All posts in Review

Placeholder Alt Text

The Sea, The Sea Ranch

Another view on Sea Ranch and its SFMOMA exhibit
The exhibit The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) closes in a month. If you are in San Francisco, it’s worth seeing for many reasons. It shows that the SFMOMA’s architecture curators can do a lot with a little square footage. (Why so little is another question!) Wisely, they focused on the optimistic beginnings and not the whole controversial history of the development. In doing so, they captured a golden moment for architecture in the Bay Region, when ecology and development and modernism and postmodernism touched and kissed. After more than 50 years, Sea Ranch has a lot of narratives. Concentrating on the community’s beginnings, when there was a strong collective spirit, highlights the project’s hope, which is in short supply these days. The heavy truth about Sea Ranch is that designing an ecologically sensitive community a three-hour drive from San Francisco falls outside our current green script. The early narrative belongs primarily to landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, the architect-developer Al Boeke, and the founders of Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker (MLTW) and Joseph Esherick & Associates (later Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis). Their story has many interesting turns, not the least of which is the dominance of Halprin, who emphasized the dramatic landscape over architecture. The MLTW buildings were strong yet self-effacing on the exterior and exuberant and joyous on the interior. This balance was rarely struck again. After more than 50 years, with many of the lots developed, the Sea Ranch community has largely returned to focusing on stewardship of the natural landscape—even if much of that landscape was formed by the different humans who occupied the land. If I have quibbles about the exhibit, they are more with the handsomely designed catalog than with the show. Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher’s essay mentions Salton Sea, which has little relevance to Sea Ranch, but she does not discuss Berkeley’s Greenwood Commons. The core ideas of Sea Ranch can be found in that small community, which Lawrence Halprin planned below the John Galen Howard–designed house that was occupied for many decades by William Wurster, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. Curator Joe Becker’s essay locates Sea Ranch in the modernist idiom. Developer Al Boeke had worked for Neutra, Halprin had studied with Gropius, and Turnbull worked with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. While Becker mentions that Moore, Lyndon, and Turnbull had studied with Louis Kahn when he taught at Princeton, he doesn’t connect that to a larger trajectory that the three were following. For example, he mentions Sea Ranch’s various “saddlebags” and “aediculae” as key design moments, but I would argue that these point to an attempt on the part of Kahn’s students to move away from the strict confines of modernism and to give architecture a deeper meaning beyond aesthetic purity. Condominium 1 is a bridge to a restrained postmodernism. The exteriors and the studies for variations look like an experimental modernist exercise, except for the quirky interior spaces and—in the case of Charles Moore’s unit, partially reconstructed in the exhibit—the riot of color and sly historic references. Bobbie Stauffacher Solomon’s graphics inside Sea Ranch’s recreation centers (and, to a smaller degree, inside Sea Ranch Lodge) are another example of the bridge from the severity of modernism to the exuberance of postmodernism. Stauffacher Solomon is the secret star of the show. Unfortunately, her own small exhibit on the third floor was up for only two months. Hopefully, she will get a larger exhibit in the future. (Again, the problem of too little space for architecture and design!) The exhibition itself draws the visitor in with Stauffacher Solomon’s bright angled graphics and then the smell of wood. At Sea Ranch itself, that smell might come from the trees (second growth), the house interiors, or the fireplaces. Here, it originates from the lumber used for the brilliant reproduction of the living space of Moore’s condominium unit. Typically, architecture exhibitions have small models, drawings, and photographs. The now-famous Case Study House exhibit of 1989 to 1990, which helped revive interest in modernism, succeeded, in part, because of two complete full-scale models and one model, similar to this, of a living room (that of noted designers Charles and Ray Eames). Besides giving the three-dimensional experience of a space, this model also divides the room into distinctive gallery spaces for exhibits on different aspects of Sea Ranch’s formation. Inside the reconstructed living room of Moore’s unit, a video plays, in which many of the original designers (or their spouse, in the case of Bill Turnbull) talk about the community and its successes and failures. Unfortunately, nobody from Esherick’s office is represented. Recently deceased partner George Homsey built a wonderful modest cabin at Sea Ranch for his own family, but it is barely known and not covered here. Perhaps he was not well enough to be interviewed. The museum’s architecture curators have created a show and catalog that will hold the attention of architects, the Bay Area’s many knowledgeable laypeople, and people who know nothing of Sea Ranch or its importance. The combination of materials and the emphasis on the optimistic beginnings achieve this. Even if the original vision of Sea Ranch (utopians vs. land development being the obvious trope) was partially lost, the stewardship of this dramatic place where the land meets the sea and man meets nature still maintains its relevance and draws us there frequently. This exhibit encourages the dialog about the results of well-intended design in late capitalism.
Placeholder Alt Text

