Architecture

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Ada Louise Huxtable photographed in the 1960s (Photo: Landmarks45.org)

During my coming of age as an artist, Ada Louise Huxtable‘s architectural criticism informed so many of my ideas about buildings, cities, preservation, city life, aesthetics. One of the first books I read after moving to Manhattan in the early 70s was Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Blvd? Back then big battles raged over what to do with a badly blighted Times Square, advocacy of the then-controversial idea of historial preservation, and the deadening loss of intimacy from the rash of skyscrapers on pilotis built along 6th Avenue. She was a defender of cities and city living, with a wicked pen that spoke truth to power undaunted. Her writing and her ideas made an indelible difference to the future of New York. She was, through it all, a paragon of fierce grace.

Since her death on January 7th at the age of 91, tributes to her are showing up everywhere. I spent some time this week reading what others had to say about her and marveling at her extraordinary body of work. For those of us who pay close attention to how to do your work and do it well right until the end, she cracked the code. In the words of architecture critic Fred Bernstein, “A critic hopes to produce significant work at 31 or 51, but Ada Louise was exactly as good at 91, writing about the Public Library proposal, as when she took the reins at the New York Times in 1963.” Teach me how to do that.

Below are a few excerpts from the many remembrances of Huxtable that can be accessed in excess online. These are a few of my favorites.

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There was no mistaking what Ms. Huxtable liked — Lever House, the Ford Foundation Building and the CBS Building in Manhattan; the landmark Bronx Grit Chamber; Boston’s City Hall; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Pennzoil Place in Houston — and, even more delectably, what she did not.

“The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” she wrote in 1964 about the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle. Her description came to be synonymous with the structure itself, “the lollipop building,” and was probably more familiar to New Yorkers than the name of the architect: Edward Durell Stone.

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“Albert Speer would have approved,” she said in 1971 about his Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, linking Mr. Stone indirectly to the Nazis’ chief architect. “The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.”

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Her interest in preservation did not make her an enemy of modernity. In “The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style” (1984), Ms. Huxtable said the glass curtain-wall skyscraper, epitomized by the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, offered “a superb vernacular, probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house.”

What infuriated her were “authentic reproductions” of historical architecture and “surrogate environments” like Colonial Williamsburg and master-planned communities like the Disney Company’s Celebration, Fla. “Private preserves of theme park and supermall increasingly substitute for nature and the public realm, while nostalgia for what never was replaces the genuine urban survival,” she wrote in “The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion” (1997).

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Ultimately, however, what animated and sustained her were not the mistakes but the triumphs. As she said of New York City in The Times in 1968:

“When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty. It is like no other city in time or place. Visitors and even natives rarely use the words urban character or environmental style, but that is what they are reacting to with awe in the presence of massed, concentrated, steel, stone, power and life.”

David Dunlap, New York Times

One of her last pieces was a review for the Journal of the new museum housing the Barnes Collection of art in Philadelphia. “How does it feel to have one’s core beliefs turned upside down? The ‘new’ Barnes that contains the ‘old’ Barnes shouldn’t work, but it does,” she wrote in May 2012. “And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture.”

Stephen Miller, Wall Street Journal

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Marblehead is the subject of the Huxtable quote I love best. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, she was commenting on the work of an architect who designs houses in imitation of the styles of the past. Huxtable wrote that the architect’s historic details were so accurate they amounted to a kind of perfection. “Full confession: I am no fan of perfection,” she wrote. She then used Marblehead to explain what she meant:

“I have spent a good part of my life in a small New England town with a priceless American heritage where such over-the-top perfectionism simply does not exist. There are offbeat and off-kilter compromises by carpenter-builders trying to follow the examples in English pattern books in the new towns of the New World, dealing with costs and shortages, substituting materials, inventing their own details. The 18th-century house built for the richest man in town is made of wood cut in blocks to simulate stone that was not available. This place is genuine; its buildings retain the hallmarks of its history, something that can never be imitated or reproduced, and there is not a perfect thing anywhere — for which I am eternally grateful.”

