Witold Rybczynski's Blog
August 17, 2014
B35 Lounge Chair
Marcel Breuer, des., Thonet, manf., 1928-29
I’ve been researching Marcel Breuer in connection with a new book. The 18-year-old Breuer started as an art student in Vienna, then transferred to the new Bauhaus in Weimar. He chose the woodworking program, and proved to be so talented in furniture design that after he graduated Walter Gropius invited him back to be the master of the woodworking shop. In one short period, 1925-30, Breuer designed some of the seminal modernist chairs of the twentieth century: the Wassily, the Cesca, the B35 lounge chair. During the 1930s, he started working as an architect, collaborating with F.R.S. Yorke in UK and Gropius in the US, and finally working on his own. What is striking is that Breuer moved so effortlessly from designing chairs to designing buildings. This is explained in two ways. Breuer had completely absorbed Gropius’s teaching that design was a universal discipline, that is, if you could design a teacup you could design a city. So having no formal training in building design or construction whatsoever (the Bauhaus did not teach architecture until long after Breuer was there), did not discourage him from undertaking building commissions. The second reason is that modernist architects were inventing as they went along; they did not rely on history, traditional construction, or conventional building practice. Hence, the lack of training was not a liability. Just as a tubular steel lounge chair had no precedent, so too a glass and concrete building was breaking new ground. It was all new.
Of course, such an improvised art could not last. By the late 1950s, as modernism became an academically entrenched discipline—instead of an avocation—it began to show signs of flagging. You can’t really teach improvisation, any more than you can teach jazz. Neither modern jazz nor modern architecture survived.
August 6, 2014
A New York Times story described a recent report of the House Natural Resources Committee criticizing the commission that is in charge of building the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. But the Times didn’t mention, as the Washington Post did, that the Congressional committee has not actually voted on the report, which was released by the Republican majority. Moreover, according to Martin Pederson, editor of Metropolis, the report is the work of a single staffer. The Times headline was Memorial Plan Called a ‘Five-Star Folly’. “If you read the Times account, you would have been led to the incorrect conclusion that the House Committee had called the Gehry design a ‘five-star folly,”” writes Pederson. “No, a subcommittee staffer with a clear ideological agenda crafted that epithet.” The Times article has two interesting bits of information. According to the article “The report also criticizes the design selection process, asserting that the panel chose Mr. Gehry’s approach over the objections of the design jury, which had characterized his proposal as ‘mediocre.’” If true, this would be extremely unusual, and throws a poor light on the commission; it sounds like a canard to me. The Times also quoted a statement released by Frank Gehry that includes the revelation that “I personally have done all my design work pro bono.” Given all the opprobrium that has been heaped on Mr. Gehry, it is a touching admission.
June 29, 2014
A month ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the current building boom in Bogotá. It described a planned luxury residential building designed by Richard Meier. Why import an architect from thousands of miles away, who has never built anything in that city? “One aspect of new construction is important to local buyers: no red brick. Exposed brick is so prevalent in Bogotá that many apartment buildings look the same.” Well, Mr. Meier’s building, which is white steel and glass, will certainly not “look the same.” Indeed, to my eye, it will likely stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. No doubt, other “not-the-same” buildings will follow, and soon this brick city (look at those wonderful buildings on the right side of the image above), will look like everywhere else.
June 16, 2014
Photograph by Robert Damora, 1964.
An account of Paul Rudolph’s life would make a good opera—a tragedy. Act One. The provincial rube, son of an itinerant Methodist minister in the South, studies architecture in Alabama. He designs his first house at 22, and joins an office in Sarasota, of all places. Goes to Harvard, and studies at Gropius’s knee. The war interrupts. He returns to Sarasota, becomes a partner in the firm, and begins to design remarkable houses—as if Frank Lloyd Wright had attended the Bauhaus. He completes his Harvard degree and returns to Florida and continues to build. The houses are airy, light, delicate, romantic. Act Two. Rudolph acquires a national reputation. He designs an unbuilt embassy in Jordan, a campus building at Wellesley, and an office building in downtown Boston. All striking. He is appointed head of the architecture department at Yale, and builds the Art and Architecture Building—massive, concrete, brooding. Not Form Follows Function, but Form Follows Imagination. He leaves Yale to set up an office in New York. Act Three. It is the Age of Theories—postmodernism, populism, regionalism—but Rudolph is no theoretician; he is an artist. His romantic monumentalism appears outdated and he is left behind. The Yale building, increasingly unpopular with students, burns—perhaps arson— and in some undefinable way the architect is blamed. His commissions dry up. Rudolph continues to build in Singapore and Hong Kong, but he cannot recapture the old magic. He is forgotten. The curtain descends.
