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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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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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Tuesday
Nov022010

REVIEW: Pamela Burton Landscapes

Click image to visit Hennessey + Ingalls BookstorePamela Burton Landscapes
Foreword by Robert A.M. Stern
(Princeton Architectural Press, $50)

I'm in awe of Pamela Burton’s erudition (the way she rattles off familiar and Latin names of every plant in her path) and still more her ability to make those flowers and shrubs thrive and compose natural works of art. It’s a terrible admission, but I cannot recall the names of more than a few species, and plants wither at my touch—a failing so shameful that I had to flee England. However, this collection of seventeen public and private landscapes is more architectural than horticultural, and it drew me in. As the author explains, “When designing gardens, I think of myself as shaping distinctive outdoor rooms in the process of forming spatial axes and proportions of height and width, then creating exploratory paths that serve as connections between those garden rooms. In addition, elements such as openings, lighting, temperature (shade and water), sounds, and furnishings must be considered.” Haptic architecture, employing organic materials.

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Friday
Sep242010

An Acre of Art - LACMA's Resnick Pavilion Press Preview


LACMA
has a new gallery and it’s a winner. The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion is a work of art that complements BCAM to the south and fleshes out Renzo Piano’s master plan. It substitutes a vibrant, layered composition of travertine, scarlet steel, and plantings for a dowdy courtyard as the museum’s core. Unjustly disparaged as the safe choice for American museums that are afraid of innovation, Piano demonstrates a mastery of space and connectivity that make him an ideal choice for LACMA. He has introduced order and excitement to an institution that stumbled badly in commissioning two mediocre sets of buildings in its early years, and then abruptly abandoned Rem Koolhaas’s iconoclastic proposal to start afresh. As an Italian, Piano has a sense of history and the way cities grow incrementally over time. He is familiar with excavations that reveal the foundations of Roman villas—a discovery that delayed construction of the Rome Auditorio by several years. “Here we struck oil—and dinosaur bones, but it didn’t stop us,” he observed.

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