Before the Deluge

AIANY misses the mark with its photography show of Syrian architecture
Last month, I attended the opening of an exhibition by the American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter (AIANY) at the Center for Architecture, showcasing photographs of ancient Syrian architecture and civilization. The exhibition, titled ​Syria Before the Deluge​, was by far the most disappointing and superficial work I’ve seen displayed at AIANY. At first, I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly was bothering me so much about this elegant display of black and white photographs of ancient Syrian landmarks. After all, I’m a Syrian architect and I should be thrilled for an event that is calling attention to Syria’s ancient civilization and architecture, especially when delivered by a renowned architectural photographer, Peter Aaron. But the truth of the matter is that this exhibition failed to inform the audience of anything of value about the history of present of Syria, a country whose history, like its architecture, has been shaped and reshaped by the rule of a totalitarian barbaric regime that systematically plundered and reduced Syria’s history over the past six decades to what we see today, and what Aaron photographed in his 2009 visit. The photographs showcase Aleppo and Palmyra, two of Syria’s most iconic jewels. Yet nowhere on the walls of the exhibition is there a mention of the residents of Aleppo, or Palmyra, or Damascus, whose ancestors built these ruins. All that is shown are pictures of ancient structures with sympathy-provoking captions like ​“this structure was destroyed during the civil war in 2015.” Nowhere does it say who bombed the iconic Umayyad Mosque’s minaret in Aleppo, burned the city’s historic Souk, turned the Citadel of Aleppo into a military barrack, and caused the displacement of half of Syria’s population. These issues were simply left out of the exhibit narrative. The exhibit also fails to mention those who systematically looted Palmyra’s treasures since the 1950s and turned the very name of Palmyra into a symbol of terror for millions of Syrians due to the infamous Palmyra prison. A high-security prison in the middle of the desert that allegedly witnessed the most gruesome massacres against political activists among countless other violations of human rights during the Assad ruling. None of that was in the exhibit. Just an orientalist, romanticized narrative about a beautiful civilization that once was but is no more. Occasionally, Isis is cited as the force of evil that ruined what is portrayed as ancient oriental heaven of architecture and civilization.   In the abstract introduction to the event, Aaron writes: “[Syria’s] tolerant atmosphere has quickly disintegrated due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism,” a statement that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Syrian society was ravaged by the Ba’ath regime's tactics of planting fear and mistrust between minorities and the Muslim majority over decades of an authoritarian ruling. In one corner of the exhibit, the curators reach peak tone-deafness with a picture that shows a young man riding a horse with a massive picture of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, in the background, with the caption reading: “Portrait of President Bashar al-Assad at a private riding club in the Damascus suburbs.” No mention of the 500,000 that this president is accused of killing over the past eight years. Throughout the event, the war is referred to as the “Syrian Civil War.” I personally find that term lacking in nuance and indicative of ignorance in the Syrian cause. Anyone who’s done any amount of reading about Syria would know that this naming is both factually and morally wrong. Factually, because when Russian air fighters are bombing rebelling neighborhoods with the support of Iranian ground troops, it’s not so much of a civil war as a proxy war involving two of the world’s most notorious armies spending billions of dollars to preserve the ruling of their puppet in Damascus. It’s also morally wrong to equal a rebelling people, that was bombarded, displaced, and starved for eight years after demanding freedom and democracy, with a regime that unapologetically used chemical weapons against that same people. When I raised these issues to a Syrian friend, she wondered about why I would raise political issues in an architectural event. A few months back, I attended an event at AIANY where my former Columbia professor, Michael Murphy, talked with Michael Sorkin about the political aspect of architecture. The event was titled ​Architecture is Never Neutral​ and it portrayed a very different narrative from the one I saw last week. That event explored in depth how being “apolitical” is the most political act anyone can take in situations of injustice. Syria is far from being an exception to that rule. This exhibit not only failed Syrians by failing to tell the true story of their country, but also failed the visitors who will leave knowing little about the current status of a 4,000-year-old civilization, and the ancestors who built that civilization. AIANY can take steps to make the remainder of this exhibit a more nuanced representation of Syria’s recent history by recaptioning the photographs to be more reflective of Syria’s current state, starting with the picture of Syria’s ruthless tyrant, Bashar al-Assad.
Placeholder Alt Text

