Monograph or Manifesto? Fernau + Hartman’s Improvisations on the Land

I’m always a little surprised when my free issue of Architectural Record arrives, seeing as I haven’t subscribed to it since I stopped getting it with my AIA membership a few years ago. The final issue of 2015 arrived recently and I flipped through the a short guide to new publications (Monographs in Disguise) penned by New York-based architect Alexander Gorlin. In it, he takes a swipe at the idea of a monograph, calling it a “a ‘must have’ accessory for every ambitious practitioner and a valuable marketing tool.” He goes on to describe “the camouflaged monograph,” which in Gorlin’s eyes is a monograph with a “theoretical premise” that exists as a way for publishers to sell more copies.  

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone thinks that making a monograph more topical and theoretical is some kind of clever slight of hand that will trick the book-buying public into buying more of them. But would a monograph with a theoretical premise really be such a new thing? What is the difference between the two categories in the first place? This is a topic that architect and professor Richard Fernau dealt with for many years in a seminar at UC Berkeley titled Monographs and Manifestoes where students read and discussed key architectural works from the early 20th century forward. The class was about the limits of theory as much as it was about how to write about architecture.

Fernau’s own new book Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau + Hartman was part of Gorlin’s monographs list, and his take on it was less than positive. The review closes with the line “the baroque efflorescence of sheds and gables devolves into a cartoon of a farmyard, and the later high-budget projects suffer from a self-awareness that muffles the exuberant invention of the earlier buildings” while also referring to the F+H work as “playful riffs” on the vernacular via Hejduk, Gehry and Moore.

Improvisations on the Land: Houses of Fernau + Hartman

Rather than looking towards the work of Gehry and Hejduk, it makes more sense to look at the history of the Bay Area and Northern California (but when has a New Yorker ever done that?). Charles Moore is solidly a part of the Third Bay Tradition, which included his firm M/L/T/W and Joseph Esherick’s firm EHDD (more the the Third Bay Tradition here). The Third Bay Tradition built on foundation laid by Second Bay Tradition architects like William Wurster, and infused it with greater informality.

The Third Bay Tradition had nearly run its course by the time Fernau + Hartman were starting to build in the early 1980s, and their work picks up where it left off while also taking on the eclecticism and contextualism of Postmodernism. Importantly, the work is always deeply related to its site and this is a theme that is reflected in the title of the monograph and in the text. The word “improvisation” comes up again and again, and with good reason. There are no predefined solutions, and in many cases individual projects came together over a long period time as the architects got to know both the clients and the site.

Caperton House (Shepherdstown, WV 1998)

Fernau and Hartman’s satellite office (known as the “Bucket of Blood”) in small town Montana makes it in the book and is one of the stronger examples of their improvisational style, even though it doesn’t quite fit in with the larger rural residential projects that dominate the volume.  It does what the writing says it should be doing: it is a bit rough around the edges, works remarkably well in its location on a small-town retail strip, and is sustainable in a number of ways, including reusing demolition materials to build out the interior. It’s a Montana building done with a California sensibility on a reasonable budget.

A collection of short essays by Daniel P. Gregory, Beth Dunlop and others help to set the context for the built work. The bulk of the content is studies of individual projects spanning from the mid-1980s to the present. The earlier houses are simpler and more eccentric, while the later homes near the end of the book are more polished and expensive but all show the same determined focus on connecting the buildings with their occupants and their sites.

The line between a Monograph (often thought of as a glossy coffee table picture book) and a Manifesto (something ranty, possibly photocopied and hand-stapled and distributed on street corners) is often blurred in the architectural world. Fernau + Hartman haven’t set out a grand theory on how architecture must be done. That’s Patrik Schumacher’s territory. Nor have they simply compiled a collection of pretty photos, rather it is a collection of stories and the story of a how a firm thoughtfully evolved not only their own work but the project of California modernism over several decades’ time. The buildings are imbued with the philosophy of the authors, but are not rigidly defined by it. 

In the end, if you’re interested in West Coast Architecture and understanding one of the key California firms that has been working here day in and out for the past three-plus decades, pick up a copy. If I had to suggest there is an omission, it would be Richard’s first built project, a postmodern hot dog shop I believe was called “Franks for the Memories.” I guess they can save that one for the next book.