Writing about the world we build and inhabit doesn’t get any more eloquent than that. Not wanting things to be perfect and showoffish, but instead embracing the whole of life with its multiplicity and complication: That was Huxtable.

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The Huxtable piece that made the most difference to New England was probably her unforgettable blast, way back in 1968, against a plan to demolish the riverfront textile mills of Manchester, N.H., and replace them with parking lots. “Lessons in Urbicide” was the title of her piece, which appeared in The New York Times. She wrote: “The story of the destruction of the Amoskeag mill complex that has formed the heart of Manchester, N.H., for over a hundred years has a terrible pertinence for the numberless cities committing blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal. . . . We are making a dull porridge of parking lots and cheap commercialism, to replace the forms and evidence of American civilization.”

“Urbicide,” “blind mutilation,” “dull porridge”: Huxtable had a delightful gift for finding nasty words to describe architectural evil. The article was an early cry for help on behalf of the monuments of America’s industrial past. The Amoskeag mills survived and acquired new uses. New England was never the same.

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Huxtable loved whatever is real, regardless of fashion or the vagaries of taste, and she hated any kind of phoniness. She was the first to point out to me that the term “authentic reproduction” is an absurd oxymoron. Marblehead was a relief for her from the hyper-competitive, fashion-conscious culture of New York. Her house was livable but ordinary, thus fitting right in to Marblehead. I think she was secretly proud that it lacked the slightest trace of architectural finery.

Robert Campbell, Boston Globe

One of Ada Louise’s most endearing characteristics was her sharp sense of humor. In the course of the many years of architectural discussion I was fortunate enough to enjoy with her, she invariably came up with a bon mot that encapsulated her opinion. An example of this was her description to me of Lincoln Center’s 1960s architecture as “soft modernism.” That witty censure was made in 2009, just as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s various renovations at Lincoln Center were nearing completion—renovations that I was thinking of including in a book. With her usual generosity of spirit, she suggested we visit the Juilliard School together.

Granted, in 1969 Ada Louise had been less harsh in her criticism of Eero Saarinen’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and Pietro Belluschi’s Juilliard than she was of the Center’s other buildings. But now, standing across Broadway from the school, she went so far as to pronounce the glazed façade that had replaced the school’s stolid masonary front “a miracle from the street.” As on other occasions, Ada Louise went from humor to an inspiring seriousness.

Victoria Newhouse, Architectural Record

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If library officials thought that they could deter Ada Louise, they were mistaken. She plowed on and her excoriating analysis of the developer-driven decision of the library to flip some branches for cash came out on December 3, just about a week after her return to the city from Marblehead. As usual, with a complete grasp of the advantages, the deal-making, the reputations and the hollow promises, Ada Louise cut to the chase, writing: “A research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.” She understood that a city is only as great as the intelligent community it fosters, and her own writings have sharpened our views and expectations of the city that she loved from near and far.

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She infuriated the hidebound developers who otherwise felt free to inflict their lowest-denominator horrors on the city. I’m sure Times editors fielded countless enraged calls from the cadres who thought they controlled all of the levers of power. Thanks to Ada Louise, they didn’t always.

James Russell, Architectural Record

She knew, of course, that the management of the paper was not visually inclined, and that her editors often knew less about her subject than her readers. And she knew, more importantly, that she would convert them to visual literacy not by lecturing them about their ignorance about architecture and design, but through the strength and clarity of her writing. She was too urbane to be a missionary, and too subtle to be a crusader. She was a writer, and a journalist, and she knew how to trust her own eye, and how to write a good sentence. On that combination, we might say, was the whole modern profession of architecture criticism built, since all of us stand on her shoulders.

