LEARNING FROM MANHATTAN

 

740 Park Avenue, New York Rosario Candela & Arthur Loomis Harmon, arch. 1929

740 Park Avenue, New York
Rosario Candela & Arthur Loomis Harmon, arch. 1929

Monacelli Press has issued a new monograph on the work of Robert A. M. Stern Architects—one of a continuing series. This one is titled City Living, and it describes urban apartment houses, more than thirty of them. RAMSA is an eclectic firm, but the architectural style of these apartment towers is consistent, what New Yorkers call “prewar,” that is, pre-WWII. It appears that everybody wants “New York prewar” for the book describes built work not only in the major American cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, Atlanta—but also in London, Moscow, Toronto, Lima, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Taipei. And why not? The upper-middle-class New York City apartment building of the 1920s remains the acme of civilized high-rise, high-density urban living. It  successfully mediates between the street and the skyline, provides a sense of character that reflects—but does not overwhelm—its communal function, and gives the designer the freedom to lay out interesting unit plans. If you must have pencil-thin towers, and this disturbing building type seems unstoppable, then RAMSA’s 82-story 30 Park Place on Church Street in Lower Manhattan seems better than the alternatives.

LIVES OF THE ARCHITECTS

serveimage“Architecture is the picture frame and not the picture” is a memorable quote attributed to the mid-century California modernist, William Wurster. Wurster, a notable teacher as well as an architect, was reminding his students that architecture is always a setting, not the main event. I thought of Wurster’s observation recently when I was writing an essay for Architect on the challenges of architectural biography. Why are there so few first-rate biographies of architects, I asked? Or, to put it another way, why don’t first-rate biographers such as David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and Walter Isaacson, take the life of an architect as their subject? Is it that there are simply too few readers who are interested in what architects actually do? People are fascinated by cars, for example, but they are not that interested in how—and by whom—they are designed. You can count recognizable car designers on one hand: Ferdinand Porsche (Volkswagen Beetle), Alec Issigonis (Mini), Raymond Loewy (Studebaker Commander), Harley Earl (1953 Corvette), Pinninfarina (Giulietta Spider). Similarly, people recognize iconic buildings (the White House, the Empire State, San Francisoco City Hall) without necessarily knowing—or caring—who built or designed them. Or, as a friend suggested, perhaps architects are just not that important in the overall scheme of things. After all, what would you rather read about, the person who made the picture frame, or the one who painted the picture?

ARCHITECTURE AHOY

New Celebrity Solstice Launched On Maiden VoyageArchitects such as Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid have been commissioned to design luxury yachts, but it is cruise ships that beg for an architect’s touch. In fact, these maritime behemoths already resemble buildings—very big buildings. Granted their designs are generally banal, but it is easy to imagine them styled by high-fashion architects. This would solve another pressing problem. Every city seems to want an iconic building designed by a starchitect. Now they could lease a floating icon instead of saddling themselves with a potential permanent eyesore. One can imagine the waterfront of Dubai, or London, or Chicago, as a maritime parking lot with the latest architectural glams. After several years, when the shine begins to fade—literally as well as figuratively—the icon ships could sail off to a lesser urb,  Glasgow, or Riga, or Lagos; even an impoverished city could afford a Nouvel or a Piano for a month or two. Since the current architectural icons are largely placeless, they are perfectly suited to such a nomadic existence. At home everywhere—and nowhere.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

serveimageI was complaining to my friend Anthony Alofsin the other day about the current tendency to review buildings as if they were movies, that is, as if they could be digested at one sitting rather than over an extended period of time. “Reviewing the latest as the greatest fits into the mode of consumer entertainment,” he responded in an email. “Like, which Netflix special do I see next? Unfortunately, it is the current moment that sells and is in demand,  not the long view.” He is exactly right. The infatuation with the “current moment” explains why as-yet unbuilt projects receive so much attention. The next new thing is the all-consuming topic. Actual construction appears to be almost an extraneous step—an afterthought. My local AIA chapter awards a silver medal to an “unbuilt project of the most exemplary design quality.” Apparently design quality can be recognized absent performance. As long as it looks like fun.

CONTEMPORIZE

34th-&-Walnut_Phase-2_Transparent-TreesI heard a word the other day that brought me up short: contemporize. It was uttered by an architect who was describing a university building of the late 1960s that was being renovated. He was not referring to the updating of mechanical and environmental systems—that happens all the time in older buildings—he was describing changes to the architecture itself. The undistinguished Sixties building is mainly brick and concrete. In this case, contemporizing—an ugly invented word—seemed to consist of adding as much glass as possible. Glass is the materiel du jour; it is transparent, open, inviting, progressive, not like fusty old brick or dull grey concrete. Perhaps in fifty years glass, too, will be replaced—by recycled plastic or reconstituted wood, whatever is the fashion of the future. But for the moment glass sends the message “We are up to date.”  The B-side of the message is “We are just like everybody else.”