Santa Ynez house (Photo by Richard Barnes, 2012)

FAT Saturday: Thornton Heath Library & The Museum of Croydon

Thornton Heath Library

Facing a weekend with nothing to do for the first time in ages, yesterday I set off to see the newly refurbished Thornton Heath Library by FAT Architects (or, more formally: Fashion Architecture Taste). It was also a good excuse to venture south of the Thames, something I don’t often do. Thornton Heath is close to Croydon’s town centre, accessible by rail after a long Tube journey from where I live in Northwest London.

Thornton Heath Library

Like many parts of outer London, Thornton Heath has a scrubby (yet bustling) high street that tapers off into nondescript semi-detached housing as one walks away from the station. The library is located in the fringe area where commercial has tapered to residential, yet is positioned so that FAT’s cast-concrete supergraphics are visible through the forest of shop fronts on the high street (see photo above).

Thornton Heath Library

The original building was constructed as a Carnegie Library in 1914. Like most of these libraries, it was built with a formal front entrance and raised off the ground by a flight of stairs. FAT’s design reorients the building around a new glass-enclosed entrance pavilion with a highly visible public reading room inside. The accessibility of the entrance is made into a design statement, as the new wheelchair ramp intentionally cuts off the original entrance which now sits behind it and is stranded above ground level (cue up a Colin Rowe-inspired discussion of phenomenal versus literal transparency here). If I had one criticism of this part of the building, the glass balustrade combined with white concrete makes all of the leaves and rubbish trapped between them incredibly visible from the street.

Thornton Heath Library

The extension of the reading room allows the interior of the building to feel much more spacious that it must have in its previous incarnation. People were actively using this area, taking advantage of the comfortable and well-selected furniture to enjoy a newspaper and watch the world go by. The windows themselves are huge and divided by wood mullions that are sympathetic to the oak furniture and hardwood flooring. They are much nicer than what it typically installed on public design-build projects.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

While the original entrance has been permanently sealed, the interior finishes and skylight have been restored to their original glory over what was originally the entrance lobby and is now a reading and browsing area. The incorporation of the original detail within the context of a vastly improved plan and circulation strategy shows the value of a carefully-considered renovation over a new-built library.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

Aside from the well-chosen stand alone furniture, the furniture integrated into the shelves in the library stacks was a fantastic touch and very much in-tune with the way people look for books. I’m surprised this sort of arrangement is not more common, because it is ideal for browsing.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The children’s library and public meeting room are both located on the lower level, accessible by a delightful light-filled stair that hugs the original exterior wall. The children’s reading room opens on to a deck with a grassy yard beyond. Rather than simply denoting the space for children with primary colours and a ‘fun’ carpet, the room is well-proportioned and the access to the outdoors makes it a special space separate from the rest of the library. It was incredibly well-used on the day of my visit. I did not photograph the children’s library because, being an adult man with no child in tow I was certain it would raise some sort of alarm.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The one strange thing about the rear of the building was an American suburban-style picket fence that I can only guess was a Health & Safety inspired addition to keep kids from climbing the lush and inviting hill beyond:

Thornton Heath Library

Many older public buildings do not meet modern needs, but the sort of careful (yet not timid) approach shown by FAT both reinforces both the importance of building re-use and of the necessity for the involvement of talented architects in making great public buildings. Education Secretary Michael Gove’s attacks on architects for creaming off ‘huge’ fees on school design and refurbishment projects seems particularly off-target when one encounters a public building such as this that has benefited immensely from good design.

The Museum of Croydon

The Museum of Croydon is tucked away inside the Croydon Clocktower, a Grade I listed building built in the 1890s and designed by Charles Henman Jun. It holds a variety of cultural amenities and is adjacent to the Croydon Town Hall.

The Museum of Croydon

The museum tells the story of Croydon as told through objects. It doesn’t have many timelines, pictures or detailed maps (aside from one introductory display on land ownership and key roads) but instead is organised into rooms by era with corresponding items from the collection. FAT humorously labelled the entrance ‘then’ and ‘now’ which implies (unlike many museum displays) that there is no correct order in which you should view the displays.

The Museum of Croydon

The interior of the museum is very dark, which is accentuated by the grey matte plastic surfaces that mimic a variety of other materials like gilded picture frames or fabric. The objects are typically displayed in single item clear enclosures with a small and very difficult to read tag on each item. The descriptions border on cryptic in many cases. There is also a touch-screen display that accompanies each small group of objects, but the information on the computer mimics the minimal content of the wall tags.