Paul Goldberger, Architectural Record

Kicked A Building Lately? Well, have you? That question, the title of the 1976 collection of Ada Louise Huxtable’s work for the New York Times, embodies her approach to criticism. It is active, it is irreverent, it is personal, it is physical, and it puts the onus simultaneously on the critic and on her public to pay attention. To kick the tires of a building you have to be present at its creation and its completion. You have to let yourself be small beside it, walk around it, walk up the steps, pick (delicately) at the the joints, run your fingers along the handrail, push open the door. You have to let yourself stand back, across the street, across the highway, across the waterfront, and assess. And then you have to go home and write exactly what you think, in simple language, marking a path through history, politics, aesthetics, and ethics that anyone can follow. I love her writing but the first lesson I teach is that attitude. Architecture is for us, the public, and it is going to get scuffed.

Alexandra Lange, Design Observer

And a few random but memorable Huxtable quotes:

“Washington is an endless series of mock palaces clearly built for clerks.”

“An excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it wasn’t awful.”

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SF1

The first time I went to Barcelona, Franco was still in power. Catalan, like the rest of Spain, was cautious and dark, well aware of the harsh boot of his repressive regime. That was 1970.

My photos from that visit are buried in a box somewhere in my basement, but I remember making a pilgrimage to the infamous Sagrada Familia. Described by some as Gaudi‘s Sacred Monster, its outrageousness was astounding even in its legendary incompleteness. Its over the top, kitschy extremism was in strong opposition to the supremicist vision of the sleek internationalist style being built all over the world. This strange structure, purportedly based on the intentions of its primary architect who died in a tram accident in 1926, was a massively retro and anachronistic project. The interior was indecipherable to me above the obfuscating net of scaffolding, and the facades were in various stages of “not sure where this is going” confusion. I wasn’t moved so much as I was amazed by its eccentricity. But memorable. That it was that for sure.

Over the next 40 years I passed through Barcelona 4 more times. Franco died in 1975. Catalan began reclaiming its extraordinary heritage and pride. Barcelona became one of Europe’s top tourist cities, and the 1992 Olympics catapulted its reputation even further. Every stopover in Barcelona included the obligatory visit to Sagrada Familia. I began a relationship with that structure when I was 18 years old, and watching it evolve became something of a marker of time that had a personal twist. The story was that this massive project would never actually be finished. Don’t we feel that way about our own work as well?

This last visit to Barcelona was my first since Sagrada Familia was completed enough to be consecrated by Pope Benedict two years ago. Construction continues of course, with the building of additional towers and the construction of a new Glory facade. But for the first time in my life, the interior is scaffolding free. Even though I had been to the site many times before, I was unprepared for what that space has become. No longer just a Guadi creation, this is an assemblage of multiple architectural visions and convoluted variations of outrageous overstatement. But Sagrada Familia has become, for me, a place of overwhelmingly beauty and inspiration.

I did an early morning visit (the line for entry is long every day) with the family art historians, my daughter Kellin and her husband Sean. A great set of eyes combined with a staggering knowledge of Christian symbolism made them the best Sagrada Familia companions ever. We spent hours examining every element and sightline. (Kellin took the rest of our crew back for their visit the next day, putting together an iPhone-based presentation overnight to enrich their experience.) None of us is sure just why this overstated outrageousness works, but it does.

I get why architects dismiss it. It isn’t Gaudi’s creation any longer (In the 1960s, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto signed a petition requesting that it be left unfinished in its pure Gaudi-ness or turned over to a living architect to redesign.) But there is something in its essentially non-pedigreed architecture that captures the eye and the imagination.

From Rowan Moore’s 2011 review in the Guardian:

His building is dense with his fervour. It strives to compress all of earth and heaven into its structure – endless saints, biblical scenes, symbols, inscriptions, seashells, reptiles, birds, flowers and fruit. Time was captured through images of the seasons and holy dates. It was not just a thing of sight – the spires are designed for peals of bells, the nave for a choir of up to 1,500.

With its avoidance of straight lines and right angles, and its tree-like columns, it embodies Gaudí’s belief that he should follow nature. Above all, it has the property of fusion: on the Facade of the Nativity, the most significant part built in Gaudí’s lifetime, columns and arches melt into a viscous jism that foams, drips and procreates foliage, beasts and people. It then becomes the geological eruption that is the building itself, in whose spires and portals you can, without difficulty and should you wish, read further sexual images. No other architect has made stone look so fluid, so dissolving. It is not pretty, but that is not the point. As Salvador Dalí, an early fan, put it: “Those who have not tasted his superbly creative bad taste are traitors.”

