Architects

No Hoopla

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Photograph: Raymond Meier/Vanity Fair

Much has been written about the recently completed FDR Memorial in New York, designed by Louis Kahn. It was the great architect’s last project, and he had just completed it when he died in 1974, almost four decades ago. Kahn’s design reminds us how much has changed in forty years. First, the commission was not the result of a competition, no hoopla, no wowing the jury, no rush. Instead Kahn was given the time to ponder and reflect—which is how he worked, anyway. Second, although the site covers about three and a half acres on the tip of Roosevelt Island, the memorial itself is an open-air room, only sixty feet square; Kahn felt no need to spread over the entire site, treating the rest instead as a green forecourt. The room is close in spirit to the commemorative block of marble that FDR’s friends erected in front of the National Archives in Washington, DC. Third, the memorial is not only small in size, it is focused. A single quotation (the famous Four Freedoms speech) and the president’s name, are all the writing there is; no didactic explanations, no rhetoric, no wheel chair, no Fala. Fourth, Kahn recognized that a memorial to a person must include that person’s presence, here in the form of a bust by Jo Davidson. All important lessons for future memorial builders.

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

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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.