The Museum of Croydon

The displays are well-designed, and as an ensemble the interior of the museum is gorgeous to look at. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I learned much about Croydon from my visit. While there was some information about the Blitz, it was very general and didn’t go beyond the information you could learn about many other British cities during World War II. Similarly, the Commodore computer from the Croydon library looks remarkably like every other Commodore computer sold around the world during the same era. While I conceptually get the point about telling the story of a place through objects, I think its unfortunate that so little of the story of the place is really told here. Croydon’s high-rise skyline makes it a peculiar place and I’d like to know more about why it turned out that way.

The collection of the museum is not a shortcoming on the part of the architects, I think the Museum staff should have considered more effective ways to tell the story of the city through these objects. The abundance of computer technology within the exhibition spaces could allow for a much richer experience if more information was provided.

Additional photos for both the library and museum can be found on my Flickr stream.

Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario is Retro Frank Gehry at His Finest

Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) completed an extensive renovation in 2008 that transformed its building on Dundas Street in Toronto. Work began in 2004 and cost $276 million. Led by Frank Gahry, Instead of starting afresh, Gehry took the existing building and its somewhat chaotic slew of previous expansions and unified it into a functioning whole. The expansion was a controversial strategy, with many people concerned that a large amount of money was being spent without obtaining a signature Gehry building.

Upon entering the building under an expressive glass-clad cantilevered upper gallery (see above) one enters a low ticket hall. Passing through this area and into the Walker Court at the heart of the building, this well-lit atrium space shows one of Gehry’s most dramatic interventions in the old fabric of the building:

Art Gallery of Ontario

In order to reach the stair, shown above, visitors must walk upstairs to the upper level of the atrium and walk around the perimeter. The new portion of the construction is finished in light-coloured wood and touches the existing early 20th Century building very lightly:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The insertion and interaction of the new within and attached to the old looks strange when compared to most of Gehry’s recent highly sculptural work, but when looked at in relation to his work from the late 1970s through mid 1980s it clearly references an important part of his tradition.

Frank Gehry's House
Frank Gehry's House, photo by Kristo

His own home in Santa Monica is the best example from this period. By taking a “Dutch Colonial” home in a typical Santa Monica neighbourhood and  building an armature around it, while also strategically removing portions of the old house, Gehry deconstructed the experience of home life itself (see a collection of photos and drawings on Arch Daily here). He also collaged together many of the building blocks of suburbia in an unexpected juxtaposition- one that disturbed his neighbours. They obviously had no problem with corrugated metal or chain link fences (they were common on other homes in the area) until Gehry decided to get creative with them.

Moving up further into the AGO via the curved stair shown earlier,visitors move through the exposed structure (most original steel) of the atrium and then through the roof, where the outside of the stair has a glazed strip that runs at eye level.The views open up when you get above the original atrium, giving you a view of the jumble of parts that make up the building.

Art Gallery of Ontario

At the top of the stair, the modern/contemporary galleries are spread over two floors with high ceilings and glass walls to the north and south. The south wall is protected from the sun by exterior shading that appears to be operable.

Art Gallery of Ontario

Moving back down the building requires you to go down a similar stair to the one on the north, except the view is better here as you descend into a park with the CN Tower in the background:

Art Gallery of Ontario

There are also views of Will Alsop’s building for the Ontario College of Art and Design next door:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The stairs, clad in grey metal, do reference the Bilbao/Disney Concert Hall side of Frank Gehry. They also go back a bit further in his career, specifically his Vitra Design Museum of 1990 in Germany. The Vitra project was not conceived entirely as a sculptural object, as I would argue works like Bilbao are, but was designed equally as an experience. The Vitra is also formally similar, one only has to look at the enclosed twisting stair to see the lineage:

Vitra Design Museum, photo by Rory Hyde
Vitra Design Museum, photo by Rory Hyde

The other impressive interior spaces in the refurbished AGO is the Galleria Ilalia. It cantilevers over the sidewalk on the front of the building and it is attached to the old front wall of the museum. Unlike other Gehry buildings I have been to, it is very well-detailed and well-proportioned.