Superbly creative sometimes carries the day.

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William Stout Books, San Francisco

San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books is located on the periphery of North Beach, just a few blocks from the better known City Lights. Both bookshops are labyrinthine and lushly overstuffed. But Stout and me, we have a mystical connection. I never leave that narrow two storied jewel box without some treasure under my arm. And the latest find is my all time best: Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, by Sarah Robinson.

This small book is an exquisite set of essays that goes well beyond the domain of architecture. Her world view blends philosophy, poetry, biology and wisdom to offer a concise and clearly written meditation on how to think about who we are as humans in this grand adventure. My library has a shelf full of books that explore these complex themes of art making and human consciousness (Gaston Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edward Hall, E. V. Walter among many others), and Robinson references many of them in her notes. But none of those writers offer up what she has achieved: A human sized, perfectly tuned invitation into the world of these ideas. Malcolm Gladwell refers to “amplitude” as the gastronome’s measure of how flavors come together in such exquisite compliance that the recipe cannot be improved. Robinson’s book is high amplitude in written form.

And as an object itself, the book is also a feast. Small in format, the book includes images that sit well positioned amid the beautifully laid out printed words. (Like other William Stout Publishers books, Nesting has been designed with great attention to detail.)

The introduction was written by Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist I have written about many times on Slow Muse (and the author of one of my favorite books, Eyes of the Skin.) Robinson’s chapter headings say something about the range of her purveiw: Of Havens, The Mind of the Skin, Practically Unconscious, Dark Matters, Love is Paying Attention, Belonging, To Dwell in Possibility. Each of these chapters could fill several posts, full of provocative insights and the fresh comingling of ideas.

And how timely. To read this book about the nature of place and how we are with our world is particularly apropos at a time when all of us are freshly aware of the devastation of homes and communities caught in Sandy’s force field.

That’s a worthy place to start. Here are a few passages that speak to those complex circumstances:

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Our environment mirrors what we have come to believe about our relations and ourselves: that all are re-place-able, the palpable echo of Cartesian solopcism. The natural environment, local culture, and social patterns, once dominant factors shaping the character of a place, are now only marginal determinants…Dislocated from the tissue of community, people are routinely forced to start tabula rasa, a norm all the more insidious because it is equated with freedom.

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Places [in the past] were not commodities, they were dense contexts of communally-lived history as well as a source of one’s personal identity.

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Our feelings about a particular place may be personal, but the feelings grow out of collective experiences that do not occur elsewhere. They are specific to and belong to the place. People and place participate in one another’s sustenance, and places perish along with the disappearance of people who cherish them. We dwell in places in a paradgim of mutual influences.

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Perhaps we can understand place as a basin of attraction, a matrix that evokes and sustains our imagination. E. V. Walter writes:

“Towns may die for all sorts of reasons, but expressive vitality depends on how a place engages the imagination. A place is dead if the physique dos not support the work of the imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings…’Where do I belong?’ is a question addressed to the imagination. To inhabit a place physically but to remain unaware of what it means, or how it feels, is a deprivation more profund that deafness at a concert or blindess at an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong nowhere.”

More, much more, to come.


Sarah Robinson

More information about Sarah Robinson’s architectural practice here.

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John Pawson’s monastery in Bohemia

The gap that exists between theory and practice is a challenge in so many pursuits, and Minimalist architecture is just one that struggles with that perennial problem. In 1908, Adolf Loos wrote a memorable essay, “Ornament and Crime,” that advocated for a more streamlined aesthetic. And yet to create that illusion of austere perfection, the process cannot be carried out in line with the ethos of simplicity.

