In Focus: Architecture, a small, but exquisite exhibition at the Getty Museum, samples a favorite subject of photographers, from the invention of the medium in 1839 to the present. Architecture in Photographs is the title of a book by Gordon Baldwin, comprising 75 images from the Getty’s fabulous collection, and assistant photography curator Amanda Maddox has selected a third of these for her exhibition. Book and show offer a fascinating commentary on the evolution of the medium and the speed of its growth. Within a decade of the first images by Daguerre in France and Henry Fox Talbot in England, photographers had fanned out across the world, recording monuments, people and natural wonders. The cameras were cumbersome, the processing laborious, but these pioneers were undeterred, and they created a priceless record of a now-vanished world. Monumental buildings were favorite subjects, because they were static, could be pictured in constantly shifting light, and offered a ready-made composition for the photographer to interpret.
It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman. Charles Churchward. Rizzoli, $65.
There’s a fairy tale quality about the life and careers of Alexander Lieberman. An emigré from Kiev, he was briefly touched by the Russian avant garde, edited the first magazine of photo journalism in Paris in the 1930s, narrowly escaped to the US in 1941, was swiftly fired from his first two jobs but spent the next 50 years in art direction at Condé Nast. Even as he honed his reputation as an artist and social lion, he became editorial director of the entire publishing empire, from Vogue to Allure. He re-launched Vanity Fair and House & Garden and inaugurated new titles. Nobody will ever again exercise such authority and for so long. Adaptability was his greatest gift. An exacting stylist, he could reconceive magazines every decade and for every demographic, remaking layouts for hours at a time, before returning to his Connecticut studio to work on an abstract painting or sculpture.
It’s ironic that MoMA presented one of the finest architectural exhibitions in years just as Barry Bergdoll, its widely admired curator of architecture, was stepping down, and its director was threatening to demolish the American Folk Art Museum—an architectural gem. Clearly, the gulf between the suits and the creatives yawns wide. If you missed the exhibition (and who wants to suffer New York in summer) you can catch it in Barcelona and Madrid next year. However, this companion book may prove more rewarding. A major reappraisal of a 20th-century master demands patient study of pictures, drawings and text, rather than abbreviated glimpses in a crowded gallery. From the seductive images of Richard Pare to the many essays that chart Corbu’s travels and his response to landscapes, this is a compelling, beautifully produced study that far outshines most books on the architect.
By Michael Webb
The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Edited by Mathieu Lommen. Thames & Hudson, $65.
Too many obituaries for the printed word have appeared on-line, and most will vanish into the virtual wasteland that swallows most digital utterances. Print has survived for more than five centuries and it will take more than Twitter and blogs to render it obsolete. Rather, we seem to be returning to the Middle Ages, when a well-educated minority read books and everyone else relied on preachers and gossip. So, three cheers for Thames & Hudson, which continues to publish inspiring titles even as their competitors dumb down.
By Michael Webb
Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress. John Allan. Artifice, $59.95
In this greatly enlarged edition of a book he created 20 years ago, John Allan explores the career and influence of an émigré from the Soviet Union who introduced conservative Britons to the marvels of modernism. Allan is a director of Avanti Architects in London, and he specializes in the restoration of mid-century modern buildings. As a graduate student he met Berthold Lubetkin (1901-90) and their two-decade friendship kindled his admiration and this exemplary tribute.
It’s an extraordinary story, compellingly told. Lubetkin, who was born in Georgia, was caught up in the turmoil in Russia following the Bolshevik coup d’etat, whose leaders first encouraged and then suppressed experimentation. He moved back and forwards from Moscow to Berlin and Paris, finally settling in London in 1931. Britain was smugly insulated from the wave of innovation that was sweeping over Europe and Lubetkin played the same role as early Christian missionaries—bringing enlightenment to the heathen.
His first successes were with animals in progressive zoos, and the restored Penguin Pool in the London Zoo is a widely beloved classic. Later he designed a health center that has been sadly neglected but is still a model of its kind, as well as the best prewar apartment towers. In the idealistic aftermath of war, he designed innovative social housing, stretching the meager budgets to include staircases that rival those of Borromini. One of the estates was named for Lenin, with a bust supplied by the Soviet Embassy in London. A decade later, that feature fell victim to the Cold War, and two letters in the sign over the portal were changed, making it a memorial to (Ernest) Bevin, Britain’s feisty foreign secretary. Lubetkin was made chief architect of Peterlee New Town, where his visionary ideas were sabotaged, putting an end to a brilliant career
Allan’s first text was a graceful summary: now, words and archival images occupy five times as many pages, and the book has become a scholarly reference work, investigating context and designs in meticulous detail. The historical material is fascinating and there’s a section of new color photos that show how well many of the buildings have survived. However, invaluable as this study will be, its design falls short. The type is small and closely spaced and the layout feels cramped, in contrast to the airy elegance of Merrell’s 2002 edition. Lucid writing makes up for the compression.