Art Gallery of Ontario

The weakest part of the building is its unfortunate exterior on the south side. Hovering over the adjacent park and facing downtown, the façade is a particularly obnoxious shade of blue metal that looks more like a roadside office park from the 1980s than an urban museum. The sight of the AGO next to Alsop’s OCAD building reads like an obnoxious “battle of the starchitects”:

Art Gallery of Ontario with Ontario College of Art & Design

It’s a shame they succumbed to the use of coloured titanium on the exterior of the building, which reminds me of Gehry’s equally obnoxious Experience Music Project in Seattle. That aside, I think it is a fantastic building and a sensitive and sensible re-use of an existing asset. I would like to see more renovation projects from Gehry’s office- they rose to the challenge in Toronto in a way that is far more nuanced and effective than on many new-build projects.

Book review: Visual Planning and the Picturesque by Nikolaus Pevsner

Visual Planning and the Picturesque

While not truly a “lost” Pevsner book, this represents a monumental effort by editor Mathew Aitchison to pull together a huge amount of material compiled for a book on Picturesque town planning by Nikolaus Pevsner. While Pevsner intended to publish the material as a book, he never finished the manuscript and much of the material was published as short pieces in the Architectural Review instead.

Visual Planning and the Picturesque is divided into three sections. Part I is titled “mostly presented in pictures” and consists of the analysis of English townscapes through Pevsner’s photographs, historical sources and maps.  His focus alternates between Oxford, London and Bath. Part II is titled “mostly presented in quotations” and includes a variety of historical sources on townscape with commentary by Pevsner. Part III, titled “occasionally submitting solutions” was assembled from materials compiled by Pevsner. The Editor’s notes indicate his intent for this section was less clear, though it is established Pevsner intended to addresses 20th century issues through the lens the English Picturesque tradition.

Parts I and II were nearly completed during the 1940s, concurrent with the Architectural Review‘s “Townscape” campaign. Pevsner worked for the AR during the period and ended up publishing a large portion of the material for this book in the magazine. Part III includes many of the photos indicated for inclusion in his notes but without specific indication and an assortment of texts that are on topic, but as Pevsner had not written a draft for this section Aitchison’s interpretation of his intent is responsible for its composition. The heavy reliance on interpretation for Part III is definitely the book’s Achille’s heel. While the material in the section is, on many occaisions, fascinating, its inclusion is mostly conjecture on the part of Aichison. He does his best to interpret Pevsner’s intent but at the same time, it feels most like assembled notes than a completed chapter.

What is particularly striking about the book, and what makes it timely today, is Pevsner’s appreciation for historic principles while at the same time being a strong proponent of modern architecture. His analysis looks at the picturesque principles of planning but does not prescribe the literal insertion of picturesque buildings into the landscape. This is spelled out in some detail in John Macarthur and Aitchison’s section at the beginning titled “Pevsner’s Townscape.” Pevsner’s view allows for the appreciation of contemporay buildings in the context of the old and is separate from both the high modernists, who preferred to work from a cleared site, and the historicists of today who make up the New Urbanist movement. This point of view allows him to alternately praise the pedestrian nature of central London and hold up LCC housing in Roehampton (contemporary at the time of his writing) as a “masterpiece of post-war residential design” that sits squarely in the Picturesque tradition.

Pevsner’s book is not for everyone. It gives a look into his working process (many of his notes are included in the book) and sheds light on a movement and era that is somewhat forgotten today. For those who are already partial to Pevsner’s work this is an essential volume to complete a collection of his writing. Alternately, it is a good source for thinking about contemporary planning in the UK. Revisiting the ideas of the Townscape movement and the Picturesque as conveyed in this book could be a way out of the dead-ends planning has run into in the past decade. Incorporating traditional ideas of English planning need not result in Poundbury.

A Seaside Weekend: The Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, in Photos

Southsea, near Portsmouth

The first stop on our weekend getaway was the last stop on the National Express coach, Southsea. After a brief stop at Portsmouth (which is only about a 10 minute drive away, at most) where all of the other passengers except for my wife and me disembarked, the coach pulled up in front of a vaguely futuristic but well-worn strip of buildings with a small amusement park behind them. While the overall aesthetic is mid-century futuristic, I was most impressed by the “Jurassic 3001” sign that looked to be in an advanced state of decay and was adorned with a CCTV camera:
Jurassic 3001

Because the pier at Southsea isn’t very big, its certainly not an attraction in itself (for more thorough coverage of English seaside decay, take a look at this post on Fantastic Journal or this one at Mondo a-go-go). The real attraction in Southsea is the hovercraft! I was thrilled when I discovered it was possible to take a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight, and it is quite a bit cheaper than the other ferry. Unfortunately, the interior of the hovercraft left a lot to be desired and made the National Express coach seem fairly luxurious in comparison. It also reeked of diesel.

