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


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

Speaking Ill

One should not speak ill of the dead, it is said. Yet in a week fill with encomiums for Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) and Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) it is hard to hold back. When I started listening to jazz, in the late 1950s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was already famous—or at least as famous as jazz musicians got at that time. I loved Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello could do no wrong (I was a drummer), but I never warmed to Brubeck himself. Me and my friends much preferred Ahmad Jamal, Monk, and Bill Evans.

Nor was I ever an admirer of Oscar Niemeyer. His curvy, rather simplistic one-note architecture never appealed to me. Nor did his authoritarian ideas about city planning. Robert Hughes called the city of Brasilia“a Carioca parody of La Ville Radieuse.” And so it is, a dystopian parody, “an expensive and ugly testimony to the fact that, when men think in terms of abstract space rather than real place, of single rather than multiple meanings, and of political aspirations instead of human needs, they tend to produce miles of jerry-built nowhere.”