Until such an opera comes along, we have Timothy M. Rohan’s forthcoming The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (Yale University Press). The book shows Rudolph to have been an intensively private man, an introspective romantic, and while Rohan covers the work (although the photographs appear awfully flat to me), his subject never quite comes alive. Rudolph’s buildings, on the other hand sing out, forte fortissimo.
June 9, 2014
VIA 4 (1980) included an interview with Michael Graves and essays by Tom Wolfe, James Ackermen, Robert A. M. Stern, and James Wines.
“The best metaphor for getting older,” Twittered Paul Goldberger recently, “all the hills are steeper, but the views are better.” That sounds about right, although from where I stand—and increasingly sit—the views are not always what they were. I was brought up on Sixties jazz, for example, and I can’t help but agree with with the late Frank Zappa’s pithy assessment, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” I remember when there was just one telephone company, you didn’t actually own your home phone, and it never, ever broke down. And I remember when cities were real places rather than tourist attractions. Oh, well. I thought about the good old days last week when I received a fat little journal called Thresholds, published by the MIT Department of Architecture. Student-edited architecture magazines are an old tradition—I co-founded one–Asterisk, or * as we insisted on calling it– when I was a student. We ran on a shoestring, typing stencils on a Selectric and running the pages off on a Gestetner machine; we silk-screened the covers ourselves. Thresholds is much plushier, 192 heavy stock pages, although the illustrations are in purple, for some reason, so they have the blurry quality of an early duplicating machine. The text is pretty blurry, too. “The individual human subject is the encultured bodily subject.” I’m not sure who wrote that since the magazine contains nothing as mundane as Author Bios. Like most architecture school magazines today, it is determined to write about anything except buildings, and to do so in as opaque prose as possible. I sighed, and set Thresholds aside. I have been reading an article in another student-edited journal, but from an earlier time. In researching a book, I came across the 1977 issue of VIA, which was published by architecture students of the University of Pennsylvania. The contributors included British historian John Summerson, the great observer of the vernacular landscape J. B. Jackson, Denise Scott Brown (the revised edition of Learning From Las Vegas had just appeared), and Henry Hope Reed, the granddaddy of the classical revival that was just around the corner. Also present were such relatively unseasoned architects as Tom Beeby, and Allan Greenberg, whose essay on eighteenth-century furniture I was consulting. The theme of the issue was Ornament, and the editor was Stephen Kieran, who would go on to found KieranTimberlake. The issues addressed were timely, the writing lucid, the presentation clear. I wonder if, in four decades, Thresholds will stand the test of time as successfully?
June 5, 2014
Núria Ferragutcasas, who is the US correspondent for the Catalan newspaper ARA, interviewed me about the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site at Ground Zero. Her last question—“What is your opinion about the new site as whole? Do you like the Memorial? Is it appropriate?”—prompted me to reflect further on the subject, so here is an expanded version of my answer.
Monument to the Great Fire of London
Cities have regularly suffered catastrophic events—plagues, floods, sieges, and fires—and have commemorated them in different ways. The Monument to the Great Fire of London, for example, designed by Christopher Wren, was erected only a decade after the fire. Designed by Christopher Wren, it’s a tall Doric column, topped by a gilded urn of fire. The column is 202 feet high (it is located 202 feet from where the fire started), but it does not occupy a large space and it takes its place in the city, allowing urban life to go on around it unimpeded. A good memorial doesn’t hector, it reminds—gently.
Trafalgar Square occupies a much larger space than the Great Fire monument. It commemorates a naval victory and the man responsible, yet it does so without hindering other uses, for the square also functions as an urban meeting place. It is the site of public celebrations, sports and musical events, political demonstrations, and public meetings. A giant tree is put up for Christmas; people play street hockey on Canada Day. None of this bothers Lord Nelson high up on his column, I am sure.
Trafalgar Square is about 6 acres; the memorial and open space at Ground Zero cover about 8 acres. But the memorial components at Ground Zero are so large and so assertive—all that cascading water!—that they overwhelm and suffocate their surroundings, which are permeated with an air of sombre piety. “The place doesn’t do much to celebrate the city’s values of energy, diversity, tolerance openness and debate,” wrote Michael Kimmelman recently in the New York Times. What was advertised as a park coexists uncomfortably with the memorial. Already we see posted “rules of behavior,” enforced by a police presence. That is not the way a city should work.