Aisle of Wight Hovercraft

Still, floating on a cushion of air across the sea at high speed is pretty cool.

The hovercraft lands in the town of Ryde. It is the largest town on the Isle of Wight, with a population of around 30,000. The hovercraft, being the technological marvel that it is, sets you down on dry land and bypasses the adjacent pier (in the background above). It’s the 4th longest pier in the UK and also one of the oldest, which has earned it listed status. It’s from this pier that you can take the “train” (yes, it’s actually part of the National Rail network) 8 1/2 miles around the eastern part of the island:

Island Line Train

You may recognize the carriages, they are retired 1938 London Undground stock. They run two at a time on a single track to 8 stops.

Disembarking in Sandown, many shops seemed to be closed. There are lots of tourist gift places, shoe stores, and restaurants that I wouldn’t want to eat at. There was also this person trying to sell their dogs via a sign on the door of a shop:

Dogs for Sale, Isle of Wight

After an unfortunate experience with the B&B we booked, we ended up at the decidedly non-luxurious but clean Sandringham Hotel. It faces the beach and the staff members have to wear nautical uniforms while serving breakfast, so it was nearly perfect (despite the avocado green bathtub with a spot of duct tape and the lack of a shower). There was a cover band playing to a very small crowd at the bar, the whole scene pulled from a yet-to-be-made Christopher Guest film.

The best thing to do on the Isle of Wight, now that the Wax Works/ Brading Experience has closed, is to either visit English Heritage sites, go hiking or watch documentaries in your hotel room about thatched cottages. We did all of these things. Osborne House, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s gorgeous island home, was spectacular:

Wrapped Statues at the Osborne House

I was particularly impressed with the wrapped statues, as I have started to collect photos of them. If you are interested in going to Osborne House in the winter, make reservations ahead of time. You must be a guided tour and they are limited to groups of 20. The upstairs was closed for repairs. There are more of my photos of the house here on Flickr.

Then it was on to Carisbrooke Castle in Carisbrooke, near Newport. It was restored in the Victorian era and is also an English Heritage site. Located at the top of a hill, the castle offers spectacular views of the surrounding towns and countryside.

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight

One of the things it is best known for is the well that is powered by a donkey walking on a wheel. There are a few demonstrations each day. Here is the obligatory photo:

Carisbrooke Castle Donkey

From there it was off to the west of the Isle for a hike across Tennyson Down, where the poet used to walk on a daily basis. There is a large monument to Lord Tennyson at the highest point on the walk, which is particularly impressive late in the day. This photo could be straight out of a Christian inspirational calendar:

Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight

We continued walking to the end of the Island and saw the famous Needles:

The Needles, Isle of Wight

On the way out of the park after seeing the Needles, I couldn’t resist this amazing front yard display. Note the many messages to visitors:

Front Yard Display, near The Needles

The following day was less cooperative, as far as the weather was concerned. After a brief stop at the Brading Roman Villa it was back to the mainland. Portsmouth, which has accurately but not very creatively chosen to call itself “The Waterfront City” (as if it were the only one) has attempted to re-brand itself with a massive seafront regeneration project known as Gunwharf Quays:

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

That tower in the background is a tower that you can’t miss, mostly because it is so ugly. One of many oval-shaped residential towers with blue glass to sprout up around the world in recent years, it is known as “No. 1 Gunwharf Quays” and was designed by architects Scott Brownrigg to resemble a funnel (I can only imagine the crit you would get in architecture school with an idea that brilliant). The other tall thing in the regeneration area is the Spinnaker, a ridiculous folly that attempts to compete with Dubai (at half-scale) and has had a broken lift since its opening nearly five years ago:

The Spinnaker from Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

As if going the Cadbury (Kraft?) and Marks and Spencer Outlet shops wasn’t exciting enough, you can sip your Costa cappuccino while admiring this jauntily-painted World War II torpedo:

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

While Gunwharf Quays has been branded as a total success, it is hard to see what it is doing for the rest of the city. It’s not well connected to the city center for the pedestrian, and the massive underground car-park promotes the overall suburban feel. Most of the shops are interchangeable with what you would find at any other similar mall elsewhere in the world. I am sure it’s been a financial success for the developer, though I’m not sure 2009 was the best time to open a high-end residential tower in a struggling city. While the overall development has opened up the waterfront to the public (it was formerly a naval base) you never escape the feeling that you are in a shopping mall.

