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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 books (15)

Friday
Jun222012

BOOK REVIEW: Sight and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls


Provocative, timely, and compellingly readable: this is an even more valuable survey than Victoria Newhouse’s 1998 study, Towards a New Museum (updated in 2007). There, she explored the relationship of art and architecture with a keen critical eye; now she adds the sense of hearing, examining the design and performance of new halls, as experienced by players and audience, and as they respond to (or ignore) their surroundings.  It’s timely because, for better and worse, grandiose music venues have begun to supplant museums as must-have trophy buildings, even in China where they have no relevance to traditional culture and are often mis-used.  It’s provocative, because Newhouse is unflinching in her criticisms, and it’s readable because she distills a mass of information and observation in lively prose.

There’s a historical survey of the musical theater, from ancient Greece to the 19th-century landmarks in Vienna, Amsterdam and Boston that provide a standard of excellence to which every new hall is compared. Then come chapters on the transformation of Lincoln Center, the eclecticism of recent work, the hubris of the Chinese authorities, and prestige projects in the making. Thirty new and upcoming projects are analyzed in detail, with input from musicians who have performed in these spaces, and the acousticians who worked on them. Newhouse questions the disconnect between boldly expressive architecture and conventional theater plans, and asks whether good design can rejuvenate the audience (as it clearly has in Gehry’s New World Center in Miami, and Walt Disney Hall).  Her book will be an invaluable resource for architects, acousticians, clients, and music-lovers, and inspire everyone to look and listen with the passion she summons.

Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls
by Victoria Newhouse
The Monacelli Press, $50

Tuesday
Feb072012

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.    

Tuesday
Jan032012

Book Review: Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History

Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History
by Robert Hughes
(Knopf, $35)

No city has offered more inspiration to architects over a longer period of time than Rome. Nolli’s map of the city is ubiquitous, and a residency at the American Academy is coveted even by the most progressive designers. As the capital of an empire and then of a faith, it drew the finest talents and created a series of enduring monuments, some of which may be more inspiring as ruins than they were when new. It’s a fine subject for Hughes, whose battered face glares out from the dust jacket like the bust of a dissolute emperor. A trenchant critic, he skewers this sacred cow while celebrating its past glories. He dismisses the fantasy portrait of ancient Rome as a city of gleaming white marble. “The real Rome was Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean—crowded, chaotic and filthy,” he observes. “The Pompeian house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto looks like the terrace of Luigi’s Pasta Palace in coastal New Jersey, crammed with sculptures that are more like garden gnomes.”

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Tuesday
Jan032012

Book Review: a5 Copenhagen: Architecture, Interiors, Lifestyle

A5 Copenhagen: Architecture, Interiors, Lifestyle
Edited by Casey C.M. Mathewson
and Ann Videriksen.
(Oro Editions, $60)


Copenhagen is indeed a wonderful place, for its urbanity and unfailing commitment to good, humane design. It expresses the integrity of a society that values people over profits, substance over show. Buildings and open spaces are organic parts of a larger whole, and the entire city is tied together by a dense network of bicycle lanes, buses and 24-hour subways. It has made the transition from a pocket capital to a carefully planned metropolis that has outsourced its port facilities to Malmo, and redeveloped its entire waterfront as a mix of offices, apartments, arts, education and recreational space. In these and most other respects, it is the polar opposite of LA, so it’s ironic to find the two cities linked as the first and second in a series of books edited by a Berlin-based architect (who, sadly, died on the eve of publication) and a Danish architect, who now promotes the cause of good design in LA.

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Monday
Oct242011

Book Review: Fougeron Architecture: Opposition/Composition

As Hitoshi Abe observes in his foreword to this engaging monograph, “The architecture of Anne Fougeron explores the possibility of a new expression of technology while transforming it into a friendly mediator between human beings and the environment.” It’s hard to improve on that description of the houses and a scatter of small public buildings created by this French-American architect in and around her San Francisco base. She has mastered the challenge of integrating what she calls “humane modernism” within a city that resists change and in the bucolic oasis of Big Sur. Her text is as high-principled and serene as her work, which includes a small apartment block, public library, wine bar (in Akron) and art gallery, in addition to modest offices for Planned Parenthood and other worthy non-profits. There’s a strong consistency in the material palette and airy, luminous structures, which are crisp but unaggressive, yet each seems an appropriate response to context and users. Besides chronicling a decade of work by one small practice, this monograph confirms the value of architecture in shaping lives and enriching the environment.

 

Fougeron Architecture: Opposition/Composition
by Anne Fougeron
Princeton Architectural Press, $40 pb