From Thomas De Monchuax‘s article in the New York Times, Why Less Isn’t Always More:

Today’s most celebrated Minimalist architect, John Pawson, counts among his clients both poverty-sworn monks and the fashion designer Calvin Klein, whose own designs specialize in enabling you to pay much more for the right much less. Pawson’s work happens to be beautiful and kind; its proportions are the natural ratios that you find in shells and flowers. It gives you room to breathe. And yet it’s subject to elegant deceits.

A building of few details would seem to be a building of few secrets. But austerity in architecture connotes a visual and functional transparency that it completely fails to provide. Any seamless-seeming building is full of complex joints and junctions, fixes and fudges that make a thousand parts look like a single monolithic, sculptural whole. To look as if you left everything out, you have to sneak everything in. What seems spartan is usually, invisibly, baroque.

Monchaux’s article draws parallels between this often obscured reality and the hidden costs of the fiscal and economic austerity we are witnessing around the world. “Austerity may be aesthetically pleasing, but that rarely translates to good policy.” And the irony plays out in what those Minimalist spaces speak to as well:

Austerity…is as much glamorous as solemn. As an aesthetic category, it’s strangely aspirational. It can become a mode of luxury, even excess. The difference between a minimalist room and an under-furnished room is freedom of choice.

Today’s minimalism conjures a life of such intangible ease that the mere creature comforts of visibly abundant stuff are transcended. It makes a near ethical virtue out of an aesthetic practice of refusal (perhaps extending, disconcertingly, to notions of physical aesthetics in which obesity is associated with poverty and to be too rich is to be too thin). While Mies and his contemporaries introduced their skinny-framed, flat-roofed, white-walled architecture in the context of prototype public housing, they perfected it in deluxe retreats like the Farnsworth House.

The irresistibility of this aesthetic is so powerful to me that I am seduced instantly into its illusion of perfection. This article is a much needed reminder that everything needs be seen in a fuller sense, a view that incorporates hidden costs and implications.


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

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Cultural Dreamings


Hans Hollein, façade from Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past, 1980. Biennale of Architecture, Venice. From the show at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Reviewing a new show of architecture at the Victoria & Albert museum, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Guardian writer Hari Kunzru describes a movement that has its roots in the theoretical foundations of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and was epitomized by the iconic Philip Johnson‘s Sony building in New York (AKA The Chippendale building):

This is the essence of postmodernism: the idea that there is no essence, that we’re moving through a world of signs and wonders, where everything has been done before and is just lying around as cultural wreckage, waiting to be reused, combined in new and unusual ways. Nothing is direct, nothing is new. Everything is already mediated. The real, whatever that might be, is unavailable. It’s an exhilarating world, but uncanny too…The world of signs is fast, liquid, delirious, disposable. Clever people approach it with scepticism. Sincerity is out. Irony is in. And style. If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.

When approached playfully and from a distance, the complex of postmodern-inspired expressions—architecture, cinema, performance art, written word—could be entertaining. To a point. But if all this was sly and a bit witty, it was also unsettling. “In a friction-free world of signs, what happened to value?”

Tracing the arc, Kunzru points to its denouement:

For many, the events of 11 September signalled the death of postmodernism as an intellectual current. That morning it became clear that “hostility to grand narratives”, as Jean-François Lyotard defined it, was a minority pursuit, an intellectual Rubik’s cube for a tiny western metropolitan elite. It seemed most of the world still had some use for God, truth and the law, terms which they were using without inverted commas. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was widely ridiculed for declaring that the attacks signalled “the end of the age of irony”, but his use of the po-mo buzzword proved prescient. If irony didn’t vanish (though during the crushing literalism and faux-sincerity of the Bush-Blair war years it seemed like a rare and valuable commodity), postmodernism itself suddenly seemed tired and shopworn.

