Book Reviews

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.  

Click to purchase via Amazon.

Monday, December 16, 2013 - 17:12

Gregory L. Heller
Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia
(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
Foreword by Alexander Garvin. 303pp and black and white illustrations.

American cities saw a great deal of planning and reconstruction efforts in the immediate postwar decades. Unlike their European counterparts were reconstruction was necessitated after the destruction of war, urban renewal in the US sought to create the modern city, its economic revival and a quality of life. This era of urban ambitions and its resultant destruction and rebuilding is, in many ways, personified in three individuals: Robert Moses, Edward J. Logue and Ed Bacon, respectively in New York, Boston (and New York) and Philadelphia. While the first two came from the political and development end, Bacon was a planner and for more than 20 years director of the planning commission in Philadelphia. The legacy of Robert Moses has been the subject of considerable revision in the last decade and his accomplishments have been placed in a more favorable light.
  Gregory Heller’s book is an attempt to re-assess Bacon’s legacy and his impact on downtown Philadelphia, where without a doubt he had the greatest impact. Bacon, who studied architecture at Cornell, attended Cranbrook just before the war. As part of his study with Eliel Saarinen, he worked in Flint, MI, for several years before returning to Philadelphia, his hometown. While in his own words he never had a formal planning education – in so much as it even existed at time – he was deeply committed to and involved in the social reformist and progressive ideals of the planners and housing advocates of the New Deal era.
  The time period of urban renewal is much under study and re-assessment also with regards to preservation. In this light the story of Society Hill – extensively recounted in the book – is of particular interest. The relation between Bacon and Charles E. Peterson, then the National Park Service architect for Independence Hall, a resident of Society Hill and early on a professor in the then nascent Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Columbia University, is indicative of the time and the conflicts surrounding urban renewal. The intervention in the neighborhood and the construction of the three new residential highrises – the dust jacket of the book shows Bacon with the model of the buildings in a maquette of the site – was quite radical. However, the book describes Bacon as a preservationist, a title Peterson would have vehemently disagreed with.
  Society Hill is in many ways an indication of time marching on but also an example of the dilemma that some preservationists face. What was once despised is history now and important in its own right and deserving preservation. In hindsight the result is an interesting blend of new and old. While maybe not preservation in the 1960s, aside from the three residential towers, the other insertions are sympathetic in scale and material choices without being imitative. The mandate at the time was clear: all new buildings should be modern – in keeping with the Venice Charter and its ‘frankly modern’ precept – clearly discernable. Most likely now many would argue for quasi-colonial infill architecture. In an era where we are re-examining the tenets of preservation, its history and goals, particularly in coming to terms with the heritage of the recent architecture and planning, this book is a welcome and important addition about the person, who brought us not only modern Philadelphia but also was the author of the seminal planning book, Design of Cities, first published in 1967.     Purchase on Amazon
Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 13:40

Donald Leslie Johnson
On Frank Lloyd Wright’s Concrete Adobe: Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler and the American Southwest
(Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2013). 230 pages, drawings and black and white photographs.

The possibilities of concrete as an inexpensive and versatile building material have fascinated architects for more than a century. While reinforced concrete technology did not begin to develop properly till the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the history of the concrete block begins much earlier and continues all throughout the 20th century. The opportunities for an inexpensive but solid and decorative building material inspired many architects. Whereas Jeffrey M. Chusid in his recent book Saving Wright: The Freeman House and the Preservation of Meaning, Materials, and Modernity (Norton 2011)describes the use and construction of the textile block in one of the houses, Johnson attempts to place this one example in a larger context in terms of the historical narrative and Wright’s claims. The first two sentences of the introduction illustrate the premise the book seeks to explore: “In the 1920s Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) claimed to have invented a new system of concrete block construction and aruged (sic) its superiority. Since then people attempted to uphold the claim adding it presaged a new architecture and would satisfy the demand for cheap housing”.

As the use of the work ‘Concrete Adobe’ in the title of the book suggests, Johnson, who teaches in Australia, does not only look at the four houses Wright designed in California using his textile block system but at the larger sources of inspiration be it American Indian or the work of other earlier architects like Irving Gill or Rudolf Schindler (both mentioned in the subtitle). In addition, not surprisingly given where the writer lives, considerable attention is paid to the work and importance to Wright of Marion and Walter Griffin, both of whom worked for Wright before moving to Australia. During their work on Canberra they remained in contact with the States, which is detailed in the book.

