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


Set Design: Magical Realism at the Broad

Jenny Okun's photographs provide the backdrop for a production of Dulce Rosa at the Broad Stage. Image courtesy the Broad Stage.

By Michael Webb

For visual spectacle it would be hard to top the sets for Dulce Rosa, a new opera that is receiving its first performances at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through June 9. In fact, there is only one physical set: A broken arch, some flats and a flight of steps, but these serve as projection screens. As the action moves from back streets to a hacienda, a guerrilla outpost in the jungle, and a family chapel, the scenes shift seamlessly as though we were watching a movie. Most opera productions make do with a single versatile set or resort to heavy lifting during long intermissions. That’s another kind of spectacle—prominently featured in the Met Live productions—as troupes of stage hands roll one vast construction into the wings to replace it with another.

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Book Review: From Art to Architecture

By Michael Webb

Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Architecture After Images. Edward Dimendberg. (The University of Chicago Press, $65).

A timely and penetrating study of a firm that has surged to prominence on the strength of two headline projects in New York: its imaginative transformation of Lincoln Center and the High Line (in association with Field Operations). In both, the architects were highly respectful of existing structures and that augers well for an even greater challenge: extending the Museum of Modern Art without destroying the American Museum of Folk Art. MoMA outraged the architectural establishment by threatening to demolish its next-door neighbor. It will require all of DS+R’s skill to integrate Tod Williams & Billie Tsien’s unique building into the new structure, and convince an overbearing institution to reconsider its threatened act of vandalism.

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Books: Old Japan Made New

A new monograph explores the compelling work of architect Kengo Kuma.

By Michael Webb

Kengo Kuma: Complete Works.  (Thames & Hudson, $65)

In his erudite introduction, Kenneth Frampton calls Kengo Kuma “quintessentially Japanese” and the 25 projects the architect has selected are deeply rooted in the craft traditions of that country. The title is misleading: Only a quarter of Kuma’s buildings are featured, and the large commercial projects in Beijing that have sustained his practice in recent years are omitted. It’s a wise choice, for Kuma works best on a modest scale with traditional materials. In his foreword, he writes with feeling of his collaboration with traditional craftsmen in rural Shikoku and in Tohuku, a region ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami of 3/11.  “The richness and strength of that culture cannot be understood until one has worked with the people who live there—until one has eaten their food, drunk their sake, talked with the craftsmen and made things with them,” he writes.

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Events: New Amid the Old

An upcoming symposium at the Getty, featuring Richard Rogers, among other leading architects, will explore the role of contemporary architecture in historic urban environments. Image courtesy the Getty Conservation Institute.By Michael Webb

On May 21, the Getty Conservation Institute will present a day-long symposium “Minding the Gap: the Role of Contemporary Architecture in the Historic Environment.” It promises to be a lively debate among five architects who have taken radically different approaches: Thomas Beeby, Juergen Mayer, Rafael Moneo, Richard Rogers and Denise Scott Brown.

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Exhibitions: Henri Labrouste at MoMA

The ceiling at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève designed by Henri Labrouste. A new show at MoMA considers the French architect. Courtesy MoMA.

By Michael Webb

The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first to embrace architecture as an art, and the exhibition Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, is the latest in an 80-year succession of landmark exhibitions. It’s the first solo show in the US to celebrate the genius of a 19th-century French architect who created two extraordinary libraries in Paris: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838-50) and the reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Their soaring, light-filled volumes, daring structure and rich ornament, were a major influence on several generations of architects, and they still inspire awe—notably in a memorable scene from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. That clip is shown in 3D, alongside the exquisite drawings that Labrouste created during his years at the French Academy in Rome and his long practice. They alone are reason to fly to New York: Masterpieces of draftsmanship that chart a decisive shift from classicism to modernism. The lightness of the roof vault and the slender cast-iron columns belong to a different word than the stone monuments of Greece and Rome. Strip the surface ornament and these reading rooms are models of functional engineering along with the great train sheds and the Eiffel Tower, Oddly, Labrouste (1801-75) seems to have realized no other buildings of note, but these two ensure his immortality.