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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

Wednesday
Nov092011

Esther McCoy at the Schindler House  

Esther McCoy at her drafting board, mid-1940s. Courtesy of Esther McCoy Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian InstitutionIt’s always a joy to revisit the MAK Center on Kings Road, for it offers the pleasure of quiet contemplation and the thrill of an experiment in living that seems as fresh today as it was in 1922. Over the next two months the ghosts of the Schindlers are joined by that of Esther McCoy, a brilliant writer and an impassioned champion of southern California modernism. Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design, sounds more like the title of an academic thesis than a riveting show, but don’t be put off.  MAK director Kimberli Meyer has risen to the challenge of curating a text-driven exhibition and integrating it with the fabric of a house that is a self-sufficient work of art. As you read McCoy’s pithy comments and hear her voice narrating a documentary on Schindler, you are transported back to an era when modernists were fighting for their principles, trying to win over an indifferent public, and combating reactionaries as benighted as today’s Republican right.  Exhibits include a semi-literate letter informing the FBI that McCoy and her commie friends were listening to Paul Robeson and talking about workers’ rights. Letters and clippings document the effort she spearheaded to save Irving Gill’s Dodge House a block to the north, a masterpiece that was wantonly destroyed after a shameless speculation by the LA Board of Education.

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Thursday
Nov032011

Channeling the Bauhaus  

Metalltanz, about 1928 - 1929, T. Lux Feininger, Gelatin silver print, © Estate of T. Lux Feininger, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Gorgeous images of distant galaxies play across our computer screens, generated from signals dispatched by unmanned space probes, and this miraculous imagery is relegated to use as electronic wallpaper. An exhibition at the Getty Museum of Lyonel Feininger’s photographs brings us back to earth, and makes the act of composing an image more immediate and moving. The New York-born artist was one of the first teachers at the Bauhaus, designing the cover of its prospectus, but he disdained photography as a mechanical medium. When he finally did pick up a folding pocket camera in 1928, he approached the subject as though it were an experimental art form, shooting the Bauhaus buildings and the city of Dessau at night. Complementing these tiny black and white images are holiday snaps of his family and exuberant shots by his son, T. Lux Feininger, which capture the high spirits of the Bauhaus students. The father’s precise compositions and the son’s spontaneity reflect the two faces of a school that shaped our concept of modernism, and still feels alive, eighty years after it was shut down. And, as a bonus, the exhibition includes images by Feininger’s colleagues, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Peterhans, and a few from his subsequent exile.

Bauhaus, March 26, 1929, Lyonel Feininger, Gelatin silver print, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of T. Lux Feininger

Lyonel Feininger Photographs, 1928-1939, will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through March 11, 2012

Monday
Oct312011

AIA Honors LA’s Best Architects

No Mass House by Neil M. Denari Architects/NMDA was awarded a Next LA Honor award and Best in Show.

Hosting the 2011 AIA/LA Design Awards gave the Pacific Design Center an opportunity to celebrate the completion of its Red Building and the 85th birthday of Cesar Pelli, who designed the PDC triad forty years ago. Awards were bestowed on 30 buildings in four categories, and the big winners were Johnston Marklee for three houses, Belzberg Architects for the LA Museum of the Holocaust (three awards), and Neil Denari/NMDA, who won the chapter’s gold medal, an LA Next honor, and top prize for the HL23 apartments in New York. As AIA/LA President, Hsinming Fung presented the 25-year award to Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School Campus, saluted Merry Norris for her design advocacy, and paid tribute to the late John Chase for his contribution to the community: honors that were richly deserved. Lee and Mundwiler won the emerging practice award. The buildings and projects were diverse and consistently good—some consolation for the current lack of commissions, and the absence of new LA buildings by architects who are celebrated everywhere but in their home city. A full list of awards will appear in the January/February issue of Form.

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

Monday
Oct172011

UPDATE: WHITE KNIGHT SAVES NEUTRA’S KRONISH HOUSE

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Thanks to the LA Conservancy and many dedicated preservationists, Beverly Hills agreed to withhold a demolition permit for Neutra’s Kronish house for two months, allowing time for a buyer to ride to the rescue. This is cause for celebration, as is the pledge from the new owner to restore the house. However, it is crucial that this restoration be done with respect for the character of the house, to preserve its authenticity. The goal is to balance past and present, upgrading the services and plumbing unobtrusively, and refurbishing the materials the architect used. Several local architects have mastered this skill. Michael Boyd has drawn on his experience of restoring houses by Paul Rudolph and Oscar Niemeyer to polish other faded jewels--by Neutra, Schindler, Lautner and Ellwood. Anyone who collects vintage fabrics or art works understands the crucial importance of enlisting expert help. Too often classic modern houses are treated as though they were lumps of soft clay, to be reshaped at the whim of the owner. Too many have been insensitively remodeled and tarted up to satisfy a momentary whim. Adding black granite floors or a Greek portico is not a great idea, when there are so few masterpieces and such an abundance of mediocre properties that cry out for improvement. Owners might remember the watch ad: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”