Johnson has written extensively about Wright and the work of the Griffens. Trained as an architect, he tests the historical narrative surrounding Wright against what actually takes place in the entire design and construction process and how it ultimately shapes the building. The result is interesting.

Purchase on Amazon

Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 13:45

David Smiley
Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956
(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

In the architectural history or preservation literature about various postwar building typologies, very little can be found about one of the most unique American building types: the mall or the shopping center. Earlier publications by Richard Longstreth or Jeff Hardwick laid some of the ground work and had focused on either particular areas or architects but no comprehensive study existed. Smiley’s recent book with its 357 pages, extensive index and annotations as well as the numerous black and white contemporary photographs admirably fills that void.
In the discussion of what is fundamentally a suburban or rather a non-urban building type, the author pays attention not only to the pure architectural and formal aspect of the buildings but more importantly to its social and cultural significance.  The mall was also about entertainment and education. Names of artists like Knud Lonberg Holm or George Kepes are found in the text as evidence of those broader aspirations.  

The book discusses issues like display and merchandising, which was very much in the mind of the stoe and mall designers, and was core to what Smiley calls “consumption”.  He remains somewhat ambivalent about the building type as architecture as his reference to consumption would suggest. In his own words in the preface: “…I still find malls and the quasi-public spaces like them to be slightly worrisome, more than a little strained, and all the more exciting for it”.

The title of the book is somewhat surprising when viewed within the traditional perception of the mall as a consequence of a society that has gone ‘automobile’ and by referring to ‘pedestrian’ it places an emphasis on the internal layout and ambiance once arrived and parked. However, it is also what makes the book interesting in today’s urban planning discussions and the pedestrian malls in the inner cities as once premiered by Kalamazoo and showcased in many new developments.

The book provides a solid basis for further study in two related areas. First is the influence abroad as evidenced by such projects as the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam, referenced at the end of the book and other European shopping developments as part of the reconstruction of old towns and the building of new ones. Secondly is the question as how to deal with the preservation of a culturally very significant building type that is fundamentally transitory in nature both commercially and often physically. Both questions hopefully to be addressed by others in the future.

Purchase on Amazon


Friday, October 18, 2013 - 10:42

Pat Kirkham, Pat Moore and Pirco Wolfframm
Eva Zeisel: Life, Design and Beauty
(San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2013).

Eva Zeisel is one of the most renowned ceramicists of the 20th century. Her oeuvre spans more than eight decades and sought to bring modernist design to industrialized production of mostly household ceramics. Her work is infused with a modernist sensibility but without the strict adherence or the rigor of the followers of the modern movement. While some of her pieces reflect the times in which they were created most of her work can be described as timeless and is characterized by an elegance of line and form that is more organic and truly classic.

Born in Budapest, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, she started her career in ceramics in an apprenticeship in 1924 and opened her own studio the year after. She worked alternatively in Budapest, Vienna and Berlin, until 1932, when she moved to Russia like so many artists and architects at the time. She remained in Russia till 1937 with the final year of her stay in prison accused of participating in a plot to assassinate Stalin. After her arrival in the US in 1938 she established herself as a ceramicist and industrial designer and in 1939 as a teacher at Pratt Institute where she remained active for many years. Over the many decades of her career, her work was produced in a number of European countries as well as Russia and the United States.

The beautifully illustrated Eva Zeisel: Life, Design and Beauty is divided in three parts. After a historic narrative about Zeisel’s life and career, the two subsequent sections address her work specifically. The second section consists of chapters describing and illustrating the different collections, while the final part is a catalogue raisonné detailing the various pieces of every collection in outline figures and diagrams giving both dimensions and marks. This part is a valuable tool for any collector of Zeisel’s pottery. The authors of the book can be described as “Zeisel aficionados”. Pat Kirkham, the editor of the book, is a well-known authority on modern design and teaches at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City and Pat Moore and Pirco Wolfframm as collectors of founders and participants in the Eva Zeisel forum. The photography does justice to the beauty of Zeisel’s ceramics and is the work of Brent Brolin.    

While the book is intended more as a catalogue raisonné of her work and if a criticism is to be made, it involves the lack of any discussion of her influence as a teacher. Like Rowena Reed, who was already at Pratt when Zeisel arrived, she was at the forefront of teaching industrial design at a time when women designers (or architects for that matter) were rare. Their influence on many generations of students cannot be underestimated.

