Book Reviews

Thursday, February 18, 2016 - 15:38

Susan G. Solomon: Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue

(Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2009) Published by New England University Press. 215 pages, numerous black and white illustrations, notes, bibliography and index.

The postwar period saw a renewed interest in the design of religious buildings. It was no longer a matter of just copying or interpreting traditional forms and iconography but it was about finding new interpretations and forms that captured the spirit of postwar religion. This desire and the search for new expressions attracted well known architects. While the modern designs for churches whether protestant or roman catholic are today probably better known or more frequently published, the same is true for synagogue design. The projects by Erich Mendelsohn, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Minoru Yamasaki, Pietro Belluschi or Percival Goodman are examples of that search. In this context it is not surprising that Louis Kahn received a commission to design a synagogue in Philadelphia.

The first two chapters of Solomon’s book address the design of synagogues in postwar America. She places these buildings in the context of modern design of religious buildings in general but also in the context of the Jewish community. Examples discussed and shown include Temple Emanu-El in Dallas designed by William Wurster in collaboration with Max Sandfeld and Howard Meyer. What makes this a particularly interesting is the integration of art by important artists in the interior, which was typical for many synagogues and churches at the time. Gyorgy Kepes, Anni Albers and Richard Filipowski collaborated there. In her second chapter titled “Does It Look Jewish?” Solomon raises an interesting question that becomes particularly pertinent when discussing Kahn’s work.

Chapters 3 titled “Context: Client, Architect, Philadelphia (and Rochester)” presents the background for the project including the client. The chapter titled “Plans: Kahn’s Vision” reviews and analyzes his design proposals for the eleven years, 1961-1972, of his involvement and includes his interactions with the client. At the end the project was never realized. The last chapter, 5, with the title “Epilogue: Preservation and Legacy” returns a more general topic. It addresses the challenges that synagogues in a modern design face and are actually faced by many modern religious buildings regardless of denomination.

By presenting Louis Kahn’s work in the larger context of synagogue design in the postwar era, the book has become not just an important insight into Louis Kahn’s work but also an interesting and more general discussion about a building typology about which little has been written. The author is right there is a need for greater advocacy and more preservation.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016 - 10:41

Richard Longstreth: Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism

(Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2015) 271pages, numerous black white photographs, notes and index

While Looking beyond the Icons is title that could apply to any architectural period, the subtitle Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism tells us not only the time frame but also how much general interest and scholarship has evolved in the last two decades. Longstreth is not new to the subject and has written extensively about modern architecture and typologies, for instance, The American Department Store Transformed, 1920 – 1960 (2010) and The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 (2000).

Looking beyond Icons is divided in four sections, of which the first two are general in nature, while the last two are case studies representing different issues and building typologies. The first section titled “Style and Taste” addresses a subject that is neither new nor unique to the preservation of modern design or architecture. It remains an important discussion in an era where so often we hear expressions like “I do not like it”, or “It is ugly”. However, given the importance of time it will be interesting to revisit those discussions in a decade or so as the discussion in one of the chapters already reflects.

The second section focuses on “Some Challenges of the Recent Past”. That includes the preservation of urban renewal sites, modern landscapes, postwar suburbs and shopping centers, all of which are typologies of our time. Here again it is interesting to note how time changes perceptions. What was, once, an issue around which preservationists would unite, i.e. urban renewal, is now a still conflicted subject of preservation in its own right.

The third section titled “Extraordinary and Unknown” is about buildings lost, each of which exemplary in their own right. Richard Neutra’s Visitor Center at Gettysburg or I. M. Pei’s Christian Science Church complex in Washington DC stand out because they were hard fought cases, of which one was about perception and the other about real estate. The discussion of the buildings lost places them in the larger context of their respective typology to bring.  The fourth and final section looks well beyond the icons and tackles a very current subject and which can be found in the literature under such headings as everyday modernism, vernacular modern, common modern or variations.    

Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism is a well-researched book about the issues surrounding the heritage of the past and written by someone, who has thought a great deal about the subject.  