Crítica de Choque

"Pan Americas" conference looks at architectural relationships across a hemisphere
Earlier this month a dozen or so Latin American architects gathered at The City College of New York (CCNY) Spitzer School of Architecture for a “Pan Americas” conference. A few colleagues from New York joined them, including CCNY professor Michael Sorkin, who gave an impassioned speech about the poorly compensated resource extractions imposed on Central and South America by “el norte,” from oil to sugar, and about how Latin American architecture is “a polymorphous tradition that continues with enormous vitality.” There were two thematic pulls in the conference: the realities of the region’s economic and political conditions, and the vital and witty Latin American architecture that manages to emerge out of them anyway. One of the first slides of the conference showed Le Corbusier’s Modulor. It was barely recognizable as it had acquired a domestic environment, and was now found reclining on sofas, in poses other than the familiar one with the outstretched arm. The presenter, Mónica Bertolino, an architect and professor in Córdoba, Argentina, was making the point that when modern architecture arrived in Latin America it had to be tempered with local materials. But this is not to say that the architecture is any less modern, albeit less known. Hans Ibelings and Mauricio Quiros rightly pointed out the lack of coverage of Latin American work in books about modern architecture. They hope to address this with their upcoming publication about Central American architecture, but they also argued that what they call a peripheral condition (relative to Europe and the United States) could be a source of creative strength and encouraged Latin American architects to revel in it. The landscape architect Maria Villalobos, who gave the most impassioned lecture of the conference, is doing just that. She studied at Versailles and Harvard before returning to Venezuela to design the Botanical Garden of Maracaibo and it was this designer, one so deeply knowledgeable on French gardens, who resisted the cliched formal garden approach and came up with something inspired by the diverse Venezuelan habitats. Two other young designers presented outstanding work, Dana Víquez Azofeifa, from Costa Rica, and Inés Guzmán from Guatemala. Víquez Azofeifa uses the native biodiversity of Costa Rica to ameliorate the urban problems of its capital city San José. She grew up in Costa Rica, went north to study and work, and then returned home to start the firm PPAR with her partner Jose Vargas Hidalgo. “El norte” may have in the past robbed its southern neighbors of their raw resources, but now these designers traveling north are bringing home professional experience and intellectual insights. Guzmán was perhaps more aware of the complexity of her geographical allegiance and called herself “a Guatemalan citizen of the world.” She presented several projects by her firm Taller KEN, which she founded in 2013 with Gregory Melitonov. Her stint abroad included working on Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum, but it was James Wines of SITE (in the audience and also a presenter), whom she credited as her inspiration. Then, when she showed Madero Café in Guatemala City, one couldn’t help but think of SITE’s Ghost Parking Lot project from the 1970s. In that project Wines buried cars under asphalt in a shopping center in Hamden, Connecticut, while Taller KEN impaled them on a forty-five-foot-high red cube. James Wines’s own presentation was a plea for more work like this. He showed images of t-shirts with various calls for social justice written on them—is this what activism looks like today, he asked the audience? He would like to see that activism make its way into built design work, and Taller KEN’s Madero Café is an example of this. The big red box calls attention to itself among undifferentiated stretches of trafficky roads and low-rise commercial strips. Then, inside, the only daylight comes from the top, completely isolating the cafe patrons from the surrounding context. Taller KEN critically responded to the wanton deforestation of Guatemala’s rainforest by putting a piece of it, albeit symbolically, inside the box, like the precious thing that it is. If there’s one insight from this conference that is applicable to the discipline of architecture in general it is that socio-cultural concerns in architecture are not only compatible with exciting design, but can even be the motivators. The last discussion of the conference revolved around the imaging of architecture. What are the possible effects of social media on what gets designed? The best answer came from Fredy Massad, Argentinian by birth but living and working in Barcelona and writing on architecture for the Spanish newspaper ABC. His most recent book of architecture criticism is Crítica de Choque (Shock Criticism), which places recent developments in architecture in the context of major political events—the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the financial collapse of 2008, etc. Massad is critical of the lack of discourse in an image-driven culture of architecture promotion. He rebukes the uncritical production of images of architecture in a book entirely devoid of images, and we readers find respite in this sea of words. With this book, we feel like characters in a Wim Wenders film who, overwhelmed by the bombardment of images, turn to words for redemption. Massad’s lecture did include some images, and notable among them was the portrait of Chilean architect and Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena. Massad argues, and others at the conference agreed, that Aravena aestheticized low-income housing in a way that was not beneficial to those the architecture was meant to serve. Massad has termed what Aravena does a kind of “Adamismo,” as in making himself the “Adam,” the person at the beginning of all things socio-political, and in the process erasing all the efforts that came before him. The future of Latin American architecture depends on its multifariousness, not in the singularity of a star. Perhaps the best moment of the conference was when Álvaro Rojas, co-organizer of the event with Guillermo Honles, started his presentation by playing a song, Ojalá que llueva café (I hope it rains coffee) by the popular Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra. The students around me looked up from their phones and laptops and broke into roaring laughter. Is this the “shock” that Massad argues is needed in architecture today? For about four minutes an auditorium full of people accustomed to always be doing something did absolutely nothing except listen to a song. Perhaps this is the point of this and any conference, to take time out from the daily grind and just listen.
Placeholder Alt Text