The title of the book is doubly appropriate. It is about Eva Zeisel and her life but it is also about design and above all beauty. This well-illustrated book does proper justice to the work of a great artist and designer with its 256 pages and many illustrations in color and black and white photographs as well as numerous drawings and diagrams.  

Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty

Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 10:57

Christopher Bascom Rawlins, Fire Island Modernism: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction (New York, NY: Metropolis Books, 2013).

The Sixties were about many things and with the continuously growing in postwar architecture and design different regions, architects and typologies are being discovered and highlighted. Clusters of significant buildings, the work of architects that have been less celebrated in the popular press, are being (re)discovered. Caroline Zaleski’s recent book Long Island Modernism 1930-1980 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2012) brought attention to an area outside New York City that had not been the subject of much study and survey and included work by nationally known architects and designers.  

Rawlins’ Fire Island Modernism: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction takes this interest a step further and focuses specifically one architect, Horace Gifford, whose prolific residential oeuvre with some 70 or so projects is largely concentrated in one location: Fire Island. The book is not only about architecture and the elegant and remarkable beach houses that Gifford designed with its open views and natural materials but it is also about the sixties and architecture as a reflection of a cultural period. In the words of the publisher’s press release: “Gifford’s serene 1960s pavilions provided refuge from a hostile world, while his exuberant post-Stonewall, pre-Aids masterpieces orchestrated bacchanals of liberation. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift once spurned Hollywood limos for the rustic charm of Fire Island’s boardwalks.” Buy it here on Amazon.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - 15:16
Diane Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)   While many people are enamored with the various revivals and depictions of postwar life, as seen in such TV shows as Mad Men and its story of the advertising world of Madison Avenue, they obscure the racial separation in all aspects of life in that era. Even a cursory review of publications on residential life or even professional or trade books on such things as school design reveal a uniformly white society devoid of any racial or ethnic diversity.   Diane Harris’ new book is one of a number of more recent publications that explore postwar residential architecture in the context of that society. She focuses not just on building design or plans. Such closely related cultural aspects as furniture, household goods, photographic and TV representations as well as outdoor spaces and gardens to name only a few of the issues that are included and being addressed. The book is a surprising but thoughtful and important reminder of the monochromatic character of postwar society before the Civil Rights Act or Brown vs. Board of Education.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 13:14
Jean-Louis Cohen, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2013)


"Le Corbuser: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes”, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, is described as the first major exhibit of the work of Le Corbusier in the US. The exhibit, which will be at the museum through September 23rd of this year, is accompanied by a publication of the same title by Jean Louis Cohen with an introduction by Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the museum. The exhibit contains numerous original drawings and contemporary documents as well as the large scale color photos, which are the work of Richard Pare. The publication with the eponymous title has a large number of essays by Le Corbusier scholars from across the globe and includes with separate entries the archival material and color photographs in the exhibit.

In their respective opening essays Cohen and Bergdoll explain the title of both the book and the exhibit. In Bergdoll’s words: as a reflection of a “new generation of research, analysis, and interpretation of Le Corbusier’s practice using the metaphor and, in part, the form of an atlas, as we have done here, is not, however, to return to the notion of an international practice..” but rather as an acknowledgement of a “profound relationship between practice and place in Le Corbusier’s life and work”. Cohen aside from the discussion of the meaning of the landscape in this context returns to the metaphor of the atlas in three ways: in the literal sense as a reflection of Corbusier’s extensive travel and his projects in many parts of the world – the publication is organized geographically -, as a metaphor for his process of observation, analysis, engagement and design and finally by evoking Atlas, the giant carrying the globe. He writes: “ is hardly excessive to evoke the mythological figure of Atlas to describe the activities of a man who shouldered epic endeavors to transform the world.”   The accompanying essays constitute the majority of the text includes the work of a great many Le Corbusier scholars in different parts of the world and, in that sense adding to not only the concept of the atlas but also highlighting the level of global interest and scholarship. In many ways the publication in both its title and its content presents through its very existence an argument for the significance and cohesion that should underpin the multi-national World Heritage nomination that has been proposed previously on several occasions.   While piquing curiosity, the remarkable scholarly content and the unique assembly of original materials displayed leave for many preservationists something unaddressed. What is the status of the buildings, their condition and how have they been preserved or restored? Some of the buildings in the exhibit and book have been or are the subject of extensive on-going (interpretative) restorations and improvements. With this much original documentary material at hand it would have been interesting to see how that documentation guided (or not) that process. Maybe that is the next exhibition and publication.




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