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Thursday, October 8, 2015 - 12:23

Lucretia Hoover Giese and Henry B. Hoover Jr.: Breaking Ground: Henry B. Hoover, New England Modern Architect

(Lebanon, NH: University of New England Press, 2015), 176pp, 83 illustrations (46 color), Appendices, Index and a Foreword by David Fixler.

The more than 100 houses designed by Henry B. Hoover (1902-1989) are largely located in and around Lincoln, MA, a town well-known for its modern residential heritage. In the past much of that recognition has been based on the work of Walter Gropius, who in the 1930s built his own house in the community and subsequently the houses of his partners at the architectural firm The Architectural Collaborative (TAG). With this book the work in the same community by Henry B. Hoover is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Henry Hoover’s education in the 1920s followed the customary Beaux Arts format, first at the University of Washington and later at Harvard. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of his career is his collaboration with the landscape designer Fletcher Steele, who is perhaps best known for his iconic landscape at Naumkeag, the Choate estate in Stockbridge, MA, and on which Hoover worked. His freehand drawings whether travel sketches or design presentations are evocative and testimony to his Beaux Arts type education. Undoubtedly his treatment of sites, views and settings in his subsequent residential work was influenced by this early association with landscape design.

The large portfolio of single family houses is remarkable in its consistency not so much stylistically as in their thoughtful treatment and development of the residential program. The resulting plans treat the site carefully and take advantage of views and vistas. As for many houses of this period the sites are one of the prime assets. This makes the original house on such sites vulnerable to replacement by a new and larger one. It is to be hoped that by bringing greater attention to the oeuvre of architects like Henry Hoover a greater appreciation for the significance of these houses develops as well as an understanding of their inherent quality.

The book, an effort of two of Hoover’s children, which lists the collaboration with the Friends of Modern Architecture Lincoln (FoMA) and the Lincoln historical Society, is a welcome step towards the well-deserved recognition of the residential architecture of Henry Hoover.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015 - 11:54

A wide selection of books have been published about the architecture in Cuba in the recent decade. The interest in and the publication of books on Cuba is likely only to increase. Most of them have and probably will continue to focus on the earlier periods of Cuban architecture but a few have addressed the remarkable modern hertiage found in Cuba. Below are a few recommendations.

History

Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis Joseph L. Scarpaci, Roberto Segre and Mario Coyula

(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

 

This paperback edition with a foreword by Andres Duany is a history of the development of the island of Cuba and the city of Havana. Written by three individuals with very different life experiences, Scarpaci was born in Pittsburgh, Segre in Milan and Coyula in Havana, they all were living in Havana when the book was written. In its combination of nationalities and experiences the book contents reflects the experience of the island: its different faces.

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Modern Architecture

La Habana: Arquitectura del siglo XX Eduardo Luis Rodriguez (Barcelona, Spain: Art Blume, 1998)  

The architecture of Havana in the 20th Century includes many of the same building typologies and styles found in the US ranging from Beaux Arts classicism to Art Deco. This Spanish language book with a foreword by Andres Duany illustrates these developments. The section on modern architecture includes a chapter on the art schools in Havana showing the condition of these remarkable buildings at the end of the 20th Century when they were largely abandoned, overgrown and in disrepair.

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The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965

Eduardo Luis Rodriguez:
(New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000)

This guidebook is essential for anyone studying the modern architecture of Havana. While covering the period 1925 to 1965 and presumably includes Art Deco, most of the buildings date from the decades immediately before and after the war. The two postwar decades are particularly fertile and productive in the design of modern architecture in both the private and public sector. Its cut-off date coincides with the rise of the Russian influence on the economy of the island and its building and construction.

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Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools

John A. Loomis:
(New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011)

One of the most famous building complexes in Cuba today is the National Art Schools. Started in 1961 on the site of the former country club, a remarkable set of buildings were created by three architects: Ricardo Porro (Dance and Plastic Arts), Roberto Gottardi (Dramatic Arts) and Vittorio Garatti (Music and Ballet). The project was never fully completed and stopped in 1965 and by the end of the 20th Century was largely abandoned and overgrown. At the end of the 90s Loomis with this book brought broad attention to this complex of interconnected organic style structures built with domes and shells reminiscent of Rafael Guastevino’s work in the early part of the 20th Century in Spain and the US.