Gulf State of Mind

Review: Jean Nouvel gives Qatar a museum that matches its context perfectly
The opening of the Jean Nouvel–designed National Museum of Qatar, in Doha, Qatar, marks another step in the country’s mission to set itself apart from its neighbors and solidify its cultural position in the world. For one to understand the motivations behind the design and construction of the newly opened National Museum, one must first understand a bit about the geopolitical context that it has been built in. Like many of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf region, Qatar has been building at a pace and level of quality that is nearly unmatched in the world. Yet, unlike the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar is not building to attract tourists or even business interests. Since 1971, when Qatar gained its full independence from the British, it has worked to distinguish itself as a fully autonomous nation. The intensity of this drive has been amplified in the past few years by a series of events and political upheavals that have isolated the small country. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed economic and political embargoes on Qatar after years of growing tension over international trade and other international relations. In an act of defiance, Qatar countered by leaving the Gulf Region’s oil cartel, OPEC. These events have led to stronger internal support for Qatar’s ruling emir, who has taken a hard line with the blockading neighbors, and solidified the country’s resolve to stand culturally and economically independent from the region. The National Museum is designed and programmed specifically to display the country’s unique culture and history to international visitors and, perhaps more importantly, to Qataris. Broadly covering the nation’s natural and political history, exhibitions reach back tens of thousands of years through the discovery of oil and natural gas off the coast in the mid-20th century to explore what it means to be Qatari. Perhaps ironically though, Qataris only make up around 12 percent of Qatar’s of 2.7 million residents. The rest are foreigners, most of which are migrant service and construction workers. It remains to be seen whether a forthcoming planned gallery covering the country’s current events will highlight the immense contribution of migrants to the past decade of development. Notably, Qatar has been criticized for the use of underpaid labor and unsafe construction practices, particularly pertaining to the many 2022 World Cup stadiums currently under construction. Recent years have seen laws passed down directly from the emir to protect workers’ rights, and while progress has been made, some human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, say there are still issues to be addressed. Whether one argues the museum’s contents show a complete image of the nation or not, the building itself has a lot to say. Like many “signature” architecture projects, it may be the architecture of museum that will be most memorable for those who visit. A bombastic tour-de-force of engineering and construction, there is little argument about the visual impact of the project as a whole. Unapologetically designed to look like the crystalized mineral formation known as a desert rose, the museum is composed of dozens of large discs. Intersecting at various angles, the discs produce the facade, roof, walls, ceilings, apertures, and structure. Enable by engineering help from Gehry Technologies and ARUP, the geometric theme and is relentlessly executed. One is hard pressed to find any public facing spaces that are not completely shaped by the seemingly random arrangement of discs. There are no columns, no rectilinear apertures, no perpendicular intersections, and no flat ceilings. In many spaces even the floor ramps and bends in a choreographed play with the walls and ceiling. All artifacts and exhibition pieces are shown in the round, while the tilting walls are filled with carefully mapped projections of artist-made films. The effect is quite successful and makes for a strong retort to those who argue that museum walls should always be flat. The museum’s galleries are organized into an irregular crescent, which produces a large Baraha (courtyard) with the help of the 20th-century royal palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, a cultural landmark in its own right. This outdoor room provides a new civic space able to accommodate thousands. This is an important aspect of the project, considering Doha lacks similar spaces, besides the main Souq, over a mile away. The museum’s position near the waterfront is also significant. While still separated by the city’s major traffic artery and a thin waterfront parkway, many of its neighbors are government or administrative buildings, which are cut off from the city by high security fences. In stark contrast to the oft-foreboding nature of the area, the museum’s grounds include large gardens designed by French landscape architect Michel Desvigne, and includes multiple children’s play areas, large desert plantings, and a lagoon complete with a monumental fountain sculpture by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. Despite the formal exuberance, many of the spaces have a similar feel, in part to the limited material, color, and building palette. This is to say, once you have seen part of the project, there are few surprises. The formal complexity does not translate into complexity in plan. For the most part the entire building is one path, even if that path is varied in width and direction. Each gallery intersects with the next with no hard thresholds or transitions. Occasionally, a change in ceiling height or a slant in the floor differentiate one gallery from the next, but overall the experience is generally consistent throughout the project. This is a bit disappointing considering the innumerable possibilities the project’s formal language implies. On the other hand, this may be excusable as the expressed goal of the museum is to present a clear vision of Qatar’s past and present. Though a few more moments of unexpected shortcuts, detours, or unique spaces could have been a pleasant release from the project’s surprisingly simple plan. The few places where relief can be found from the disc organization are in the gift shops, designed by Sydney-based Koichi Takada Architects. Riffing on the theme of desert rock formations, the shops take the shape of the Dahl Al Misfir (Cave of Light), a dramatic cave system in central Qatar. Undulating contoured wood walls push and pull, providing space for lighting and shelving, while the tall spaces reach up to irregularly shaped windows and skylights, mimicking the cave’s dramatic illumination. Takada is also responsible for two cafes and a restaurant in the project that all stick closer to the Nouvel design, while still departing from the strict aesthetics of the galleries. If the intent of the National Museum is to educate the Nation of Qatar and celebrate the work of the Qatari people, the message it sends is one of a proud young nation that is finding its place on the world stage while contending with less than friendly neighbors and has been shaped by a seemingly insatiable appetite for iconic buildings designed by A-list international architects. Along with the Arata Isozaki master-planned Education City, the OMA-designed National Library, and the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, this latest addition to this uncanny desert menagerie raises the bar for civic iconography with its structural and metaphorical gymnastics. For all these reasons the project seems to fit into its context perfectly, and in the same sense could be nowhere else.
Placeholder Alt Text

Waste? Not!

Cornell symposium looks at architecture and construction post-waste
Can you imagine a world without waste? A world where the leftovers of today are easily turned into a delicious dinner tomorrow? Can such a world be designed? Such was the premise and the promise of the symposium Wasted: Design for the End of Material as We Know It, held at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning on March 8 and 9. The event’s organizer, Caroline O’Donnell, challenged practitioners, educators, and students not to wait until the end of a product’s life to passively recycle it. Instead, the entire lifecycle of materials could and should be accounted for at the beginning of the design process. In response to this prompt, the audience was treated to a wide variety of methods for reducing the production and consumption of new architectural resources. These were often framed and diagramed in the context of a “circular economy,” a system of exchange where the refuse of one practice becomes the raw material or capital for the next project or investment. Some proposals echoed the efficient forms and goals of modernism; Peter Van Assche, Sabine Rau-Oberhuber, and Billie Faircloth showed projects where the disassembly and reuse of building components were integral to the design. These schemes recalled the logic and the style of the Eames House, and of Walter Gropius’s General Panel Corporation from the 1940s. Juliette Spertus’s investigations into a faster, cleaner mode of moving garbage in cities via pneumatic tubes directly updated the systems approach to planning of the 1960s. Even Michael Ghyoot and The Living’s David Benjamin references to spolia, the ancient practice of mining elements from otherwise obsolete buildings, was positioned via the optimizing framework of digital cataloguing techniques. Other examples, like Meredith Miller’s “Post-Rock” project, presented a more playful if not more menacing vision of what living in a world made out of other people’s garbage might be like. Similarly, the strange, slumped, and bio-degradable designs shown by Maria Aiolova and David Benjamin offered an uncanny version of planned obsolescence, one that challenged the architectural myths of stability and perpetuity. The mycelium-based materials they have developed are designed to disappear back into the earth, literally nurturing it rather than defiling it. All present seemed to agree that what needs to be thrown away is the idea of waste as an inevitable byproduct of the design and construction process. Instead, waste was consistently repositioned as a resource to be creatively used. Clearly, there are many ways of designing with waste; some ways can make do with DIY tools and software, while others will need large capital investments. Also shared was the ethos of not taking no for an answer—not from city planners, or industrial and material engineers, or from business managers and consultants. Changing the status quo requires the development of even more optimistic acts of architectural disobedience. Surely, more of these can be imagined and designed.
Placeholder Alt Text

