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)

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.

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

Across an Inland Sea: reading a book that starts in the place you know best

Grain elevators on the Buffalo River
Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Update: I am deeply saddened to have discovered that Nicholas Howe died of Leukemia nearly two years ago. I guess I won’t be meeting him any time soon after all.

I just finished a great book that I stumbled upon by accident while browsing at William Stout Architectural Books last weekend. It’s by UC Berkeley professor Nicholas Howe and is titled Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin.

It caught my eye at the bookstore because it has a photo of one of the Buffalo grain elevators on the cover with the frozen expanse of Lake Erie stretching in every direction. It’s a sight I am very familiar with as it is next to the highway that goes from Hamburg (where I grew up) to downtown Buffalo, and I’ve passed it more times than I can count. For many years, there was a huge blue-green rusting cruise ship docked next to it.

The book is about how the places we live change us and make us who we are, and what it means to write from various locales. The book starts with a description of Buffalo, where the author grew up and where his family had lived for several generations to Paris, Oklahoma, Berlin and finally Columbus, Ohio. I found the book particularly fascinating because not only did I grow up in Buffalo, but I have lived in Columbus and I’ve ended up in the Bay Area- where Howe moved shortly after the book was finished to teach at Berkeley.

Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze
Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze

I don’t think it was until I reached graduate school that I realized how fundamentally different peoples’ sense of the world could be, even amongst people who grew up in the same country speaking the same language. There were people in my classes who didn’t realize that there were parts of the country like Detroit (or Buffalo) where full grown trees had pushed their way up through buildings and railroad tracks vacated decades earlier. Seeing this gives you a world view where you realize how transitory the world around you can be, despite its seemingly permanent materiality. It is definitely at the core of how I view architecture and the urban realm.

Now I have to bump Berlin and Paris up my list of places I want to visit.