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Other books

A great many books about the culture and architecture of Cuba and Havana have been published in the last decade. Only two have been listed here. Many others are undoubtedly forthcoming.

Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage

Cathryn Griffith
(New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010)

Divided in chapters that address particular geographic areas or interests in Havana, these are discussed by juxtaposing contemporary photographs with early 20th Century photographs. This book seeks to show the architectural evolution of the most important city in Spanish colonial America. While changes have taken place over time, at the same time, the historic postcards show how much, remarkably, remains intact today.

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Havana Deco

Alejandro G. Alonso, Pedro Contreras and Martino Fagiuoli
(New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2007)

As the title suggests the book shows the richness of the architecture and design in Havana in the two decades before World War II. Architecture, interiors and furnishings and visual arts are included. The buildings and interiors range from public buildings, commercial buildings, cinemas, clubs, hotels to restaurants and private residences both larger multistory apartment buildings as well as individual houses in town and in the suburbs.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015 - 12:49

Edited by Manuel Herz with Ingrid Schröder. Hans Fockelyn and Julia Jamrozik. Essays by Manuel Herz, Hannah Le Roux, Léo Noyer-Duplaix, Zvi Efrat, Till Förster and Ingrid Schröder. Photography by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster. African Modernism: Architecture of Independence

(Zurich: Park Books, 2015) 639 pages with color photographs of different size and black plans.

This large sized book is richly illustrated and has beautifully reproduced color photographs, many of which are full or double spread pages. While the title of the book is very broad, it covers only five countries on the African continent: Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia. However, it does not make the book or the buildings being showcased any less significant or interesting.

During the late 1950s and 1960s countries in Sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence and, as in many countries in South America, architecture and buildings became the means with which to express a national identity and signify a departure from their colonial past. This impressive and innovative architecture is largely unknown and has not received much attention or recognition.

Aside from the stunning array of buildings one of the surprises are the architects and who they are. In Accra, not entirely surprisingly, we see the work of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. However, a surprise is the occasional collaboration with Denys Lasdun. Accra is also where we find the (former) US Embassy designed by Harry Weese, a remarkable building, commissioned as part of that innovative US State Department program that invited many well-known architects (such as Ralph Rapson, Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer to name only a few) to design buildings abroad.

In addition to architects commissioned from abroad, frequently from what was referred to as the non-aligned countries, others settled in the respective countries. Henri Chomette is a probably the best case in point. Born in Lyon and educated in France he was one of the most important architects in Senegal and Cöte d’Ivoire.  In Nairobi, Kenya, the Kenyatta International Conference designed by Karl Henrik Nøstvik from Norway is another example.

The chapter for each country is accompanied by a general introduction and a timeline that illustrates the political, demographic and economic development of the respective country during the period. In addition there are separate chapters on such subjects, Henri Chomette, the influence of Israel during the period, and the Hôtel d’Ivoire.

African Modernism, in spite of its somewhat confusing title, is an impressive book not only for what it covers but also for its execution. With its stunning photographs that are beautifully reproduced it brings an important part of postcolonial African architecture to life. Hopefully other areas of Africa where modern architecture flourished will get a similar publication someday. 

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Monday, June 29, 2015 - 11:19

Victoria M. Young, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space

(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 216 pages, index, bibliography. 17 illustrations 17 in color and numerous photographs, architectural drawings and sketches in black and white.