Modernity Missive

Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani proposes foundational principles for design
Modernity and Durability: Perspectives for the Culture of Design Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani DOM Publishers, 2018 The ghost of modernity—the quest to define what it means to be modern, and what its fundamental principles are—has haunted Western culture for a long time. In his 1991 book We Have Never Been Modern the French philosopher Bruno Latour revised one of modernity’s main axioms—the separation between nature and society, humans and things—by claiming that the world we live in today is characterized by the constant hybridization of politics, science, technology, and nature. Similar to Latour, the idea of modernity as a frustrated project is also present in Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani’s speculations on architecture and design, now collected for the first time in English in the book Modernity and Durability. Perspectives for the Culture of Design. Magnago Lampugnani, architect and professor of history of urban design at ETH Zurich for more than 20 years, is also a prolific writer and polemicist: his book, a series of micro-essays originally published between 1990 and 1994 in the Italian magazine Domus, is in fact a manifesto on the current status of design, where the author’s peculiar worldview is presented with extreme clarity and effectiveness. Magnago Lampugnani’s perspective—the one of a European intellectual, an enlighted sophisticated thinker who looks at design in terms of humanist values—is to some extent inscribed in a broader tradition that puts the Italian architect in good company. From Manfredo Tafuri’s idea of disincanto (disenchantment) to Pier Vittorio Aureli’s claim for autonomy, all these authors share a similar conviction: that architecture is a form of resistance. Resistance from consumerism, resistance from ephemerality, resistance from spectacle. In other words, resistance from capitalism. Whereas Latour dissected modernity in relation to the role played by science, at the beginning of his speculations Magnago Lampugnani formulates a fundamental separation between what is Modern and modernism. What the Italian architect calls Modern is a broad condition: an era that begins at the turn of the 20th century and ends after World War II, whose brightest manifestation is the work of the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius’s direction. Modernism, on the contrary, is a style, a degeneration of the principles that animated this paradigm shift at the beginning of the century, and a banalization of the Modern message into a simplistic formal language. Lampugnani’s assertions derive from a European-Eurocentric perspective; although he never makes it explicit, Lampugnani considers modernity mainly to be a European phenomenon, whose raison d’être is deeply rooted in a European cultural and social context. The only reference to American architecture, for example, is to a German architect based in the United States: Mies van der Rohe, and his Seagram Building in New York City. This doesn’t mean that the United States didn’t produce any Modern architecture, but that, once imported in the American territory, its original message was detached from its ideological impetus and was very soon transformed into a style. After having established the dichotomy between Modern and modernism, Magnago Lampugnani deploys his main argument: in order to provide precise design solutions to contemporary issues, we have to reformulate the message of the Modern by preserving its original social and humanist aspirations while revising critically its means and its technical and economic content. Its ultimate goal, in Magnago Lampugnani’s idea, is to create a better world. How? Through a holistic approach. Against the current specialization of design into different professional categories, the author argues for a return to the figure of the architect as a “bricklayer who had learnt Latin”—to quote Adolf Loos—who can design good cities, good buildings, good interiors, and good furniture. At the same time, Magnago Lampugnani suggests looking at design as a craft: “a patient, conscientious, accurate and competent work, whose result will always be useful, right, and fine.” To consider design as craft means to disconnect architecture, urban planning, and furniture from passing fashions. This way, design can reimagine conventions, or the system of rules sedimented in history aimed at guaranteeing functionality and economy of means. If design can exist as a system of rules, Magnago Lampugnani identifies some principles that can help recuperate the original message of the Modern and serve as an operative basis for the future. The first and main principle is durability, in a physical and cultural sense. To be durable, design must refer to tradition: by dealing with tradition, it’s possible to design cities and architectures that can transcend the oscillations of taste.  At the same time, only permanence transforms design into a cultural entity—the expression of certain values in relation to a certain context. The imaginary lexicon depicted by Magnago Lampugnani includes several other concepts: simplicity, which doesn’t translate in abstraction, but it means clarity and closeness to people’s needs; rigor, which is crucial to identifying the design’s requirements; essence, because every good design must be founded on a very few strong ideas—see Marcel Breuer’s S32 chair, or Villa Malaparte by Adalberto Libera; slowness, as an answer to the decline in the quality of our cities and buildings—here the author refers to the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, which took more than 120 years. What emerges from this cosmology of terms is an ascetic dimension, a sort of passive resistance against hedonism and consumerism. And whereas the book seems to be in some points a sort of nostalgic celebration of the past, it’s in its last pages that Magnago Lampugnani delineates a project for the future. In reiterating the separation between the Modern as condition and modernism as style, the architect refers to the three Vitruvian principles—firmitas, utilitas, venustas—as main categories of the Modern but integrates them with two new ones: democracy and ecology. Democratic and ecological commitment become urgent challenges for a Modern culture, as an attempt to create a new humanity: a “humanity that believes in the ideal of social justice as the prerequisite for peace and prosperity, and is ready to share the riches of the world equally among its citizens.”
Placeholder Alt Text