May 28, 2014
The tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, raises anew the question: How to rebuild? In a thoughtful blog, George Cairns of Melbourne’s RMIT, who has studied the building in detail, points out that many undocumented changes were made during the building’s construction, so it will be impossible to recreate what was there. In addition, the inevitable demands of modern fire security will likely alter the original design. Rather than try to rebuild Mackintosh’s design, Cairns argues for “great architects to be invited to design a worthy intervention that will breathe new life into the school.”
I’m not so sure. When the fifteenth-century canal facade of the Doge’s Palace was destroyed by fire in 1577, Palladio proposed rebuilding it in a Classical style, but he was over-ridden, and the original Venetian Gothic was restored. When John Soane’s Dulwych Picture Gallery was hit by a V-1 rocket during WWII, it was rebuilt exactly as it had been. In fact, the building had been altered several times since Soane’s death.
Buildings are not works of art, time changes them, alterations regularly take place, life has its way. What’s wrong with repairing damage? Even if it is not exactly as it was, it could be almost as it was, and a hundred years from now, the difference will not matter. Surely that is better than a “worthy intervention”?
May 26, 2014
When I was a freshly-minted architect I had no commissions, so naturally I fantasized about having an office. My imaginary studio was housed in a truck, with dome skylights and windows, and a loft at one end. “The truck-office like having an office on a boat but instead it is on the highway rivers of America,” I wrote in my sketchbook. “From city to city from one project to another.” My sketch shows two figures standing outside the entrance–I suppose they were meant to be clients. I had read about Ralph Erskine’s office in Sweden, a converted barge that was moored near Stockholm during the winter, and sailed to an offshore island for the summer. This is surely the most romantic office one can imagine, but architects have often made their workplaces special. Foster has a huge single room overlooking the Thames; Gehry has a similar “big room,” although it doesn’t overlook anything as scenic. Safdie’s office in Somerville is in the shell of what was a factory, today covered with an ivy scrim. Bing Thom’s studio is likewise in a renovated factory—at the foot of the Burrard Bridge in downtown Vancouver. But these are exceptions, most architects work in anonymous office buildings. It brings to mind the French saying: “Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés.” Shoemakers are always have the worst shoes.
May 2, 2014
LG HQ, Hudson River Palisades (HOK, architect)
Reed Sparling is with Scenic Hudson, an environmental organization opposing plans by LG Electronics to construct a corporate headquarters atop the Hudson River Palisades. LG’s architect, HOK, proposes an 8-story slab that critics, such as Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, maintains will despoil the scenic beauty of this National Natural Landmark. “LG is receiving the blame for constructing this building, and rightfully so,” writes Sparling in an email. “But does/should an architect have moral or civic responsibility to say no if a potential design threatens highly valued (and irreplaceable) natural resources?” It’s a good question. Architects are a service profession, and as such they tend to shed primary responsibility for the projects they design. “If we don’t do it someone else will,” is a common rationale. Or, as Philip Johnson famously put it, “Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.” Of course, architects say no regularly for a number of reasons: too small budget, too small project, too much other work. I remember as a student attending a lecture by Shadrach Woods. He made the claim that there were projects that architects should refuse to do on ethical grounds, and described an example of his firm (Candilis, Josic & Woods) turning down a commission for a parking garage. I think that Woods was right. Architects can’t have it both ways. They are quick enough to claim the moral high ground when they design affordable housing or green roofs, so they can hardly claim immunity when they carry out projects with harmful environmental or social side effects.
April 28, 2014
Source Material, Milan, 8-12 April, 2014
Marco Velardi invited me to contribute to a small exhibition called Source Material, that he was organizing with Jasper Morrison and Jonathan Olivares during this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. “We request from you an object of personal value; a reference, keepsake, object, that has informed, provoked, and stimulated your work,” is what he wrote. I sent a pencil and a scale. Here is what I wrote:
I have used many tools as an architect—T-squares, triangles, compasses, protractors, and ruling pens—but the essential tools for me remain a pencil for drawing and sketching, and a scale for measuring. They are a reminder that while the product of architectural design is a building, architects don’t actually build, they draw. I have had many mechanical and wooden pencils over the years, but my favorite is this fat 5B lead holder. Pencils, especially sketching pencils, are particularly personal since they are the intermediate between the hand and the eye, between seeing and recording. This one is made by Bohemia Works and I bought it on a trip to Prague about 40 years ago. The scale has accompanied me since I was an architecture student. The concept of scale is central to design since it allows the architect to record information, for himself and for others. There is something magic about shrinking reality so precisely. Of course, in a digital age pencils and scales have become almost antiques. But after 40 years my sketching pencil still does its job as well as ever. And you don’t need batteries.
Source Material included contributions by David Chipperfield, Naoto Fukasawa, Edwin Heathcote, and Richard Sapper.