Marcel Breuer is best known as the architect of many postwar residences and such public, corporate and institutional buildings as HUD in Washington DC, UNESCO in Paris and several office buildings for companies like IBM. Lesser known but equally significant are his designs for buildings for religious organizations like Saint John’s Abbey and Church for the Benedictine order in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The recent book by Victoria Young explains in great narrative detail and illustrated with many photographs and sketches how the project came about. Beginning with the history of the order and its establishment in Minnesota, she takes us through the selection of the architect, which, even for an architect today, remains intriguing. The order invited twelve architects, five from abroad including such prominent church designers as Rudolf Schwarz, and seven from the US. Of the seven Pietro Belluschi and Eero Saarinen declined because of other responsibilities and work in hand leaving Richard Neutra, Walter Gropius, Barry Byrne, Joseph D. Murphy and Marcel Breuer. After site visits and interviews Marcel Breuer was selected.

The design process and its stages are also described in great detail highlighting the underlying liturgical concepts and resulting evolution of the design. It reflected the spirit of the liturgical renewal taking place after the war, which culminated, some years after the abbey church is finished, in the changes spurred by Vatican II. In addition liturgical art is an integral part of the design and is incorporated in the finished building.

Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space by Victoria Young is an important and welcomed contribution to the literature about the oeuvre of Marcel Breuer and particularly his religious projects. It also gives an insight in the discussions about meaning, art and liturgy taking place mid-century that influenced the design of so many of the other churches across America regardless of denomination.   

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 18:34

Jari Jetsonen and Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen, Saarinen Houses

New York, NY (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) , 244 pp, 280 color and 50 black and white illustrations.

Father Eliel and son Eero Saarinen are both well known for their respective architectural achievements and the many buildings of their hands that have become icons of architectural history.  However, the large majority of those are institutional or commercial buildings. Lesser known is their residential work, for Eliel in both his homeland Finland and in the US and for Eero in the US. The book Saarinen Houses brings these houses, a total of seventeen, together in one volume.

Aside from a short general introduction the book is composed of separate chapters that are case studies for each of the seventeen houses, of which the majority, twelve in fact, are in Finland, and five in the US. Of these houses only the US ones involve Eero working with his father for three of them and finally the last two designed by Eero alone after the death of his father in 1950. Each of the case studies consists of an introduction combined with drawings and black and white photographs that provide the historical context. However, the largest part of each case study is the beautiful color photography of not just the exterior but also of the interior and its detailing.

The Finnish houses are clearly of the hand of Eliel and are in that crafted tradition, the traces of which we continue to admire in later Scandinavian modernism. The first chapter sums it up with the title: “The Home as a Work of Art”. In the American work the participation of Eero slowly emerges and becomes gradually more apparent with its more modernist stylistic vocabulary, first in the two houses still working with his father and finally two houses, after his father’s death, entirely his own.

The book represents a fascinating architectural and design journey from Finland to America and from 19th Century Arts and Crafts to modernism starting at Elliel’s Villa Wuorio of 1898 to 1901 in Helsinki and ending with Eero’s Miller House of 1953 to 1957 in Columbus, Indiana. It is also about the lesser known story of a design family and the involvement in some of the projects of other members of the family like Eliel’s wife Loja, Eero’s sister Pipsan and her husband J. Robert Swanson.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015 - 07:43

Thomas C. Jester, editor. Twentieth –Century Building Materials: History and Conservation

(Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute 2014), 320 pages, 27 color illustrations and numerous drawings, diagrams and photographs in black and white.

Twentieth –Century Building Materials was first published in 1995 under the same title by McGrawHill in cooperation with Technical Preservation Services, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.  This second edition with a new preface by the editor, Thomas Jester, and a new cover is otherwise a reprint of the original publication.That does not make the book less important today but highlights how in many ways the book, its editor and contributors were ahead of their time. In the last two decades the interest in preserving modern architecture has grown exponentially but this book still very much retains its relevancy.

After an introduction addressing the changing of building practices and processes in the modern era related to standardization and experimentation, the book is divided in different sections according to material. Metals, glass, masonry and concrete are the most obvious modern and modernist materials but they are complemented with chapters on various sheet and sheathing materials and roofing. Each material section follows the same general format, a description of the material composition, make up and typical usages, a discussion of the deterioration processes encountered and an outline of conservation methods. Each material section is the work of a different author, a specialist on the particular subject. Extensive references are made not only to the material as defined by its composition but also to the various trade names under which it was available. In addition each section extensively annotated and is accompanied at the back of the book with a bibliography

Twentieth –Century Building Materials has been out of print and in great demand for a long time. The editor and the Getty Conservation Institute are to be commended for bringing this important book back into print.     