I couldn’t possibly say it better than this CABE case study: It is a collection of experiences that brings together various types of housing in a carefully considered, safe environment…

As soon as you leave the front gate it’s back to reality:

Portsmouth- view from the Hard Interchange

Brian Sewell: I don’t care what Clement Greenberg thinks about Arshile Gorky

In an article for today’s London Evening Standard titled Mother’s Boy art reviewer Brian Sewell discusses the new show at the Tate Modern, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. In a review that reveals far more about Sewell’s artistic preferences than the contents of the show, he states that Gorky, who escaped the Aremenian genocide as a young man by fleeing to New York, “was neither well-taught in the technical sense nor exposed to long traditions and established stimuli that could convert him from provincial fumlber into metropolitan genius.”

Basically, if you weren’t part of the European aristocracy, why bother? Stating that Gorky was “aware of Picasso, presumably from illustrated magazines rather than direct experience” shows the height of Sewell’s ignorance, as European modern art was frequently shown in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded in 1929, and private galleries were regularly showing cubist work during this era. I have a hard time believing a young painter living in the city at that time would not have sought out a single Picasso painting by the mid 1930s.  By 1937 a major show of twenty years worth of his paintings was on view at Jacques Seligman & Co., and in 1939 MoMA mounted a large retrospective of his work.

Sewell also goes to great lengths to criticise Gorky’s work as being derivative, going as far as calling his earlier canvases “dim-witted imitations.” I think the same could probably be said of the early work of many painters, and for a man his early twenties at the time I don’t think it’s unreasonable for his work to show the influence of the great painters of the day.

The review condescendingly goes on to say of his experience being promoted to mentor at the Grand Central School of Art “I suspect the school was less grand than its name suggests.” The school was an artists’ cooporative, and was run out of New York’s Grand Central Station for twenty years starting in 1924. Founded by John Singer Sargent (one of the finest portraitists of the early 20th century) and Daniel Chester French (sulptor of the Lincoln Memorial and designer of the Nobel Prize medal), students included as diverse a crowd as Norman Rockwell, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.

Gorky is given credit for his drawings in the review, but it certainly gets under Mr. Sewell’s skin that he is regarded as a painter in any way. In fact, he blantently says Gorky did not know what he was doing and credits his fame to the “jabberwocky-driven critic Clement Greenberg.” Sewell’s antagonism towards Greenberg leads him to dismiss the importance of the influence Gorky had on the art world of the 1940s and 1950s (including de Kooning and Jackson Pollack), which alone in itself makes Gorky’s work worthy of a major retrospective.

In his 1964 essay “The Myth of Originality in Contemporary Art”  in the Art Journal, David Hare writes:  “To my mind, Gorky became at the end of his life, far more original than the Abstract-Expressionists that followed him” and then goes on to say “Gorky’s was not as original as the work of Jackson Pollack, but much more interestingly so, since Gorky became original in the face of art history, which he loved.” This is key to understanding the importance of his work: he successfully negotiated his way out from under the weight of the baggage of pre-war art and created something that was almost unbelievably new. It is unfortunate that it took him a long time to do this, and that he departed from the world at the age of 44.

Arshile Gorky’s late work is amazing in the way it dissolves surrealist imagery into beautifully composed non-figurative gesture. I was transfixed by one of his finest works, “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” which I used to stare at on every visit to the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo where I grew up. I have no doubt you won’t regret that you “paid a tenner” (to use Mr. Sewell’s phrase) to see the show, I am very much looking forward to it myself.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb
The Liver is the Cock's Comb, by Arshile Gorky (1944); Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY

Recent Books: Leadville, Concrete Island & The Architecture of Happiness

I haven’t posted on here in a long time, so what better way to get back into my blog than with a brief recap of three books I’ve read this month.

Leadville by Edward Platt – This book was suggested to be back when I was living in San Francisco when I told someone in London where I was going to be living. Little did I know how fitting this would be.

