Book Reviews

Thursday, March 19, 2015 - 07:43

Twentieth –Century Building Materials: History and Conservation (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute 2014), Thomas C. Jester, editor. 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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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - 14:44

Timothy M. Rohan, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 300pages, 40 color and 185 black and white illustrations.

The work of few architects has generated as much discussion and controversy during their life as after their death. The buildings of Paul Rudolph are in that category. He achieved great acclaim in his lifetime and designed a large and diverse body of work that has now finally been the subject of a major and well deserved biography. Rohan’s superb book is a welcome addition to the history of modern architects and to the understanding of the work of someone, who would now be considered to be one of the period’s ‘starchitects’. He chronicles Rudolph’s early work and career including his houses in Sarasota, FLA, his rise to fame as the chair of Yale’s architecture school – and its building among others – and the fading of that acclaim in subsequent years when postmodernism became the architectural language of the land. Rohan in his discussion of Rudolph’s A & A Building at Yale sees the fire in the building in 1968 – a tumultuous year on many college campuses in both the US and Europe – as the metaphorical turning point of his career. Rudolph’s move to New York and the opening of the office there signaled a new period, which was less prominent but still incredibly productive given the small size of his office in the first place. The book reminds us of his work but also of Rudolph’s evocative drawings and renderings showing the buildings in all their multi-level complexity.

By placing Rudolph’s buildings in the total context of his oeuvre one can not be but astonished by the scope and complexity of that work. Ranging from the early residential commissions to the major buildings in the US and the subsequent work in the Far East as well as the later, much larger, residences they all show a vitality and creativity reflected in his many exuberant drawings.

In more recent times his work has fared less well. Often dubbed ‘brutalist’ – not always correctly – because of his use of concrete, buildings are seen in a negative light. His thoughtful and creative development of plan and form and his careful detailing of concrete – both visually and physically – is not fully appreciated. Buildings like the Micheels House in Westport, Chorley School in Middletown or Riverview High School in Sarasota have been demolished and others like the Orange County Government Center remain under threat. Others like the Cannon Building at Emory University or Yale’s A & A Building, which was carefully restored under Robert Stern’s tutelage, are in full and appreciated use.

His work remains constantly under threat. A recent article in the New York Times when discussing Rudolph’s renovated house on Beekman Place in New York, which is back on the market, noted how an adjacent house was priced at 54% more per square foot. The article continues: “To think of such a modernist masterpiece as little more than raw space is unconscionable yet unsurprising, considering the devastation Mr. Rudolph’s many misunderstood buildings have faced, from his numerous works in Sarasota, Fla., to his Orange County government center in Goshen, N.Y. At least the exterior, perhaps the only aspect most New Yorkers will see, is safe, having been made a city landmark in 2010.”1

Recognition and appreciation of Paul Rudolph’s work is the beginning and most effective tool for saving his buildings. While Rohan in his excellent book sets out to add to the body of architectural history literature, he has contributed directly and indirectly to any upcoming advocacy efforts.

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1Matt A. V. Chaban “In Era of Iconoclasts, Imagination Took Wing on Beekman Place”, New York Times September 8, 2014.

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - 11:28

Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima, Lino Bo Bardi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013). Foreword by Barry Bergdoll. 239 pages with color and black and white illustrations, notes and index.

As the author acknowledges in the introduction, the book is a continuum of study and his work in the form of smaller articles and presentations over the span of more than a decade. The current book focuses on the totality of Bo Bardi’s oeuvre and her contribution to and influence on modern art and architecture in Brazil. Her impact, however, was broader and affected the approaches and attitudes towards the preservation and conservation of architecture through design as reflected in her own work. In 2004 Zeuler Lima, the author of the current monograph, presented a paper at the VIIIth International Docomomo Conference on Lina Bo Bardi titled “Preservation as Confrontation in the Work of Lina Bo Bardi”1continuing what had by then almost become a tradition at every Docomomo International conference, a presentation about Bardi’s work by a Brazilian scholar.