Crème de la Crematorium

New book prepares crematoria for the architectural spotlight
Goodbye Architecture: The Architecture of Crematoria in Europe by Vincent Valentijn and Kim Verhoeven nai010 publishers, $80 Long a taboo subject, death is becoming a hot topic in architecture. Not since the 1980s has a book devoted to architecture and death been published, and many merely examine historical temples, tombs, and rites. Responding to an increase in cremation, Vincent Valentijn and Kim Verhoeven have authored Goodbye Architecture: The Architecture of Crematoria in Europe, a book collecting Europe's finer examples of architecture that does indeed burn. The book design, also by the authors, strikes a perfect balance between an image-laden coffee table book and a text-heavy treatise. Each of the 26 highlighted projects opens with a site plan, a building axonometric, the number of ovens, the number of incinerations per year with the percentage of type, as well as the size and program dedications. Spreads of photos, plans, and sections unfold with descriptions of context, conceptual approach, materials, and special features, punctuated with circulation diagrams: one for the deceased and another for visitors. Analytics, interviews, and essays follow. Cremation's resurgence in the West is recent—Japan has long had a near 100 percent cremation rate while Islam forbids it. Despite the Vatican's ban from 789 until 1963, the first modern crematorium was built in Milan in 1876 following the unveiling of a new oven at the World Exhibition in Vienna. Incineration caught on slowly, mainly by "cultural and intellectual elites," and has grown steadily since the 1990s. Currently, over a thousand crematoria perform two million services every year. How the crematoria weigh technical issues, context, and local customs varies widely, and this is where Valentijn and Verhoeven's research shines. Many facilities have undergone renovations and extensions to meet stricter emissions standards. For the crematorium in Aarhus, Denmark, designed in 1969, Henning Larsen returned for the 2011 upgrade and in the process enhanced its sustainability. Condoned by both the city council and the local church, excess heat warms the chapel and other buildings within the district's heating network. Architect Paolo Zermani invites visitors to the rationalist Tempio di Cremazione in Parma, Italy, into the crematorium for a ceremony, which is uncommon in Italy where cremation has been viewed as a technical process. Zermani's design inscribes a deliberate route through the landscape to the oven—the ritual procession is the promenade architectural. While many are singular in their use and isolated, other crematoria openly embrace their communities with flexible plans and mixed programming. The crematorium at the Heimolen cemetery near Ghent, Belgium, comprises two pavilions. One contains the oven, the other houses reception and ceremonies, which allows non-associated uses like a cafe and an auditorium for presentations and lectures. Similarly, the crematorium designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura in Kortrijk, Belgium, opens its facilities for concerts to better integrate with the community.   Others attempt to redefine and popularize the typology. Architect Albert Chambers Freeman, who published the type's first overview in 1904, showed that crematoria were highly cultural and contextual, often located in areas where final rites were divorced from the church. Albert Heinrich Steiner's Nordheim Crematorium in Zurich, Switzerland, expresses an appeal to the masses. Dok architecten designed the City of Haarlem, Netherlands' crematorium with a cultural institution atmosphere to attract clientele in an era when people deliberately plan their funerals. It makes sense that today's architects continue to grapple with designing an identity. Following the alphabetically arranged portfolio, the authors cull their analysis into a series of spreads auditing chronology, context, programmatic breakdowns, number and type of cremations, circulation, ritual spaces, and taboos. I found myself frequently flipping through the book to connect these details to the projects. The section "Theory-Design-Practice" eschews images for essays and interviews from crematoria academicians, managers, and directors, as well as several architects. Luigi Bartolomei examines socio-religious conceptions of fire, exposing the need for a psychological and phenomenological approach to experiencing cremation rites. Laura Cramwinckel reveals symbolic meanings of fire in order to build acceptance for the alternative to interment. Douglas Davies's emotional processing of death reveals how successful design addresses "emotion, identity, and destiny." Kris Coenegrachts, director of IGS Westlede, which commissioned the Heimolen crematorium, says secularization has popularized incineration, but without rituals, clients can develop unique services that affect programming, circulation, technical capabilities. One aspect alluded to, but skipped, is sustainability. The authors celebrate public parks around crematoria, but graveyards provide open space and nature trails as well. Considering land use and energy demands, I wonder about the energy required to incinerate a body versus the carbon sequestering of a similarly-sized burial plot, and leaching of formaldehyde. Possibly exceeding the authors' original scope, today's climate, literally, begs energy and resource analysis, especially as the authors provide detailed quantifiable infographics. The authors occasionally submit to hyperbole: "the crematorium is more ambiguous than any other building type," and crematoria "more so than other buildings, reflect [our society]." Fortunately, the hyperboles are few. More importantly, they clarify the challenges to a typology in transition and ignite interest in the designers and buildings confronting specialized needs. Goodbye Architecture recognizes a growing trend for cremation and the design possibilities that the mutating rituals and spaces provide. The building type is a design challenge accepted by the architects and clients whose projects are included. Part travel guide, history, and analysis, the book is a welcome addition to the limited study of funerary architecture. James Way promotes ecology and preservation at Biohabitats.
Placeholder Alt Text

