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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

Monday
Jan242011

REVIEW: SCI-Arc Gallery 2002-10

SCI-Arc Gallery 2002-10
(AADCU SCI-Arc Press, $50)

For the past eight years, SCI-Arc has invited a succession of avant-garde architects, many of whom practice and teach in LA to create an installation as a collaborative venture in the SCI-Arc gallery. This handsome paperback documents 35 structures, and reprints the discussions between the participants and Eric Owen Moss—who contributed an installation of his own. The gallery is an awkward space, skinny and tall, and that challenges architects to defy its limitations. Each project is fabricated by students in-house and becomes an extension of the studios that give this school its reputation for turning out hands-on problem solvers.

Some of the structures are pieces of buildings in the making: Michele Saee tested his concepts for the swirling glass facades of the Publicis drug store in Paris, and Jakob & Macfarlane were clearly thinking about their City of Fashion on the Seine. Others are largely conceptual, including Steven Holl’s elegant Porosity and Griffin Enright’s Keep Off the Grass. There’s a wonderful mix of ideas and it should encourage more aficionados of the new to venture downtown and see each project as it is staged. Joshua White has done a good job of documenting process and the final product in his photographs, but nothing beats the experience of walking through these high-tech follies.

Thursday
Dec022010

REVIEW: Casa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House

Casa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House
Text by Alan Hess, Photographs by Alan Weintraub
(Rizzoli International, $75)

As an ardent communist, Oscar Niemeyer has always preferred to build in the public realm rather than design houses for affluent individuals, though he did create a gem for himself in the hills above Rio. The same is true for Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lino Bo Bardi; as a result, most of the houses in this nine-decade survey are unfamiliar. What’s remarkable is how well even the earliest examples have survived the shifts of fashion and the ravages of a sub-tropical climate. One admires the author’s industry in tracking down and gaining entry to so many private domains, and delights in the variety and the way that they have been cherished. Most are footnotes to the history of modernism in Brazil, but this is a handsome and welcome addition to the growing number of English-language books on the Latin American legacy.

Sunday
Nov282010

REVIEW: AIA Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition

AIA Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition
by Norval White & Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon
(Oxford, $39.95)

This is a thousand-page love letter to one of the world’s great cities as well as a meticulous catalogue of its physical features. The format is similar to that of the first edition of 1968, but the new guide is fifty percent longer, and the entries are now arranged in two columns to make room for more and larger maps and photographs. Each building is numbered and a tiny icon identifies its architectural style. The history of each neighborhood is briefly sketched, and the reader is led on walking tours that cover each borough, beginning at the Battery and ending on the outer islands. The text is erudite, opinionated, and compelling. Open the book at any page and you’ll be hooked, gazing upwards on a virtual tour of districts you may never have visited.

From the start, this guide was the product of passion: an urgent appeal to cherish and preserve an urban legacy that was under assault. The authors were among the architects who protested the wanton destruction of Penn Station in 1962, a catastrophe that launched the New York preservation movement. Their guide helped focus public attention on the soul and substance of a great work of art; today, almost everything is preserved, and the greater threat is the gentrification of what were once gritty neighborhoods. New York has become too much like San Francisco: a tough, blue-collar city transforming itself into a pretty tableau for tourists and a playground for malefactors of great wealth.

Elliot Wilensky died in 1990; Norval White completed most of the revisions for the fifth edition just before his death at age 83, with help from architect-teacher Fran Leadon. White’s age may explain the cursory and often dismissive entries on new work by Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel—just as Robert Winter, another traditionalist, soured on radical additions to LA in the last Gebhart-Winter guide. It’s pure speculation but did he resent the bold interventions by outsiders in his beloved city?

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Sunday
Nov072010

REVIEW: Florence: A Map of Perceptions

Florence: A Map of Perceptions
by Andrea Ponsi
(University of Virginia Press, $22.95)

For anyone who loves architecture and Italy (and who doesn’t) this is the perfect small gift. Ponsi is an architect who works in Florence and engages it as an artist. His sketches and watercolors enrich a personal account that addresses the historic monuments but, still more, the topography and textures of the city, its labyrinthine streets and Platonic geometries. You could use this pocket book as a guide, walking from one piazza to the next, climbing to a high terrace for a view over the city, and savoring the text on the same stone bench that Ponsi has frequented over the years. Or you could stay home, play a CD of Francesco Landini’s Renaissance ballads, and weave yourself into the fabric that the author describes with such intimate attention to detail. It’s a candid account of a city that has been repeatedly assaulted--by the devastation of war and the destructive flood of 1966, a ceaseless tide of tourists and traffic, and the plague of graffiti. But Ponsi convinces you to return and view the city anew through his eyes.

Thursday
Nov042010

Rome Redux

I’ve just returned from a symposium in Rome, “Whatever Happened to Italian Architecture?” co-sponsored by the Depart Foundation and the Swiss Institute. A dozen architects grappled with this question, and the answers were far from reassuring. American architects are having a hard time finding work; imagine what it must be like in Italy, where 150,000 registered practitioners compete for the few projects that win approval from a corrupt and scelerotic bureaucracy. Competitions are rigged, jobs are handed off to political cronies, and the reactionary mayor of Rome has blocked almost all the projects initiated by his predecessor.

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