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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 (24)

Monday
Dec012014

Book Review: Earthly Magic

Courtesy Gibbs-Smith.

Mickey Muennig: Dreams and Realizations for a Living Architecture. Mickey Muennig. Gibbs Smith. $50

Too many organic architects, from Frank Lloyd Wright on, become preachy and dogmatic when they contrast their work with mainstream modernism. Mickey Muennig is as down to earth and direct in words as he is in the woodsy houses he has concealed in the folds of Big Sur. Born in Joplin, MO, 80 years ago, he was nicknamed Mickey by his sister because she thought he resembled Disney's mouse, and the moniker stuck. Drawings by Bruce Goff inspired him to study with that maverick in Norman, Oklahoma, and soon after he settled in Big Sur. It's one of the world's magical places, where verdant hills shear off at the waterline, and the coast highway snakes through forests and meadows with the sparkle of the ocean far below. The Coastal Commission has kept it pristine, and the few rustic buildings merge into the landscape. From the start, Mickey bonded with the land, designing houses that are rooted and airy, open and sustainable. He sculptured spaces from wood beams and poured concrete, winning approval from the authorities and enchanting a succession of clients.

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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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