The publication of this book on Lina Bo Bardi, the person and her oeuvre, is also part of a larger context: the emergence of a recognition of the important contribution made by women as designers not just as partners but as significant practitioners in their own right. The gradual rediscovery and recognition of Bo Bardi’s work is an example of a trend seen taking place for other women designers. The recent award of the American Institute of Architect’s Gold Medal to Julia Morgan is a case in point. The publication of this comprehensive study of her work is in many ways a culmination of a similar development. In his foreword Bergdoll suggests that she “has become something of a posthumous Starchitect…”.

Her work is not only interesting architecturally but also from a preservation point of view. In many ways it reflects the notion of adaptive use as it emerges in the 1960s and 1970s and the ‘frankly modern’ approach to it. In that sense she is modern and a modernist in her design work for new buildings and her use of old buildings and interpretation of historic architecture. Her renovation of the Teatro Castro Alves as an art museum in Salvador as early as 1960 is an example of creative intervention in a historic building. Later the conversion of the old steel barrel factory in Sao Paolo into a social and cultural center for the SESC between 1977 and 1986 is an example of how old buildings can be reused and new bold additions can be made.

In preservation women have always played a very important role, which has been acknowledged from the very beginning. In the design professions that recognition is only emerging in the last two decades with women occupying more and more highly visible positions in the design, professional and academic communities. This comprehensive publication about Lino Bo Bardi by Zeuler is an important contribution in bringing attention to an early women designer and architect, her work and her on-going contribution to the dialogue surrounding the discipline both here and in Brazil.

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1Proceedings VIIIth International Docomomo Conference (New York, NY: Docomomo US, 2008), Theodore Prudon and Hélène Lipstadt (Editors), 305-313.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - 18:41

Kevin Bone (ed.), Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Architecture 1925-1970 (New York, NY: Monacelli Press, 2014), 223 pages, numerous illustrations, bibliography and index.

Lessons from Modernism, which was edited by Kevin Bone is the work of many and started as a student seminar at Cooper Union in New York City. The book itself is an outcome of an earlier exhibition with a similar title held in the beginning of 2013 at Cooper Union. The exhibit was organized under the auspices of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, of which Kevin Bone is the director. The book has a series of introductory essays with the majority of the pages taken up by the case studies.

In current popular opinion modernism and modern architecture are seen as fundamentally unsustainable. Unfortunately that perception – as this book unequivocally demonstrates – is erroneous and based on misinformation. To the contrary it could be argued that architectural design of that period was environmentally much more aware than many architects or architectural students today. Two important factors are often overlooked in today’s discussion. First, many of the buildings – particularly houses – were conceived when air conditioning was not yet prevalent and the design of the building had to take advantage of every available opportunity in design, orientation or material. Where energy was available, it was cheap eliminating any urgency to conserve. Secondly, especially pre-war, access to and availability of light and air (and more specifically sunshine) was considered an issue of public health both in urban planning and architectural design.

The individual projects illustrated in the book reflect the history of modern architecture of the period not just in the US but across the world. The roster includes architects like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Amancio Williams, Paul Rudolph, Arne Jacobsen, Ricardo Porro and Lino Bo Bardi to name only a few. Each and every one of the buildings is presented not just with a narrative and some photographs of the building originally but also with plans, sections, diagrams and digital reconstructions that all support the environmental logic of each design. Most important and interesting are the diagrams that show the plans as well as sections with their respective solar paths, the direction of the prevailing wind and cross ventilation.

The individual project sheets bring to mind how important the subject of environmental design was before and after WWII. Two examples may serve to prove that point. The Open Air School in Amsterdam of 1930 by Jan Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet (who was to join Pierre Chareau in Paris later that decade), acknowledges the role heliotherapy and fresh air played in the design. This continued to influence, for instance, school design in the postwar as represented in the example of the Munkegaard School in Copenhagen by Arne Jacobsen (the book only shows the original plan for Munkegaard and does not include the changes and additions – mostly underground – made in the recent decade).

