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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 (18)

Tuesday
Dec042012

Book Review: The Best of Ando


Taschen
 and its house author have been constantly updating their monograph on Tadao Ando, and the latest edition, "Ando: Complete Works 1975-2012", is four times as long as the one that appeared in 1999. It features 42 buildings plus 16 projects that were not realized or are now under construction, mostly in the Middle East and East Asia. The title is misleading: this is a selection of Ando’s best designs—even the checklist at the end is far from complete—but it represents the body of work for which the architect wants to be known. One could wish that other prolific practitioners were equally self-critical.  Page for page, it’s a terrific bargain. Philip Jodidio provides a helpful introduction, keyed to specific buildings, along with a biographical note and a selective bibliography, though one wishes the type had been set at a readable size. Like most contemporary monographs, it’s designed not for reading, but browsing; flipping the pages from one beguiling photo spread to the next. The plans, expressive sketches and details draw one into Ando’s structures. A self-taught master of concrete and wood, of mass and void, and, above all, of light, this architect—who once built only in Japan—is now at home in every part of the world and in every type of building.  

Tuesday
Sep112012

BOOK REVIEW: Color, Light, Time and If Cars Could Talk

Different as their content is, these two books belong together as exquisite miniatures; exemplars of quality over quantity, and the intimacy of a book you can hold in one hand as easily as a smart phone.  Lars Müller is based in Zurich and upholds the Swiss tradition of crisp, unpretentious modernism in all his publications. Balcony Press, the publisher of Form, has fewer resources but puts them to good use—notably in this delectable paperback with its searing yellow cover and geometrical spreads that herald each essay. Designer Sarah Carr merits an award—for her artistry and for demonstrating anew that no digital screen will ever match the aesthetic pleasure of a well-printed book.

Color, Light, Time contains essays by Jordi Safont-Tria and Sanford Kwinter on the themes Steven Holl explores in his recent buildings, and a series of brief notes by the architect.  As in other books by and about this cerebral architect, it covers a broad range of perceptual and philosophical issues, and the text is woven together with sketches and photographs that bring these varied projects to life. Poetic and haptic, they offer—at every scale—a rich source of inspiration for practitioners and unalloyed delight for connoisseurs of the art of architecture.

Steven Holl: Color, Light, Time
Lars Müller, $45

If Cars Could Talk is a collection of short essays by an architect and urban designer who has been deeply committed to the livability of cities since he worked in Boston and New York under the last generation of idealistic mayors, and has spent the past three decades trying to redeem Los Angeles. It’s an unenviable task, for this sprawling metropolis lacks effective leadership, and its players and the institutions they represent are, in the main, parsimonious, philistine, and parochial. Happily, his bow-tied cheeriness has preserved his sanity, his projects have been widely realized (most recently in China), and he wages the fight for humane design with gusto. In these stimulating essays, he challenges the dominance of cars and plop developments while offering an alternative vision of a mobile city with abundant green space and an intelligent use of technology. In a better world, he’d be an ideal candidate for mayor of LA—but one doubts he would succumb to that delusion, having witnessed the fate of New York Mayor John Lindsay.


If Cars Could Talk: Essays on Urbanism
by William Fain
Balcony Press,  $35

Tuesday
Sep112012

BOOK REVIEW: The London Square



From street level, London can seem overpowering--a vast, crowded metropolis that crushes the human spirit--but from a viewing gallery it becomes a green city. Expansive parks, leafy squares, and lovingly cultivated back yards: a triumph of planting over building. The native love of gardening found full expression in residential squares that were planted and enclosed—in contrast to the paved civic squares of the continent. In Europe, plazas and piazzas began life as market places or as forecourts to the ruler’s palace; in London and a few provincial cities such as Bath and Edinburgh, it was a developer’s tool—a way of adding value to a new residential quarter. In The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a British landscape designer, traces in scholarly (sometimes tedious) detail the evolution of the London square, from the Italianate ensemble of Covent Garden (which soon acquired a market and lost its cachet) to the flowering of the form in the Georgian era, and the steady erosion of these oases over the past century.

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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.