Graydon Carter‘s famous pronouncement has been discussed a great deal over the last decade of post 9/11 living as has the constant reappearance of irony, snarky detachment and “empty calorie” artistic expressions. But I was compelled by where Kunzru takes that line of thinking. In his view postmodernism was a pre-digital age phenom, and its defanging has a lot to do with the internetization of our lives:

In retrospect, all the things that seemed so exciting to its adherents – the giddy excess of information, the flattening of old hierarchies, the blending of signs with the body – have been made real by the internet. It’s as if the culture was dreaming of the net, and when it arrived, we no longer had any need for those dreams, or rather, they became mundane, part of our everyday life. We have lived through the end of postmodernism and the dawning of postmodernity.

That’s a provocative viewpoint and one that makes sense, particularly for those of us who have watched this cultural trajectory from the distant vantage point as laborers gleaning the field for what is essentially human, “hot” (as opposed to cool) and authentic. While a conspicuous and consumptive culture may have “dreamed” the net, other visions and other imaginings are migrating through at the same time. Less arc and more horizon, those envisionings unfold in a form that is ambient and yet stealthy, personal and yet shared. It is another kind of cultural dreaming, but a dreaming nonetheless.

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The Therme Vals, by Peter Zumthor (Photo: ArchNow!)

Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece about the architect Peter Zumthor is full of nuggets worth keeping on hand, easily accessible. I first began paying attention to Zumthor after visiting his Kolumba museum in Cologne. It was such an unexpected blend of old and new (Zumthor incorporated the ruins of a Gothic church as well as a chapel built on the site after World War II) in a way that both honored the past and melded it with the future. And the spaces were unexpected and yet organic. Zumthor is not tricky, clever, ironic or manipulative, all important qualities in art as well as life IMHO. Architectural critic Peter Rüedi pointed out that some may mistake Zumthor as an ascetic. He is instead an “essentialist of the sensual.”

I like Kimmelman’s comparison of Zumthor with some of the high visibility starchitects we read about constantly:

As the designer of some of the subtlest and most admired buildings of the last quarter-century, Zumthor has hardly been toiling in obscurity. But he has eschewed the flamboyant, billboard-on-the-skyline, globe-trotting celebrity persona, setting himself apart from, and in his own mind clearly somewhat above, some of his more famous colleagues. His works, even from the most superficial perspective, differ from Frank Gehry’s or Zaha Hadid’s or Jean Nouvel’s or Norman Foster’s, for starters, because they are not flashy: they often don’t grab you at all at first glance, being conceived from the inside out, usually over many painstaking years. Moreover, because Zumthor runs a small office and doesn’t often delegate even the choice of a door handle, he hasn’t taken on many projects, and most of the ones he has completed aren’t very big.

And later, this passage:

I’ve heard Zumthor’s detractors respond to this sort of argument by saying he’s a Swiss clockmaker. They stress that he thrives in a small pond but that the rough-and-tumble of global-scaled 21st-century projects demands a more flexible and grander vision. It is true that his projects are not enormous; there is an intimacy to his work. At places like Bregenz or the Bruder Klaus chapel, visitors respond not just to how his buildings look but also to their sounds, smells, to the light as it changes around them, even to the feel of the walls and floors — to what Zumthor has described as the “beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well.”

Zumthor is easy to compare with Louis Kahn and for good reason. His artistic proclivities and perfectionistic style sound familiar for those of us who are Kahn fans. He talks about being influenced by the work of sculptors Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, and he also references Joseph Beuys. “With Beuys,” Zumthor explained, “my interest has had to do with the mythology and sensuousness of his materials, the importance of his personal life in his art. He was looking at objects with history, with a past.”

The description and photos of Zumthor’s Vals spa hotel and baths are evocative and memorable. “The spa invests ordinary leisure-time bathing with a sacramental gravity. It lends existential weight to even the simplest, most banal rituals — walking from room to room, looking out a window, reclining on a bench, gazing up at the sky or hearing the splash of water and the echo of footsteps. Bathers move like supplicants through wet stone chapels,” writes Kimmelman. “Vals is not about an outside object,” says Zumthor. “It’s not about lap pools and slides and gadgets. It is about what happens inside, the bathing, oriented toward the ritual, as if in the Orient. It’s about water and stone and light and sound and shadow.”