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015 - 14:32

(New York, NY: Metropolis Books, 2013). 408 pages, numerous color and black and white photographs.

Formica Forever is the publication by the Formica Company in celebration of its hundredth anniversary in 2013. The foreword by Mark Adamson, former CEO of the Formica Group and current CEO of the parent company Fletcher Building, a preface by Abbott Miller and essays by Alexandra Lange, Phil Patton and Peter York put Formica in a historical and contemporary context. In addition a chronology of its evolution and a survey of colors and patterns of the last century present an interesting picture of a much used, much appreciated and culturally and visually important material. 

What started out as a material used for electrical insulation in the very beginning became a material that inspired designers. With the rise of industrial design as a distinct discipline in the 1930s greater attention was being paid to materials and their use in general. However, the immediate postwar era saw the major expansion of the use of plastic laminates not just for kitchens or cabinets but for finishes for whole houses as seen in the Formica House in the 1964 World’s Fair or in the 1959 house of Ralph Wilson Sr., the founder of another, still existing, laminate company named WilsonArt, in Temple, Texas.    

The design of the Formica Forever book recalls the laminate chip on its front cover but it also inspires the overall design of the book. Colors and period illustrations in the second half of the book complete the historical narrative of the book. The final pages reflect the global nature of the Formica Group by translating the text into four additional languages. 

Formica Forever and an earlier publication about the material titled Formica & Design: From the Counter Top to High Art, edited by Susan Grant Lewin, let us appreciate the importance of plastic laminates in post-WW II life.  

 

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - 14:17

Michael Sheridan, The Modern House in Denmark

(Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014). 335 pages, numerous color and black and white photographs, plans and diagrams.

The postwar Scandinavian and particularly the Danish house formed the inspiration for much of residential design not just in Europe but also in the US. Michael Sheridan, who has done an earlier book on Scandinavian design titled: Room 606: The SAS House and the Work of Arne Jacobsen, has continued his exploration of Danish architecture and design with this recent publication. The houses by prominent Danish architects are all dating from the decade 1950-1960.

While the majority of the book is dedicated to some 14 case studies, the first sixty or so pages is an introduction that sketches the developments that lead up to the postwar decades. The introduction not only outlines what is happening in Denmark or Scandinavia but places these in the larger, mostly European, context. While a section of the introduction is titled ‘Machines for Living’ what is probably the most remarkable is his distinction of what he calls ‘Danish functionalism.' The almost ideological design of Farnsworth or Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau house, both mentioned and illustrated, stand in stark contrast to the more humane designs of the Danish and Scandinavian modernists.

This extends not only to the plan and its relation to the site but also includes the use of materials of steel, glass and concrete versus textured brick and wood. The individual case studies are beautifully presented with extensive full page color photographs that demonstrates the simplicity and the relative complexity of the architecture. Each case study is accompanied by a scaled plan of the house and site as well as elevations and sections in a few instances. The plans have indications of the furniture placement is a light blue color, which allows for reading the plan clearly but without losing how the individual rooms were furnished and used. The accompanying text describes both the house and places the building in the larger context of the architect’s oeuvre and the period.

All photographs, not entirely surprisingly, are taken in the summer with full foliage, while the interior spaces are devoid of any personal clutter they express comfort and clarity. With its plans and photographs alone this book is a good reminder of how the architecture of these postwar Danish architects inspired directly and indirectly postwar residential architecture in Europe and the United States. If anything they stand in stark contrast to the McMansions of our time with their quality of spatial development, use of materials and, maybe, their relative humility. This book is worth looking at as a historical document, an architectural inspiration and a reminder of what American architects of that period working in our suburbs were looking at.

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