Tag Archives: architectural criticism

Architectural Modernism

Rejecting ornament and embracing minimalism, Modernism became the dominant global movement in 20th-century architecture and design.

Modernism is the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century, associated with an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of (often new) materials, an openness to structural innovation and the elimination of ornament. Continue reading

Lovell Health House: Architectural Masterwork

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Lovell House, in context, from the Griffith Observatory.
© 2013 DMSA all rights reserved.

During the Thanksgiving break while in the course of visiting our L.A. relatives my wife and I made a side trip to the Lovell Health House, in the Hollywood Hills above Griffith Park. Constructed 1929 by architect Richard Neutra, the house is widely regarded as amongst the seminal works in the history of the modern movement in American architecture.

Neutra, recently emigrated to the U.S from his native Austria, brought with him the cutting edge theories and practices of the burgeoning International Modernism Movement in Europe.

Entry approach and East Facade of Lovell House, during our visit.

Entry approach and East Facade of Lovell House, during our visit.
© 2013 DMSA all rights reserved.

His client, Philip Lovell, was a physician, naturopath, and hugely popular radio host. Neutra’s approach to his clients was to think of himself as a therapist and the client as his patient, in practice submitting them to detailed questionnaires examining their needs in oft-times surprising detail. One can surmise that from the perspective of professional interpersonal approach the two men discovered a natural affinity almost from the start.

On Lovell’s site perched on a hill commanding unparalleled views Neutra designed the house in answer to Lovell’s needs and the geometry and orientation of the site. To preserve the views, maximize window areas, and create a compelling architectural statement Neutra chose steel frame construction as the primary structural system. Consistent with this he chose a factory-made, industrial style window system, deploying it in 2336411628_ea80310a58broad, unbroken expanses. He contrasted these with linear swaths of white cement plaster.

Philip Lovell was immediately taken to the house and praised his architect publicly. Included in the 1932 famous exhibition on the International Style at the Museum of Art in New York curated by Phillip Johnson it immediately garnered the esteemed, international admiration and renown it enjoys to this very day.

A Sculpture in the Form of a Garden Aspiring to be Art: Robert Irwin, Richard Meier, and the Getty Center

gardenAny visitor to the Getty Center can only experience its remarkable assemblage of buildings, site design, and landscape architecture as whole, a unified masterwork.

Yet there is more to this assemblage than meets the eye, for in fact this seemingly seamless whole came about through a remarkable altercation between two titans, the architect Richard Meier and the fine artist turned landscape artist, Robert Irwin. Their differing approaches and its resolution is captured in an amazing article “When Fountainheads Collide” by critic Lawrence Weschler in the New Yorker Magazine article of December 8th, 1997.

The Getty is situated at the convergence of two ridges. The natural landform thus forms a sort of Y consisting of two divergent legs separated by a canyon more or less aimed at Santa Monica Bay.

The buildings of the Getty are deployed on these two ridges as per Meier’s original design intent. aerial_obliqueThus they are deployed in either side of the valley, for which Meier envisioned (as Weschler eloquently phrases it):

“an Aristotelian spine, the prime meridian unifying (Meier’s) entire conception” the focal element of which, “wouldn’t be a garden exactly, but, rather, a staircase progression of grand rectangular terraces, with a narrow concrete-girdled watercourse slicing straight down the middle.”

The Museum’s review committee, although generally pleased with the magnificence of Meier’s grand vision, were not quite “on board” with this part of the design. Where Meier seems to have envisioned an axis framed by the buildings and terrain aimed at the Bay, the committee seems to have favored a lushly verdant garden.

Weschler is very careful to describe the process by which the committee gradually and by degrees disassociated from Meier’s vision for the central axis, and gradually commissioned an outside consultant to work in collaboration with Meier. They eventually retained the artist Robert Irwin for that purpose.

Irwin apparently began his commission by systematically analyzing the context within which he found himself designing, namely a valley closed to the north, open to the view shed of Santa Monica Bay to the south, and edged by masses of buildings east and west.

Weschler quotes Irwin as saying, “I began with a set of circumstances. As such, every decision had to make sense within the context of a set of clues. In this case, of course, the surrounding architecture was key. This was not going to be a garden off in a field someplace. I accepted its architectural setting – which was all but overpowering – but that, in turn, raised other questions. For how do you go from such a surround – from buildings like that – down to a flower? So that you can see this petal, that stalk? I began to think in terms of starting from geometry, compounding the geometry to pattern and the pattern to texture. And doing so in both directions – from the flower out to the buildings, and from the buildings back out to the flower.”