A few more phrases from Zumthor that are worth pondering:

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I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly. Beauty in architecture is driven by practicality. This is what you learn from studying the old townscapes of the Swiss farmers. If you do what you should, then at the end there is something, which you can’t explain maybe, but if you are lucky, it has to do with life.

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Solid wood has almost disappeared as too expensive, complicated and old-fashioned. I reintroduced it as a construction method here because it feels good to be with, to be in. You feel a certain way in a glass or concrete or limestone building. It has an effect on your skin — the same with plywood or veneer, or solid timber. Wood doesn’t steal energy from your body the way glass and concrete steal heat. When it’s hot, a wood house feels cooler than a concrete one, and when it’s cold, the other way around. So I preserved the wood-beam construction because of what it can do for your body.

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I believe in the spiritual value of art, as long as it’s not exclusive. It is the same with architecture.

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View of The Hill, James Magee’s masterwork in west Texas

I finally received my copy of James Magee, The Hill, by Richard R. Brettell and Jed Morse. This publication accompanies a show of Magee’s work currently on exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas through November 28.

The Hill is hard to describe. Yes, it is a structure constructed by Magee in the west Texas desert outside El Paso, and any number of words could be used to capture its essence: architectural, sculptural, land art, monumental, personal, esoteric, spiritual, minimalist, sublime, symbolist, open, closed. Other artists who touch into the transcendental come to mind as well: James Turrell, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Maya Lin, Nancy Holt, Olafur Eliasson, even Bill Viola.

From Willard Spiegelman’s description in the Wall Street Journal:

It consists of a quartet of 14-foot-high, flat-roofed buildings (one of which still lacks a finished interior), in a cruciform shape, sitting atop two intersecting elevated stone causeways. All is stone and metal. Light seeps through fiberglass panels from above. There is no electricity. Mr. Magee has done all the work, by hand, with the help of hired assistants who come and go. For the sake of the lucky visitor, they open and close the large metallic doors into the three edifices. Nondoctrinal religion, a pervading spirituality, defines the place and the experience of being there. Mr. Magee is the creator, the servant, the priest and—for the most part—the congregation.

The photos in the book by Tom Jenkins are sumptuous, with deeply saturated color. The high contrast light is particularly dramatic in large format as is the intoxicating absence of anything human. Jenkins’ photos capture a haunting timelessness that is reminiscent of the mystery of the ancient Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert or the incomprehensible grandeur of the Neolithic stone circles that dot the Celtic coastline of Great Britain.

It is a singular accomplishment. And not surprisingly, the Marfa-style art pilgrimaging has begun. And who would not want to experience this setting? I would love to be able to visit in person some day.


James Magee

Turns out Magee’s story is much more complex than it might appear. Magee (who looks more like one of the prospectors in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre than a sly art world type) actually has more in common with the persona-bending Marcel Duchamp than meets the eye. In an effort to answer to all of his many parts, Magee has invented two other artists, one male and one female, to drain off the parts that would not blend into the supramacist purity of The Hill. These two artist personas, Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield, have successful careers making and selling art that is unrelated to the numinous perfection of the Hill. While some may view that splintering as a from of deception, I have come to think that Magee found the perfect solution to the many and often conflicting force fields that most of us carry inside. Approaching his artmaking in multiple has allowed him to craft something extraordinary and other worldly while still having a rooted existence on the terrestrial plane.

The value of this approach is described well by Pamela Petro in her piece for Granta:

Annabel is pure colour. She’s the gendered expression of place and time: Juarez nights and the desert at dusk and dawn, Pickerel Lake in Michigan when Jim was a kid. Horace (born in Chicago in 1932, as one catalogue notes) is campy and allusive; if sex doesn’t spill onto the surfaces of his work, it roils beneath.

There is no home for these passions in the exacting geometries and grave dialogues of The Hill. Rick Brettell says that ‘Annabel and Horace are necessary because they keep The Hill pure. Horace is a queen who likes to work on shower curtains. So God bless Horace from keeping The Hill free of shower curtains’.

The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.