The other example to illustrate that interest is the so-called House Beautiful Climate Control Project that James Marston Fitch directed when architectural editor at the magazine House Beautiful. Many of the diagrams shown in Lessons from Modernism are more sophisticated examples of what was shown in the magazine in the 1950s when addressing the design of buildings in Florida or Louisiana. Finally it is good to recall the contribution of Victor Olgyay and his Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism of 1963. These are all examples of the intense interest in the subject of environmental design even before the energy crisis of the early 1970s.

The book, which includes a series of essays addressing different aspects of the modernism and sustainability issue by Kevin Bone, Carl Stein, Daniel A. Barber, Alan Berman and Michael Ben-Eli, is an important publication.  It not only re-iterates the importance of sustainability and an environmental sensibility as an integral part of architectural practice but also that, contrary to generally accepted public opinion, we can learn a great deal of Modernism. 

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Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 12:46

Françoise Astorg Bollack, Old Buildings New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations (New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 2013), 224 pages and many color illustrations. Foreword by Kenneth Frampton. 

There has always been an intersection between new buildings or additions and old architecture. However, not surprisingly only in the last two hundred years with the emergence of the concept of modernity has it become a source of study and discourse. As Bollack points out in her introduction significant changes occurred in the 20th Century particularly in the decades following World War II. By introducing figures like Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Carlo Scarpa she sets the stage for a discussion about what she has termed “architectural transformations” over the last couple of decades. This is also interesting when seen against the background of the emergence of the preservation movement in the US where the term “adaptive use” continues to take hold and emphasis seems to be on contextualism. In that sense the book is very different from Paul S. Byard, The Architecture of Additions: Design and Regulation (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1998), which sought to find a design and possible legal rationale for that very contextualism.

To capture the spirit and intention of the ‘transformations’ and interventions Bollack has divided the book in chapters that in their headings identify the architectural strategies with such titles as Insertions, Parasites, Wraps, Juxtapositions and Weavings. In general the architectural language of the ‘transformations’ can be best described as ‘frankly modern’. This reflects the intent of the Venice Charter of 1964, which also brings us back to the mid-century period of significant changes that Bollack sets out in her introduction. This spirit of ‘frankly modern’ probably resonated more intensely in Europe than in the US where preservation tends to be more contextual and populist. This seems to be supported by the examples illustrated and their respective levels of intervention. Out of the 28 case studies some 10 are in the US, one in Canada and the remainder in Western Europe.

The book is beautifully illustrated with color photographs and mostly black and white smaller diagrams and plans making this a book par excellence for architects and designers. But it is more than that and in Bollack’s own words in the introduction:

"It is my hope that Old Buildings/New Forms will create a visual field of reference and a critical framework for contemporary architectural transformations and thus create a climate for a better appreciation of this architecture.”

And that it does. Congratulations. 

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Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 12:19

Detlef Mertins, Mies (London/New York, Phaidon Press, 2014) with a foreword by Barry Bergdoll. 544 pages and 698 illustrations in both color and black and white, bibliography, notes and index.

This has been a good year for Mies’ scholars, students and preservationists. With the restoration and re-opening of the Tugendhat House in Brno, the proposals for the preservation of the Martin Luther King Library in Washington DC and the conferring of the National Historic Landmark status by the Secretary of the Interior on Lafayette Park in Detroit as well as the on-going studies on how to protect the Farnsworth House against future floods, the significance of his work is widely acknowledged. On the scholarly side the recent publication of Phyllis Lambert’s Building Seagram published last year by Yale University Press and now Detlef Mertins’ Mies are adding significantly to the body of knowledge about his work. The manuscript for Mertins’ book was finished before his death in 2011 and was – according to the acknowledgements – guided through the publication process by a team of colleagues, which, among many others, included Felicity D. Scott, Edward Dimendberg, Barry Bergdoll and Keller Easterling.   While organized chronologically, Mies’oevre has been divided in distinct periods, which is reflected in the structure of the book and its chapters. With the first three chapters titled ‘Critical Realism: Life and Form’; ‘Avant-garde: Art and Life’ and ‘Task: Mastering Modernity’ covering the time in Germany till 1937, the last three chapters respectively ‘Organic Architecture’; ‘Unfolding Structure’ and ‘Event Space: Living Life Large’ discuss the work in the US. The organization is clear, the text lucid and the scholarship impeccable. The book is extensively illustrated with a rich mixture of original drawings and sketches, contemporary and historic photographs of the projects, relevant art of the respective period and –not often found in architectural histories but equally important and illustrative of design intentions and practices at the time– photographs of the buildings under construction.    Purchase here from Amazon.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 18:09

Robert Carter, Carlo Scarpa (London, UK: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2013) 286 pages with many illustrations in both color and black and white.