Drawn and Quartered

Drawing Codes ironically gets the rules all wrong
Upon entering Drawing Codes, you might be struck by a sense of familiarity, as though everything looks somehow as it should. It’s comforting to be surrounded by beautiful drawings hung neatly in well-spaced, black-framed squares, little perfect windows into a collection of works by a close-knit circle of designers. But there’s also something unsettling in the comfort and familiarity of the exhibition—closing at the Cooper Union on February 23 and formally titled Drawing Codes: Experimental Protocols of Architectural Representation, Volume IIas though we are being sold something too slick, too friendly, too complete, as though everything’s been face-tuned, flattened into a collection that articulates a narrative without agonism or a predetermined history without contestation. The show’s brief itself leaves its subject quite open. In their introductory text, curators Andrew Kudless and Adam Marcus outline four prompts to consider the theme: code as generative constraint, code as language, code as cipher, and code as script. “Code” might encompass building regulations and energy standards, syntax and encryption, recipes and typologies. But an assumption underlies the brief that the project is really about computational code; the curators’ text opens with a comment explaining that emergent technologies have changed how we practice. This internal conflict of the theme—between its presumed meaning and purported openness—produces a collection that commits to neither. And while the curators’ prompt cleaves “code” open, Kudless and Marcus restrict the content through their own rules: square format, black and white drawings, only orthographic projection. These rules reference early digital aesthetics and we need look no further than to the Whitney’s concurrent show Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018 to see evidence of that history. There, works like Joan Truckenbrod’s 1975 Coded Algorithmic Drawing (#45), Manfred Mohr’s Band Structures studies from the 1960s-’70s, and Frederick Hammersley’s No Title (1969) lay out a coding style that persists in contemporary practice, as seen in that same show in works by Tauba Auerbach, Casey Reas, and Alex Dodge among others. By and large, the drawings in Drawing Codes are individually impressive and conceptually rich. They are beautiful and obtuse, like Projectors by MILLIØNS or Anomalous Corner by Studio Sean Canty or DoubleVision by IwamotoScott Architecture; they are funny and smart, like Another Circle GPS Plan by Aranda\Lasch or Twisted Concrete Codes by Tsz Yan Ng with Mehrdad Hadighi; they are unexpected, like Stephanie Lin’s Accumulated Error No. 41, which uses coding to explore the blurry boundaries between rendering and drawing through visual effect. Each of the drawings could be described individually, and each has a novel take on the brief—they display a range of talented designers who should be lauded for their work—but together, they become muddled into a quasi-similar set of too-tasteful objects that don’t illustrate the potential of the topic. They seem forced into a mold rather than freed to explore new territories. The show’s restrictions put the content into a curious double-bind: individual artist statements offer a posteriori rationalizations designed to satisfy the brief, while the brief itself seems built around a priori ideas about what a show about code (or drawing) might look like. For example, that the curators eradicated perspective (in order to ensure participants wouldn’t send renderings) precludes a reading of “perspective” as itself coded, rule-based, and programmable. It also means that some of the most exciting work in computation around deep learning, neural networks, and artificial intelligence, built around interrogating and constructing perspective,are off the table here. The rules of the exhibition are curiously conservative given the topic and are too aligned with a trend towards early computer graphics popular across schools and young offices today. The statements also draw attention to how responding to the brief becomes more rhetorical than generative. Together, the works read as a compilation of exceptions that demonstrate how adept we all are at bending a brief to our work. This makes it more difficult to identify dominant narratives or sub-narratives across drawings, less compelling as a portrait of code, and privileges the individuality of the authors over the ethos of the collective. And this collective is producing a tremendous amount right now. Many, if not most of the participants in the show (and in its first volume, which debuted at the California College of Arts in January, 2017) are part of an emerging generation of practices (in which my own studio is often a part) that often cohabitate in exhibitions, publications, biennials, and conferences. These platforms should be pushing us all to do better, to produce more critically, to learn from each other. The idea of this show is great. Its constraints, however, produce a condition where expectation limits the possibility of discovery or invention across the work. The show seems dedicated to reiterating things we already know about drawing, code, and each other, and rejects the ugliness of experimentation. Which made it nice to see V. Mitch McEwen’s Arduino Bot Print and Maria Yablonina’s The perpetual spline machine, both of which foregrounded haptic process over graphic order. The former, through producing a map of avoidance as the penguinbot tried to avoid retracing its steps on paper; the latter, through the creation of a solar-powered bending machine that produces splines as it collects whatever energy it can, like some tragic figure of a near-future Greek myth. In these cases, the format enabled and helped frame the works, which indicates the productive potential latent in the project. Ultimately the comfort of the show—its sanctioned and familiar take on the aesthetics of code, its politeness over an inclusive brief—is its greatest limitation. In the exhibition press release, the curators say that they want to explore the impact of “computation and code-based processes” on “conventions of architectural representation,” a clear, straightforward proposal for an exhibition that would be great to see. Without the exceptions, without the rules, and with a more open and inclusive attitude towards aesthetics not bound by known tropes but encouraged through expansive definitions of generative practice. Comfort, for all its comfort, is too safe to compel.
Placeholder Alt Text

Preserve the Past

A British preservationist considers: How do you keep a building alive?
Living Buildings: Architectural Conservation, Philosophy, Principles and Practice Donald Insall Images Publishing $60.00 List Price

Conservation architecture has never been glamorous. It is simply a reflection of contemporary society that the careful continuation of what already exists is always going to be overshadowed by the creation of wholly something new. Yet from Berlin’s Neues Museum to London’s St Pancras Station, if we look across a range of globally significant architecture projects from recent decades we see that a conservation approach has been instrumental in many of them.