Another view of The Hill

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At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

I have had Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Yael Reisner and Fleur Watson) on my desk for weeks now but have not been able to give it my full attention just yet. The distractions have not been minimal, from four weddings in five weeks—these have been those full immersion, all weekend long destination nuptials—to a full allocation of my reading quotient spent finishing Franzen’s Freedom (And a worthy distraction it was. A few previous posts about the book can be read here and here.)

But Reisner (married to architect Peter Cook) is keeping the topic in the ideasphere. A recent panel discussion staged in Los Angeles featured Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn.

From a review of the evening written by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne’s most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beautiful.” Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.

That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.

Hawthorne goes on to get a few digs in about what was probably a bit of an awkward gathering. He reports that Moss held his head in his hands for most the discussion and then offered his view that he didn’t think talking about beauty was “useful” any more. Gehry is reported to have advised not to consider outside judgments regarding which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important. “You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps. And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s probably a great place to be as human beings.” Mayne is quoted as saying that issues of globalization, the Internet and instantly changing fashions have made it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talking about?” he asked.

A new generation of artists ARE interested in beauty, and Hawthorne points to the recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice. Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, beauty is brought back, front and center. the exhibit features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid’s Andres Jaque, the Indian firm Studio Mumbai and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among others.

I particularly liked Hawthorne’s closing point:

The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.

“When you go directly after beauty, it’s like you’re competing with God,” he told me. “If you go after other things, you’re only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not impossible.”

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My favorite thought provocateur these days (actually “these days” is actually now several months) is Juhani Pallasmaa, architect and author of The Eyes of the Skin. Here are a few more of his insights about seeing, the dominance of the eye, modes of vision. (Other great quotes from Pallasmaa that I have posted here: Focused vs Peripheral Vision; Inside and Outside, at the Same Time; Mind and Eye;The Eye in the Hand; Human Rootedness; Fully Engaged; Sensory Intimacy, in Art and in Architecture.)

Perhaps, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power, it is precisely the unfocused vision of our time that is again capable of opening up new realms of vision and thought. the loss of focus brought about by the stream of images may emancipate the eye from its patriarchal domination and give rise to a participatory and empathetic gaze…

The haptic experience seems to be penetrating the ocular regime again through the tactile presence of modern visual imagery. In a music video, for instance, or the layered contemporary urban transparency, we cannot halt the flow of images from analytic observation; instead we have to appreciate it as an enhanced haptic sensation, rather like a swimmer senses the flow of water against his/her skin…

David Michael Levin [author of "The Opening of Vision"] differentiates between two modes of vision: ‘the asssertoric gaze’ and ‘the aletheic gaze.’ In his view, the assertoric gaze is narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, rigid, fixed, inflexible, exclusionary and unmoved, whereas the aletheic gaze, associated with the hermeneutic theory of truth, tends to see from a multiplicity of standpoints and perspectives, and is multiple, pluralistic, democratic, contextual, inclusionary, horizontal and caring. As suggested by Levin, there are signs that a new mode of looking is emerging.

The sense of how water feels on the skin when we are swimming. Saying yes to the “multiple, pluralistic, democratic, contextual, inclusionary, horizontal and caring” gaze. Nuggets to carry today, in the studio and out.

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Sensuality afoot at the Metropolitan Museum

The gift that just keeps giving…I don’t think there is a single page of my copy of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin that isn’t marked up and annotated. Although Pallasmaa is an architect and writing primarily about that metier, his book is full of passages that are a parallel reflection of my own views on the visual arts (and painting in particular.)

I hope my ongoing reference to his work is of interest to some of you too.

Beyond architecture, contemporary culture at large drifts towards a distancing, a kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality. Painting and sculpture also seem to be losing their sensuality; instead of inviting a sensory intimacy, contemporary works of art frequently signal a distancing rejection of sensuous curiosity and pleasure. These works of art speak to the intellect and to the conceptualising capacities instead of addressing the senses and the undifferentiated embodied responses. the ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to a gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their very existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.

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