The exhibit “Venetian Glass by Carlo Scarpa: The Venini Glass Company 1932-1947”, which was recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was, in many ways, an excellent counterpart to this book. The exhibit not only underlined the fundamental skills of Scarpa in making things but also highlighted his understanding and masterful ability to manipulate materiality, in this case glass, and to achieve a form that is intrinsic to and expressive of the material. It is that same ability that we later see in his design work in concrete and the design interventions in very significant historic buildings.   Like so many European designers before and after World War II, Scarpa was greatly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and many of his projects reflect that interest. However, probably his best known work, aside from the Brioni Cemetery, is these much admired architectural interventions in historic buildings. They are bold and ‘frankly modern’. They are also able to enhance and bring out the spirit of the building without slavishly copying historic detail. While reflecting Italian conservation philosophy and theory at the time and designed when the so-called Venice charter was taking form, these interventions, ironically, would now not be allowed or seen as acceptable in the established preservation community. Nevertheless his work remains an inspiration for many architects and, without a doubt, his work itself now deserves preservation. Hopefully this well-illustrated book can contribute to the discussion not just about architecture, preservation and the role of design but also about the preservation of modern architecture.   Purchase via Amazon
Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 14:03

George H. Marcus and William Whitaker,

The Houses of Louis Kahn
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013) 269 pages with many illustrations and photographs in both color and black and white.

The book opens on its flyleaf with a quote from Louis Kahn himself. The quotation ends with the sentence: "I even learned that a simple house, which was never a consideration in my training, became something of importance". This observation can be extended out to this book. With all the interest and scholarly research directed at Kahn's monumental and civic work, little has been written and published about his residential oeuvre. In that sense the book is "something of importance". 

The book is divided in two distinct parts. The first half discusses the evolution of Kahn's residential architecture in general and the second half is a detailed discussion of the nine major residential commissions lavishly illustrated with color photography. In sketching the evolution of the residential work one of the more surprising aspects is Kahn's involvement with other  well-known architects of the period in the design of housing projects, frequently so-called social housing. He collaborated with Oscar Stonorov, Henry Klumb, Louis Magaziner and George Howe to name a few. 

The analysis of the houses themselves traces the development of Kahn's thinking about the concept of house and home and the resultant architectural form. This section is not only illustrated with images of the houses themselves but, more importantly, with sketches and drawings by Kahn or those working for him in his office. Aside from giving an insight in the architecture itself it also provides an interesting view of what practice for residential architecture was like in the immediate postwar period. Working drawings are visually carefully composed graphics juxtaposing details and plans next to each other on a sheet in a way long since abandoned because more detail and information is required today for construction. However, these early drawings with their minimal technical detail but issued for permit or construction more succinctly conveys the design concept. 

The second part of the general analysis is interesting because of its attention to furniture and furnishings as well as the overall materiality of the buildings. References to other architects and designers of the period help to place the work in its context. The extensive use of wood by the architect who is so connected to the use of concrete in his more monumental buildings is perhaps the most surprising for many people. However, juxtaposing natural materials and finishes with rougher (concrete) or smoother (marble) textures is evident throughout his work. 

The final half of the book is dedicated to a detailed discussion of the various houses. Here again the splendid recent color photography is used next to Kahn's own sketches and drawings as well as earlier black and white photographs. While Kahn over time became more and more busy with the larger civic projects, he continued doing residential work till his death in 1974.

This book is an important addition to the scholarship about Louis Kahn by addressing a portion of his oeuvre lesser known but certainly not less significant.  

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