Anything Goes

I’m starting to sympathize with Guy de Maupassant, who hated the Eiffel Tower so much that he is said to have regularly had dinner in its restaurant to avoid looking at it.  I’m not talking about the Eiffel Tower, of course, but the Orbit Tower, erected on the occasion of the London Olympics. Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s design surely represents the nadir of twenty-first century architecture, structurally feckless (at least to my eye), needlessly complicated, and downright ugly. It puts me in mind of the tower that appeared for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Its ostensible function was to support the retractable stadium roof, but its actual purpose was to satisfy Mayor Jean Drapeau’s desire for a vertical icon. The tower was unsuccessful, both technically (the roof never worked), and iconically. Mayor Boris Johnson says that the Orbit Tower is “definitely an artwork.” Well, it’s definitely a something.

Kitchen Confidential

Last fall we renovated our kitchen. It was a piecemeal project that started with long-needed repairs to a cracked wall and improvements to lighting, and finished with a total gutting of the space. The work was done by Jay Haon and his assistant Sarah Finestone. The design was a three-way collaboration between Jay, my wife Shirley, and myself. My only advantage in the process was not my years of professional training and experience but the simple fact that I was the only one who knew how to draw. The result brings together Jay’s craftsmanship, my architect’s eye, and Shirley’s desire that the kitchen should be a workplace rather than a showpiece. We’ve always liked open storage, and Jay found a nice looking shelving system. The old ceramic-pretending-to-be-slate floor was replaced by oak, the granite counters were recycled from the old kitchen as were the cupboard doors, several of which were turned into deep file-drawers. By moving the main fixtures in what had been a dysfunctional arrangement I was able to recreate the “work triangle” that I remember from my schooldays, and add a butcher block work surface. We debated the need for a support for a long time, then realized it looks fine as it is. The furniture is by two of my mid-century favorites, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen.


Learning to Design

In a filmed interview, Denise Scott Brown observed that learning to design was similar to learning how to ride a bicycle—you got on, fell off, got back on, and by the end of the day you were riding. The implication is that design—like bicycle riding—can be learned, but it cannot be taught. Allan Greenberg made much the same point to me in a recent conversation. If law was taught like architecture, he said, law students would spend all their time in moot court, but moot court actually plays a very small role in a legal education. Many accomplished architects did not attend an architecture school—Edwin Lutyens, Peter Behrens, Henry van de Velde, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe. Architects like Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn were taught a Beaux-Arts method of design, but worked in the modern style. When I graduated all my first commissions were houses, but we never designed a house in school, only mass housing, so I was on my own. What I did learn in school were techniques: how to sketch, how to draw, how to build, how to calculate structures, which all served me well. In school, we were chastised for copying; in my first commission I adapted a Le Corbusier plan to my problem and produced an excellent solution (still happily standing after more than 43 years). A decade later, postmodernism was in the air. I admired Charles Moore, although no one had ever taught me anything about his approach to architecture, so I had to learn on the job, the way architects have always done.


North Hero house (WR, arch.), 1968.

Big Blue

The expected but still untimely passing of Steve Jobs has led to many observations about his national influence on design. But Apple was not the first American high-tech corporation to emphasize design. That distinction properly belongs to IBM. In 1956, Thomas J. Watson, the company’s founder, hired Eliot Noyes, an architect, to oversee IBM’s design initiatives. Thanks to Noyes, designers such as Charles Eames and Paul Rand (who was responsible for the IBM logo) came on board, and architects such as Marcel Breuer and Eero Saarinen were commissioned to design IBM buildings (Jobs commissioned Peter Bohlin to design the distinctive line of Apple stores as well as a headquarters for Pixar, and recently hired Norman Foster to design a new Apple headquarters). Noyes himself designed the classic Selectric typewriter, a beautiful piece of industrial design. In 1981, IBM introduced the IBM PC. It looks pretty tame now, but at the time it stood head and shoulders above the competition in terms of product design. My first computer was an Osborne, and I must admit I was as much taken by its design as by its low price (it was the first computer sold with bundled software).  The Osborne had an IBM-style Selectric keyboard (still the gold standard, in spite of the iMac’s wireless Chiclets keyboard), weighed 25 pounds, and had a screen the size of a postcard. It’s the only computer I’ve ever had whose design I liked.

Osborne 1, 64K RAM, $1,745 (1981)


Art Nouveau

The standard rap on Art Nouveau, as I remember from my student art history books, is that it was a short-lived (roughly 1890-1905) hiatus between the historic revival styles of the nineteenth century and the true-blue modernism of the Bauhaus. Art Nouveau was largely pooh-poohed,, written off as an aesthetic dead-end that sprang full-blown from the (feverish) artistic imaginations of architects and designers such as Antonio Gaudi, Victor Horta, Hector Guimard, the young Peter Behrens, Louis Comfort Tiffany and (though he is usually not included in this company), Louis Sullivan. The problem for art historians is that the sinuous decorations of the style obviously have little to do with the abstract minimalism of the Modern Movement. Thus the judgment that Art Nouveau is trivial and jejune, merely a passing, hence superficial, fashion. Seeing the marvelous Henry van de Velde interiors in Ghent’s Design Museum, I am not so sure. Short-lived the movement certainly was, but did it really lack the aesthetic means to develop or was it simply supplanted by Bauhaus modernism, which must have appeared a better fit for a chastened post-World War I world.

Armchair, Henry Van de Velde