunsets, and a reconstructed earthen dam. China is even worse off: Many of its historic treasures were carried off by the retreating Nationalists in 1949 or were vandalized during the Cultural Revolution. Contemporary art is a controversial subject many state-run museums prefer to avoid. Jacobsen quotes Xie Xiofan, deputy director of the National Art Museum of China: "Of the many new museums being built in China, some fulfill real, actual demands; others answer no real needs and are more unstudied," he says. "In many cases architects are experimenting, designing museum buildings through trial and error."

That's no bad thing; good architects deserve an opportunity to express themselves, and China offers more opportunities to test new ideas than the timid US and economically depressed Europe. Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin was vastly more impressive when it was empty; today it is crammed with tchotchkes and the interior has lost its elemental power. Many of these museums raise the bar for architecture in coarsely developed cities, provide a civic hub, and may eventually attract good exhibits. They could prove very good investments in the future of the world's next great power.

Wednesday
Oct292014

Book Review: Architectural Character

 

Nairn's London. Ian Nairn. Penguin Classics, £9.99.

There never was and probably never will be another architectural critic as impassioned, omnivorous, and outspoken as Ian Nairn (1930–1983). Largely self-taught, he conducted a one-man crusade against the outrages of post-war British architecture, which he contrasted with the best work of past centuries. But he was no reactionary: He found excellence and mediocrity in every era, dismissing one Gothic cathedral as mechanical and unfeeling—the same deficiencies he found in the widely acclaimed Royal Festival Hall of 1951. "What I am after," he wrote, "is character, or personality, or essence." He accepted the wartime destruction in London as the price paid to defeat evil; now "It is burning again, but this time only to satisfy developers' greed, planners' inadequacy, and official stupidity." 

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Monday
Oct132014

Exhibitions: Florentine Sketchbook

Floretine architect Andrea Ponsi's sketches are featured at an exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles. Image courtesy Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles.

For centuries, architects sketched their work and recorded their impressions of the places they visited, and the Beaux Arts curriculum was based on a mastery of drawing. Software and digital cameras have eroded that tradition, but a few architects (Frank Gehry and Steven Holl are notable examples) still prefer pen and brush as tools to express their ideas. Andrea Ponsi is a Florentine architect whose watercolors of his native city are on display at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood through October 31. The exhibition, Andrea Ponsi: Florence, A Map of Perceptions, was organized by IIC Director Michela Magri, and it provides an insider's perspective on the cradle of Renaissance architecture.

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Monday
Aug182014

Book Review: America's Architectural Hub

AIA Guide to Chicago, Third Edition. Edited by Alice Sinkevitch and Laurie McGovern Petersen. University of Illinois Press, $34.95.

No American city has a greater concentration of architectural masterpieces or a stronger urban identity than Chicago, and this guide is a match for its subject. The historical span is short; little survives from before the fire of 1871. Virtually everything was created in the past 140 years: from the first steel-framed high rises to Studio Gang's Aqua, which soars on the cover. In the late 19th century and again in the postwar years, the city nurtured the great luminaries, including Sullivan, Burnham, Wright, Mies, and many more top talents, who excelled individually even as they enhanced the urban fabric.

Most of the entries in this fat volume were compiled by a team of volunteers and they lack the wit and authority of those in the oft-revised AIA Guide to New York City, which began as a collaboration of two exceptional individuals (much like the Gebhard-Winter guide to Los Angeles) But the key entries are longer and signed; the maps and layout are exemplary. More than a thousand buildings, from the Loop to Oak Park and Pullman are featured, many with illustrations. It's as much an encyclopedia as a guide; no visitor will have time to see more than a tiny fraction of these buildings, but it provides the perfect incentive to hop on a plane in the fall and explore the best of the new, as well as old favorites and treasures you missed on previous visits. See you there in late September.