Architects

Leaky Jim

In a history of postmodernism (history written on the fly since the book was published in 1984) Heinrich Klotz wrote: “James Stirling has received only one commission in his own country since he made his change to postmodernism, yet what stands in the way of postmodernism in Great Britain is not so much a lack of commissions as a continuing faith in modernism.” As evidence, Klotz cited the successes of Norman Foster, Ove Arup, and Richard Rogers. The persistence of modernism in Britain in the eighties was undoubted, but Stirling’s lack of commissions was due to something else. The trio of red-brick university buildings that launched his career—the University of Leicester Engineering Building, the History Faculty and Library at Cambridge, and the residential Florey Building at Queen’s College, Oxford, were aesthetic successes but rather spectacular technical failures. The glass roofs leaked, both in the engineering building and the library (!), and the heavily glazed spaces were impossibly cold in the winter. In an AD profile of the Florey Building, an ex-resident reminisced about his student days: “The Florey Building was an unmitigated disaster to live in. The arrangement of rooms meant that privacy was only achievable by drawing down blinds, and the aluminum strips connecting windows to walls conducted sound so that one could easily hear conversations in the next room.” Indeed, Florey had so many problems that the university brought a law suit against Stirling’s firm. According to AD, “As a result, Stirling’s office was unable to find work in England for at least a decade after the Florey building, instead finding promise of work in places like Germany, Japan, and the Unites States.”

Florey Building

Florey Building

Secret History

If I were compiling a secret history of architecture—those unpedigreed works of genius that stand outside the mainstream—I would include Gaudí, of course, but also many lesser figures: Henry Chapman Mercer, the builder of several amazing concrete structures in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Paul Chalfin, the creative force behind that ebullient Baroque pile, Vizcaya, in Miami; and Simon Rodia, creator of Watts Towers in LA. I would also have to add my friend, George Holt in Charleston, whose Byzantine concoctions have no contemporary analog. There would also be a number of women in this company: Theodate Pope whose Avon Old Farms School anticipate Hobbits; Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, who designed the wonderful stone structures that grace the rim of the Grand Canyon; and Sarah Losh, the subject of a new biography by Jenny Unglow. Losh (1786-1853) built little—a country church, a schoolhouse and a sexton’s cottage—but  what she did build is exceptional, and exceptionally original. The small church of St. Mary’s in the village of Wreay in the Cumbrian hills, where she lived, anticipates the Romanesque revival, but also includes personal decoration that has no historical antecedents: column capitals in the form of lotus buds; gargoyles in the form of winged turtles; a baptismal font carved (by Losh herself) with floral patterns; and a profusion of pinecones. Quite wonderful

wreay church

St. Mary’s, Wreay

losh font

Baptismal Font

The Fourth Man

528px-Erich_Mendelsohn_cropped

A recent documentary film on the Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), Incessant Visions, is a reminder of how history has treated the great architect: not well. He is best rememberd today for the idiosyncratic Einstein Tower in Potsdam, and for a series of expressionistic sketches that he drew while a soldier on the Russian front during the First World War. Yet he was by far the most productive—and the most technologically inventive—of the early modern pioneers (he was born the same year as Le Corbusier), building houses, department stores, synagogues,  factories, and a cinema. If his early work is not better known, it is because much of it was destroyed during the Second World War (and in postwar reconstruction), and surviving buildings in East German, Poland, and the Soviet Union were long rendered inaccessible by the Iron Curtain. Moreover, since his architecture didn’t fit the prescribed confines of the International Style, historian/propagandists such as Sigfried Giedion, wrote him out of the story. Yet he belongs in the first ranks of the heroic age of the modern movement, alongside Mies, Corbu, and Gropius. The German phase of Mendelsohn’s career was cut short in 1933 when he fled the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. He subsequently settled in Britain (where he built three striking buildings with Serge Chermayeff), moved on to Palestine, where he built a house for Chaim Weitzmann and hospitals in Haifa and Jerusalem, and spent the last ten years of his life in San Francisco, teaching at Berkeley, and building. Always building.

Schocken Department Store, Chemnitz, 1930

Schocken Department Store, Chemnitz, 1930

Norten’s Taste

Museo Amparo, Puebla

Museo Amparo, Puebla

I attended a public lecture by my friend Enrique Norten last night. He described recent work: a museum in Puebla, a business school for Rutgers, and a city hall in Acapulco—all three competition winners, and all three under construction. All are impressive buildings in different ways. The museum is an addition shoe-horned into a historic complex of buildings, the university building is a self-conscious icon for a re-planned campus, and the capitol is an imaginative exercise in energy conservation. But what struck me is what he did not talk about, but which seemed to me an important aspect of his work: his Taste. Norten’s architecture falls into the category of lightweight construction, and brings to mind Renzo Piano, although it appears less studied and less obsessively detailed. And Piano’s friendly designs can be so unthreatening as to be almost ingratiating, while Norten is never cuddly, and can be downright standoffish in a stylish contemporary way. The architectural equivalent of his five o’clock shadow. His approach to design is to solve problems, a quality he shares with Norman Foster. But while the latter’s work has become increasingly polished, Norten’s taste remains that of an ascetic. A Mexican Zumthor, one might say, a diligent craftsman, though without the Swiss architect’s preciousness, and working on a larger canvas.

Like Father, Like Son

In an idle moment, I made a list of celebrated architectural dynasties. There are many examples in the past, when knowledge was passed down informally from father to son:

Bartolomeo Sanmicheli and his brother Giovanni and his son Micheli
Andrea Palladio and his son Silla
François Mansart and his grandnephew Jules Hardouin-Mansart
Jacques V. Gabriel and his son Ange-Jacques
William Adam and his sons Robert and John
James Wyatt and his sons Benjamin Dean and Philip
Sir George Gilbert Scott and his son George Gilbert Jr. and his son Sir Giles Gilbert
Samuel Pepys Cockerell and his son Charles Robert and his son Frederick Pepys
Sir Charles Barry and his son Sir John
Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his son Henry
Richard Upjohn and his son Richard M. and his son Hobart

The practice has continued in modern times:

Frank Lloyd Wright and his sons John Lloyd and Lloyd

Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero
Albert Speer and his son Albert
Richard Neutra and his son Dion
Carlo Scarpa and his son Tobia
Emery Roth and his sons Julian and Richard
Edward Durrel Stone and his son Hicks
I.M. Pei and his sons Chien Chung and Li Chung
Cesar Pelli and his son Rafael
Quinlan Terry and his son Francis
Glenn Murcutt and his son Nick
Hugh Newell Jacobsen and his son Simon

It’s a surprisingly long list. Or, maybe, not surprising—growing up with an architect father must create a heightened sense of one’s surroundings. In some cases the father’s reputation dominates, in others the son’s. Robert Adam outshone his father, Henry Latrobe didn’t. In several cases—the Barrys, the Saarinens, the Scarpas—both generations achieved renown. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed the classic (and classical)  British red telephone box, had a not-so-famous architect-father, and a very famous architect-grandfather. In quite a few of the modern cases, given current longevity, father and son work together (Pei, Pelli, Terry, Jacobsen). The name recognition helps, too, of course.

Didi and I. M. Pei, photo: Sacha Waldman