Where Meier saw an axis, Irwin (and the committee) saw a point of arrival. Thus Meier’s vision to create an axis and Irwin’s instinct to create a distinct place in direct response and answering to its context came into conflict. Things apparently came to a head in a progress meeting at the Meier office in May 1993. As Weschler writes,

“From Irwin’s point of view, Meier’s office seemed intent on sabotaging efforts at every turn, and, clearly, things couldn’t go on this way.”

“Apparently, the loss of the panorama was at issue, and John Walsh, the museum’s director, recalls trying to assuage Meier’s fury on the subject by asking if he could really object if a visitor who had already been amply exposed to the view lost it for a while, especially if he was going to recover it again on the far side – to which Meier said yes, he could and did. Harry Wolf, an associate of Meier’s, now rose and laid out an elegant, thoughtfully reasoned restatement of Meier’s argument, systematically eviscerating Irwin’s core positions. Irwin smiled beatifically the entire time, waiting for Wolf to finish. Eventually, still smiling, he asked, ‘Do you want a response?’ Wolf said yes, he did. Still smiling, Irwin pronounced, ‘BULL . . . SHIT’.”

‘There followed the longest silence I think I’ve ever endured at a meeting,’ Walsh says. ‘And it was at about that time that we realized that these two guys were simply not going to be able to work together.’

Weschler continues, “In the days that followed, a boundary line – referred to immediately as the DMZ – was established and ground rules were laid down…”

From that date forward the design of the Getty Center including its central garden proceeded on two aerial_closeparallel but separate tracks, with Meier attending to the overall commission including site design, and Irwin attending to the design of the Garden.

Meier’s intent is readily apparent in every aspect of the assemblage: its buildings, grounds, landscape, every intimate detail corresponds to the brilliance of Richard Meier’s overarching vision.

So too, does every element, every single stroke of the painter’s brush – plantings, stonework, even the color of the soil – reflect Irwin’s unique vision of the reality of the Garden.

‘You’ve got to understand, this isn’t an ordinary garden. It’s more like…’, Weschler faithfully records Irwin’s sub-consultant Jim Duggan as saying, ‘It’s more like a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art.’

In Weschler’s essay, this is key. As Weschler notes, in designing the garden Irwin, “planted his standard resolutely in the soil of Becoming, as opposed to that of Being.”

As it turns out, both men were called upon to plant their own respective standards deep into the fertile soil of Becoming. For Irwin could only have designed a living, breathing place in response to the context he encountered, just as Richard Meier could only have designed fully cognizant of the context of the Getty in the history of architecture.

Buckminster Fuller: Roam Home to a Dome

The inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller was the subject of a recent NPR (National Public Radio) article. That interview centered upon one of his very first projects, a restaurant in Woods Hole, Mass. bucky's+woods+hole+dome

As a biology student in 1975 or so I recall (even before I was remotely associated with architecture) my art professor at that time extolling the incredible designs and the brilliance of R. Buckminster Fuller. To me, he (Fuller) became “Bucky”.

My professor at Cal State Northridge had a penchant for exposing his art students (even those majoring in environmental biology!) to the leading thinkers in creativity and the design of things, be they buildings, industrial products, or whatever. And to him “Bucky” topped the list.

That professor exposed us as young art students to the concepts Bucky espoused, concepts including the economy of means, the results that raw creativity can induce, the power of channeling personal creativity into something called “design process”. That exposure, early on, held me in good stead years later when I went on to graduate school and entered into formal instruction regarding those very concepts in the context of architectural design. That was ten years later, after 1985.

Today, now in 2013 interestingly while listening to the NPR article I could not help but analyze the shortcomings of the building at Woods Hole, Mass. and begin to imagine ways to rectify the problems identified within the article. They seem to be identified as water intrusion issues at the frame joints and excessive solar heat gain.

That same instinct to resolve those reported problems, of course, is a natural consequence of having become an architect. Architects are trained to solve (or re-solve) problems: it is in our nature to do so.

Resolving the issues within the building, of course is quite interesting to me.

Just as interesting, metaphysically to me at least, has been to explore the internal loop which led me from the creation of art, to Bucky Fuller, to architecture, to blogging in the context of professional practice, and back to Bucky again.

