Remembering Ken Kern

Ken Kern was an architect who published a series of books in the 1970s starting with the classic The Owner-Built Home, and followed by The Owner-Built Homestead, The Owner-Builder and the Code, and The Work Book. The last, written with his sister Evelyn Turner, a psychologist, is a case study of people who built their own homes and the effect it had on their lives. Stewart Brand reviewed it in The Whole Earth Catalog. “About 80 percent of the couples I know who have built a house or a boat, they build it, then they split up,” Brand wrote. “Happened to me too.” I was concerned about that, since my wife and I were building our own house (that was 1977—we’re still together). I referred to The Owner-Built Home a lot. It is full of practical advice about building techniques, materials, tools, and contains useful references, many of them arcane such as where to get a soil-cement block press, for example or a squat toilet (Kern travelled the globe after graduating from architecture school). I never met him but we corresponded. According to John Raabe, who worked for Kern, the architect-builder died (in the mid 1990s) in one of his own creations. He had just fnished building an experimental dome using slip-formed concrete, and decided to spend a night in it. There was a freak rain storm, and the dome collapsed on its hapless creator. The perils of owner-building.


Architects and Fashion

Michael Graves in his library

Architects have a love-hate relationship with fashion. On the one hand, becoming fashionable can catapult an architect’s career, bringing not only recognition but also, more importantly, commissions. But fashion giveth, and fashion taketh away, and becoming unfashionable can stop a career in its tracks. Philip Johnson, always with one finger to the winds of fashion, dealt with its fickleness by embracing it: moving from Miesian modernism, to ersatz classicism, to postmodernism, to deconstructivism. See his compound—architectural zoo?—at New Canaan. But most architects have deeper convictions than Johnson, even when fashion abandons them. Steadfastness can lead to obscurity, as it did to Paul Rudolph, or it can be rewarded, as in the case of I. M. Pei, who remained a modernist throughout the postmodern and deconstructivist periods, and lived long enough to see his steadiness vindicated. Michael Graves, similarly has stuck to his guns. Catching the brass ring during the heady days of postmodernism, he never abandoned his personal style—a stylized version of classicism—despite the general opprobrium with which postmodernism was dismissed by the critics and the academy. Graves has just been awarded the 2012 Driehaus Prize.

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Driehaus Prize jury.

Jazz on Trafalgar Square

It’s exactly twenty years since Venturi Scott Brown completed the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London. After visiting the museum last weekend, I am still impressed. The sheen of newness is gone now, and the architects’ intentions are all the more visible: to make an addition that continues the 1830s building, and is also itself. Venturi explains that the rhythm of the pilasters on the façade is meant to be a jazzy riff on Wilkins’s staid minuet. The sometimes arch mannerist gestures seem a little tired, but the resolute attention to detail and construction (so rare today) remains affecting, as it is for any good building. The galleries are excellent, and the quality of the light and viewing experience seems to me equal to the best Kahn museum—the Center for British Art at Yale. But I enjoy the exterior of the Sainsbury Wing more. Walking around the building, one can admire the brickwork patterns at the back, and the polychrome neoVictorian columns that pop-up along Whitcomb Street (below). This is clearly a building designed by two architects at the top of their form. Sadly, it remains a unique masterwork in Venturi’s late oeuvre. There should have been many more such opportunities.

SoCal Modernism

Via Verde housing project, South Bronx

In a post on Michael Kimmelman’s first architecture review in the New York Times, the New York Observer opined that the architects of the housing project in the South Bronx that Kimmelman referred to are “notable but far from famous architects.” Nicholas Grimshaw not famous? Well, perhaps not in New York City. Grimshaw—Sir Nicholas—has built in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia as well as his native Britain. He is part of a generation that includes Michael Hopkins, Ian Ritchie, Eva Jiřičná, Richard Horden, and the late Jan Kaplický who followed in the footsteps of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster (Jiřičná worked for Rogers; Ritchie, Horden, and Kaplický worked for Foster; Hopkins was a partner of Foster) in the British movement that is called, not altogether accurately, high tech. Now the movement is coming to the U.S., where Rogers, Foster, Hopkins, and Grimshaw are increasingly active. It is something of a homecoming, for British high tech is in no small part inspired by the early Southern California modernism of architects such as Craig Ellwood, Charles and Ray Eames, Raphael Soriano, and Pierre Koenig. Reyner Banham once referred to its chief characteristic, “skinny details,” which also showed up in the early work of Saarinen and Rudolph. But when American architects went in the “heavy detail” direction, British architects picked up the ball. Whoever thought that the Brits would be showing Yanks how to build?

When Firms Falter

The work of Pei Cobb Freed was never that exciting, at least not after Pei retired, but the firm produced serious, well-executed modernist designs. Nothing to sneer at. So what is one to make of its latest project, 1045 Avenue of the Americas, a 28-story office building overlooking Bryant Park? A “modern hourglass-shaped structure” is how the New York Times described it. A “tepid Frank Gehry wannabe” would be another way of putting it. With the Beekman Tower, Gehry raised the bar, or perhaps moved the hurdle, and so we get this. It reminds me of a building on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Dietrich Hall, the original Wharton School. A mediocre design, neither modern nor traditional, it is an uneasy blend of the two.  The building was designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1952, decades after the last founding partner, Mead, had died, and 9 years before the firm closed its doors. McKim, Mead & White was a master of the Classical idiom, but by the 1950s they felt obliged to adopt the current fashion—Modernism. The problem was that it was not something it understood; or maybe it’s heart just wasn’t in it.

1045 Avenue of the Americas