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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Thursday, August 4, 2005


    I have let my weblog languish . . . partly it's been the demands of the day job, and partly too the distractions of the season. Somehow when the days get steamy and the breezes balmy, when everyone's slouching around the city half-dressed or motoring off to remote but on-the-radar waterfront retreats — and too, when the New York Times is reduced to blithery puff about Richard Meier weekending in East Hampton, marinating his chicken in Coca-Cola and ketchup (!) and firing up his Viking Ultra-Premium — well, somehow the urge is to unplug, to get liberal with the sunscreen and prove that Henry James was right when he described "summer afternoon" as "the two most beautiful words in the English language."

    But summer idylls are hard to hold on to . . . especially when you scan a week's worth of news reports and learn the latest from the always overheated sphere of starchitects (surely the least beautiful word in the English language). I refer to the recent news that Santiago Calatrava has been hired by the Fordham Co., a Chicago developer, to design a 115-story, 2,000-foot-high, half-a-billion-dollar hotel/condominium tower that would be the country's tallest — a twisting and tapering structure that's been variously compared to an "oversized birthday candle," a stick of licorice, a "swizzle stick," a "concrete and glass drill bit," a "massive corkscrew," and — in an intriguing fit of critical psychodrama — a "tall, stately woman in a flowing, gauzy gown that swirls around her legs."

    Given that the design is conceptual and the financing vague — or, as the Chicago Tribune tactfully notes, "not yet finalized" — and that none of the condos (which will cost $850/s.f., give or take) has yet been sold, it's tempting to dismiss all this as over-easy public relations — only marginally less featherweight than the style-page paean to grillmeister Meier. Or, as Lynn Becker at ArchitectureChicago Plus so aptly puts it, the project's "thrust into the 'world's tallest' sweepstakes is being hyped with the kind of sloppy inanity usually found in spam emails for penile enlargement."

    At some point, of course, should the project prove to have staying power, we'll need to stop concocting metaphors and get a firmer grip on the tenacious and non-aesthetic matter of security. Calatrava himself, according to the New York Times, is "not concerned" that what would be the tallest building in the U.S. might be targeted by terrorists; but it's possible that the authors of a hefty National Institute of Standards and Technology report on tall-building safety, due to be published in September, might have a more nuanced, not to say objective and public-spirited, view of the issue. In any case, at this point I'm inclined to agree with the Slatin Report, which views this as a cautionary tale wherein meaningless hyperbole has replaced thoughtful planning, a project in which, as Peter Slatin says, "a great designer is commoditized, and a great city is caricatured."

    And the past couple of weeks have brought more news from Chicago — news that takes us far from the cushiony world of top-dollar residential real estate and world-conquering celebrity designers-cum-security experts. The news is sad: on July 14 Richard Solomon, executive director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, died of a heart attack, at age 62. I never met Rick Solomon, but spoke to him often over the years, in connection with various book and magazine projects (and as co-editor of Harvard Design Magazine, I shared in one of the foundation's grants); and he impressed me as the ideal head of a philanthropic organization — a magnanimous and generous personality who was scrupulous about not letting personal predilections sway the foundation's decisions. Which perhaps accounts for the diversity of work supported in the past decade by the Graham. Already this year, for instance, the foundation has funded several dozen research and publication projects on topics ranging from East German modernism to the resurgence of Shanghai, from the legacy of Eero Saarinen to historic Montana barns, from sick building syndrome to architecture and terrorism.

    But what is really striking about the grants, even more than the scope of topics, is the modesty of the awards. Here in the U.S. we pour copious resources into high-rise construction — and come to think of it, into penile enlargement, too — while our cultural endeavors make do with sums that are comparatively paltry. According to its web site, in the past six months the Graham has awarded 77 grants that together total $477,850; the average grant was a few thousand dollars — enough to purchase about half a dozen square feet in Calatrava's corkscrew. What's more, when you consider the list of books supported in the past decade, you realize how profoundly — and perhaps unsustainably — indebted architectural publishing is to foundation money.

    Not that this is news; for a long while now we've gotten used to a corporate/commercial/market sector that's full to bursting, and to an arts/culture/non-profit realm that scrapes by on scraps. But it seems reasonable to wonder whether the gap is growing, the disproportion becoming grotesque. I've just started to read The Economics of Art and Culture, which estimates that art-and-culture account for less than one percent of the American economy. Is it possible that someday the cultural life of the U.S. will cease to be grounded in professional structures and depend wholly on the largesse — and the whims — of patrons? Not a pretty prospect . . . but at least for now we've got foundations like the Graham, which from what I can tell seek to operate in ways that are not partisan and cozy but open-minded and adventurous.

    And now, for at least a little while, back to summer-and-sunscreen . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link


About Nancy Levinson
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Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili.


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