Leadville is subtitled “A biography of the A40” and tells the story of Western Avenue in London. Edward Platt, the author, looks into the lives of the people living beside this extremely busy commuter road. As he begins to interview the residents, he quickly realizes that he has stumbled into the tail end of a decades-long project to move the residents out of their houses to accomodate the widening of the road. While to an outsider it may look like a vision of hell, living practically on top of a motorway, as he talked with many of the long-time residents he realized that many of them were not in a hurry to leave. He also encounters squatters and a variety of other more transient residents, including temporarily-housed council tenants who don’t know where they will go when they are finally forced to leave. Platt also delves into the history of development in West London and looks at how it differed from the development of similar communities in the United States. All in all, an excellent book to read if you want to learn about the development of suburban London in the 20th Century and the politics of roads. My own existence in London is centered very close to a number of roads that closely resemble the A40, as does the residential architecture of my neighbourhood.

The North Circular Road in London at dusk
The North Circular Road in London at dusk

Concrete Island by JG Ballard – I had never read Ballard before picking up this book at the local library. I realized that if I was going to be an architect and live in the UK, I needed to read Ballard as he has been a huge influence in understanding the urban built environment. Ballard has never been as popular in the US as he is in his native country, though I’m still surprised at myself that I hadn’t picked it up.

Concrete Island tells the story of a wealthy 35 year-old architect (okay, you can already tell it’s a work of fiction) who goes off the road on his commute home from Central London and finds himself trapped on a traffic island.

Influenced by the recent development of urban motorways (the book dates to the early 1970s) and Ballard’s childhood love of Robinson Crusoe, the book reads as plausible, despite the unlikeliness of it actually occuring, due to the visceral style in which it is written. This was the perfect follow-up to Leadville because it gets at many of the same points dealing with the alienation caused by the modern vehicular landscape created in the second half of the 20th Century. The psychological implications of being trapped in this landscape are explored in a fascinating and sometimes disturbling manner.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton – I should start this off by saying that this is the type of book I never would have read, had they not happened to have it at the library down the street. It was actually one of the only books in the “Architecture” section that wasn’t about remodeling your kitchen. While I’ve seen this author’s name all over the place for the past few years, I hadn’t actually read anything of his save for a magazine article.

This book was a definite counterpoint to the other two. Platt and Ballard spend their entire books essentially describing the design of dystopia, while Alain de Botton seeks to find the secrets to what makes people happy in architecture.

The main problem with the book is its very premise – it’s not really a building’s job to make us happy. In fact, after studying architecture as an art student in undergraduate art history classes, attending graduate school to study architecture, and spending several years practicing architecture, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “happiness” used in the context of architecture, except for this book.

De Botton likes the English city of Bath, some modern houses (if they have a touch of the traditional), and staying at historic Japanese inns. He dislikes Corbusier’s urban planning, fake Tudor houses with plastic beams, and poorly-proportioned residential skyscrapers. He never posits much of a theory as to what the “architecture of happiness” actually is. He also fails to recognize that for a variety of reasons, not all of the world should be designed to be happy.

While de Botton wishes London could have been as beautiful as Paris, he never mentions the immense upheaval caused by Hausmann as he forced his boulevards through the city (nor the alternative motives behind their creation). As nice as modern-day Paris may be (and as happy as it may make the author) happiness had very little to do with the redesign of the city in the 19th Century.This is same fault that I found throughout the book – it doesn’t dig very deep and relies on a fairly simple understanding of architecture and architectural history.

The book fails on many levels, but it may be a good introduction to architecture for someone browsing the library for a book on remodeling his or her kitchen.

Recent books: “194x” by Andrew Shanken and “Militant Modernism” by Owen Hatherley

Two recent reads on Modernism:

194x by Andrew M. Shanken (2009, U. of Minnesota Press)

Andrew is a assistant professor of Architectural History at the University of California, Berkeley. I was familiar with the topic of this book prior to reading it because I studied with him while I was a graduate student there a few years ago.

Andrew Shanken looks at the “culture of anticipation” that arose during World War II in the United States as architects planned for the year “194x”, the year the war would end and the austerity caused first by the Great Depression and then by the war would finally end. He tracks the steady rise of interest in planning, as architects envision themselves as controlling a complete redesign of society in the postwar era.