Ada Louise Huxtable Architectural Critic 1921-2013

Ada Louise Huxtable 1921-2013

“As an architectural historian, I have not bought into anyone’s belief systems, including modernism’s most admirable and often faulty illusions. I have a built-in skepticism of dogma.” – Ada Louis Huxtable

 The irreverent, famously influential, and uncompromisingly opinionated architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable passed  away Monday at the age of 91.

 A New York native, Huxtable was an architecture critic and writer on architecture. In 1970 she was awarded the first ever Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

In her early career she served as Curatorial Assistant for Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She became a contributing editor to Progressive Architecture (1950 -1963) before acceding to the post of first architecture critic at The New York Times, a post she held from 1963 to 1982.

Her successor, the esteemed architecture critic Paul Goldberger, also a Pulitzer Prize-winner for architectural criticism, said of Huxtable: “Before Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture was not a part of the public dialogue.”

I invite you to read an appraisal of her life and her life’s work at http://www.nytimes.com

Images of the Walt Disney Concert Hall

In 2009 my own true love (and at that time, future wife) and I had the opportunity to visit the Disney Center in Los Angeles. We were visiting family, and had a brief window of time in which to take in Frank Gehry’s famous work.

As it happened, that particular day being a December day, our perambulation of the building started out under light calm overcast, and then suddenly produced a rapidly approaching squall line, from the south.

These are a few of the images which resulted that day. DSCN0045 DSCN0022DSCN0029 DSCN0048 DSCN0056 DSCN0080DSCN0063

Make No Small Plans

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Chicago_World's_Fair_-_Thomas_Moran_-_overallIt is just over 100 years now since the 1912 passing of esteemed American architect and urban planner Daniel Hudson Burnham, FAIA (September 4, 1846 – June 1, 1912). It is to Burnham that we owe the famous aphorism, “make no small plans. They haven’t the power to stir men’s souls.”

In our less vainglorious day and age, ignoring the gender bias of that era, we still appreciate the power of that message.

In 1873 at the ripe old age of 27 Mr. Burnham together with his colleague John Wellborn Root established the practice of Burnham & Root. Architects of one of the first American skyscrapers, the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago under the design influence of Root, the firm produced modern buildings as part of the Chicago School. Following Root’s premature death from pneumonia in 1891, the firm became known as D.H. Burnham & Company.

From there Burnham’s trajectory proceeded in the following manner:

“Burnham and Root had accepted responsibility to oversee design and construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s then-desolate Jackson Park on the south lakefront. The largest world’s fair to that date (1893), it celebrated the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage. After Root’s sudden and unexpected death, a team of distinguished American architects and landscape architects, including Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim and Louis Sullivan, radically changed Root’s modern and colorful style to a Classical Revival style. Under Burnham’s direction, the construction of the Fair overcame huge financial and logistical hurdles, including a worldwide financial panic and an extremely tight timeframe, to open on time.”

In 1893 Burnham would have been just about 47 years of age. Of the members of the project team established under him, landscape architect Frederick Olmsted at age 71 would have been well Burnham’s senior. Charles McKim (aged 46) had by then established the esteemed firm McKim, Mead, & White. Loius Sullivan, then aged 37, had just embarked on his revolutionary investigations into the possibilities of the steel high rise building.

With the hindsight of over 100 years behind us it’s relatively simple to visualize a project team including Olmstead, McKim, and Sullivan under Burnham’s leadership moving synchronistically in lockstep towards some straightforward goal, and then imagine everything else falling into place.

But the reality must have been that the goal was not so clear-cut, and the individual motivations of the project team could not have been precisely tailored so as to achieve the grand result. Instead, there must have been conflicting opinions, various motives, and diverse recommendations informing the direction of the project team formed under Burnham’s leadership.

It is reported that, “under Burnham’s direction, the construction of the Fair overcame huge financial and logistical hurdles, including a worldwide financial panic and an extremely tight timeframe, to open on time.”

Thus, the success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s follows from Burnham’s leadership. And it is from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that the model called American Industrial Optimism devolved.

“Huge financial hurdles”? “Worldwide financial crisis”? Sound familiar?

Daniel Burnham’s voice still resounds even after 100 years: “Make No Small Plans”. Because our current situation is only temporary. And because the leadership we provide, for each of us now just as it was for Burnham then, will be the model for those generations who will succeed us.