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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 museums (3)

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.

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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Tuesday
Nov192013

Exhibition Review: Celebrating the Machine in Twenties Paris

Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a dazzling exhibition with a misleading title. In the 1920s, Berlin, not Paris, defined the metropolis, and German artists had a love-hate relationship with its oppressive streets, flashing lights, and surging crowds. Filmmakers followed their lead—in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, People on Sunday, and the dystopian vision of Metropolis.

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