Shanken spends a lot of time in the book looking at how many of the well-known  architects of 1940s worked with prominent companies to promote their ideas and in turn tie them to consumer culture. While the industry magazines of the day did deal with the issue of “planning’, some of the most prominent publications of the day were actually produced in pamphlet format by private companies like Zurn Plumbing or Revere Copper and Brass. In pamphlets that have seemingly little to do with their products, architects advocated for every citizen to take part in civic planning (though there are several funny examples of the “planning” concepts being used to sell mundane products like toilets or flooring).

As the end of the war drew close, it became clear to many large companies that an expanded version of the status quo would suit their needs better than a wholesale change of both the means of housing production and the role of the government in society. As Congress turned away from planning and Keynesian economics fell out of favor with a turn towards classical capitalism, modern architecture was singled out. As Shanken points out in the afterward, the battle between collectivism and laissez-faire capitalism has been a steady feature in American society with each generation seeing it play out differently. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, an individualistic worldview and lassez-faire economics combined with massive Defense Deparment infrastructure investments in road-building would lead to the auto dependent suburbs that quickly surrounded every American city. Large-scale regional planning of the type imagined during the War was generally not implemented.

The planning that did occur was often the most destructive sort. Slum clearance, a popular topic in planing literature of the 1940s, did happen to large areas of many cities during the 1950s and 1960s. Horribly disruptive and deliberately targeting the poor and minority groups, cities often bulldozed acres of housing with no clear plan as to what would replace it. I would love to have another chapter in this book that traces the lineage of the planning movements of the World War II era into the 1950s to see how the Utopian visions of that era ended up being very selectively deployed.

I think that Shanken is most successful in setting the tone for the era of the 1940s. Most architects hadn’t seen a significant amount of work in 15 years as the war drew to a close. There was going to be a housing crisis when soldiers returned from abroad contributing to a predicted postwar employment crises. This book does an excellent job of explaining how this scenario provided the perfect opportunity for architects to combine European modernism with American capitalism and then in turn sell it to the general public with Utopian visions of a drastically changed world. If you are interested understanding mid 20th Century American politics and consumer culture, this book is a must-read.

Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley (2009, O Books)

Owen Hatherley, writer of the blog Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy,  has written a short book that asks on the first page “can we, should we, try to excavate utopia?” While this book most certainly deals with architecture, it also delves into modernity in film, sexual politics and theater. The book is divided into four sections, each of which can be read independently.

The common thread through the four sections is desire to return to a modernism of everyday life, rather than the timid “Ikea modernism” we are left with today (Hatherley states that “Modernism has resurged, but in much the same way a Labour government is no longer a Labour government).

The first section on architecture is the strongest, but I may just be predisposed to feel that way because of my personal affinity for brutalism. The chapter looks at the development of brutalism as it was deployed in British housing estates during the 1960s, particularly by the Smithsons. He makes the point that the Smithsons were making a critique of ‘classical’ modernism, something that I feel is often forgotten – particularly when brutalism is discussed in the United States. “It is an attack on the purism and anti-urbanism of their predecessors,” replacing the picturesque and the spaced towers of miesian modernism with a dense network of internal streets. Most of all, it would “house the poor, be part of the new welfare state, it would be glamorous.”

Moving in to the second section, on Soviet Modernism of the 1920s, is a look at a chapter of architectural history that has been to a large degree ignored. I found the most interesting part of this chapter to be the proposals for disurbanism put forward by sociologist Moisei Ginzburg in 1930. Opposing the idea of collective planned spaces under socialism, he advocated a form of development where vast networks of people live in transportable pods and connected by transportation networks. Hatherley points out the fact that this is the extreme of both collectivism and individualism, and that it is a prophecy of what Los Angeles was to become in the second half of the 20th Century (but far more extreme than what Los Angeles actually became). The paper architecture (and some actual realized architecture) of this era is something I probably need to become more familiar with to fully appreciate this section.

The following two sections, reading modern film and it’s relation to sexual politics and theatre, weren’t as strong as the architectural chapters. They do help support the argument for modernism as a total break from the past- a new way of thinking and living that offered “possible outlines of a world after capitalism.” Perhaps we don’t literally need the exact type of socialist utopias envisioned in the first half of the last century, but it is quite sad that we don’t bother dreaming of a world that could be different from our own- even as we watch the foundations of our system collapse around us.

This is a very thought-provoking book, and a bit hard to find in the US at present.