While there is a tendency to lump conservation architects in with their traditionalist cousins—and this book by leading conservation architect, Donald Insall, actually contains a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales—it is wrong to see the conservation movement as necessarily conservative, or even reactionary. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded in 1877 by, among others, William Morris and Philip Webb—figures to whom certain aspects of modernism can also be traced—and the histories of modernism and traditionalism have run in parallel. Both, in a sense, were cultural responses to the conditions of industrial modernity.

Even in the 1960s, when conservation became the clear counter to modernism’s excesses, particularly in town planning, the relationship between the two remained more complex than one of straightforward opposition. One could even argue that the conservation movement actually played an enabling role; its very existence freed modernism of the past so that it could focus wholly on how architecture might bring about a better future.

Postmodernism, of course, fundamentally challenged these frameworks and distinctions. One of its most pervasive and important legacies has arguably been the gradual infiltration of a conservation approach into the mainstream. Every architect today when approaching a project considers questions of context, place, and history. For that reason this book should be of interest not just to those concerned with conservation, but to all architects and, indeed, everyone with an appreciation of architecture and its past, present, and futures.

For over 60 years, Insall has led one of Britain’s most respected practices of conservation architects, working on a range of highly significant conservation projects. Part manual, part theory of conservation, this book’s chief proposition is that buildings are not fixed or static entities but are “living” things—and that this idea should inform approaches to their care and upkeep.

Early in the book, Insall states that “every building is a product not only of its original generator…but of the continuing effects upon its materials of time and weather, and of generations of successive occupants, each with his own set of values and requirements.” The starting point for every project should therefore be to look for “each project’s unique identity and character.”

Such is the passion with which Insall proclaims that “buildings are alive;” one might infer that to his mind it’s more than mere metaphor. Yet as a metaphor it proves a useful way of organizing the various aspects of his approach, whether it’s assessing the role of “locality and materials” (“materials have their own story, and in old buildings speak eloquently of their local origin”), the role of “weather and the elements” as “a continuous force in shaping a living building” or the way “cyclical renewal is part of every building’s life and history.”

One of the striking things about this book is how it ranges from the micro to the macro. It is rare, for example, to read in the same book a reminder to close the door to a library if building work is going on outside and reflections on the philosophy of conservation. But it’s this broad scope that allows it to be both a primer and of interest to the expert. Aimed at both experts and general readers is Insall’s core argument that the approach to “old buildings” should be open and led not by preconceptions but the innate qualities of the buildings themselves. One only wishes that the same principal might be applied to the very notion of heritage and what is deemed “significant,” which so often claims objectivity but is in fact reflective of ideology. But that is not Insall’s subject.

There are moments of the book that jar, notably the relentless “he” and “his” in relation to the architect, and as a distillation of half-a-century’s work, there are inevitably some aspects that feel dated. But the underlying message remains fresh—and important not just for conservation, but for architecture as a whole. The challenge for architecture today is not necessarily about building more or even better, but adapting and making more equitable use of what already exists. Of course, this is far from simply being an architectural issue. But architects can show how it can be done, perhaps even with conservation architects leading the way.

Placeholder Alt Text

Big Art

Monograph about Robert Murray reveals his love of structure and form
Robert Murray: Sculpture Jonathan D. Lippincott Design Books $65.00 List Price Some sculptors have to think like architects. They need to consider the actual weight of a work and whether it might wind up crashing through a floor or compromising a foundation. There are the issues of balance and whether something weighing a few tons and defined by curves and cantilevers will remain in place on its own or roll off its plinth. There are also the concerns about the best angles from which to view a finished sculpture and how it will age, especially if positioned outdoors. And once it is erected and set in place, what about the resulting shadows or reflective light? As Jonathan Lippincott, the noted book designer and independent art curator, reveals in his new book, Robert Murray: Sculpture (Design Books), the first such monograph to chronicle the artist’s oeuvre, Murray learned about weight and scale through practice. When Murray first began making some of his large-scale works in his apartment on East 22nd Street in Manhattan in the early 1960s, they were so heavy and tall that they compromised the very structure of the building. Of one such early work, Ceres, a seven-foot-high plaster sculpture, Murray said: “I had it right in the middle of the room, and I put supports out from underneath the bottom lip of it to try to distribute the weight, but it didn’t quite work. One day there was a pounding on the door and a very nice couple from downstairs demanded to see what I was up to, and I guess my floor sagged so badly that their ceiling cracked and plaster was raining down in their living room.” The comment from Murray is one of many in Lippincott’s book that reveals the artist’s sense of humor, a characteristic much welcomed in an otherwise scholarly art book. Lippincott has obviously been careful to reveal—and revel in —Murray’s playfulness. As a result, this may be among the most refreshing and entertaining books to read about any sculptor, living or not. Lippincott’s book also manages to right an aesthetic wrong. While fantastically prolific and influential, Murray doesn’t seem to have won quite the same name recognition of some his contemporaries, like David Smith, Tony Rosenthal, Louise Nevelson, and Barnett Newman. Lippincott’s book will surely reintroduce and re-establish the still-active Murray as one of the very best practitioners of contemporary sculpture. And the book’s examples of Murray’s candor and wit will only heighten the artist’s appeal. As Murray recounts about his early days as a young artist from Saskatoon suddenly immersed in the New York art world: “I always joke that it’s lucky my liver was as young as it was when I got to New York or I would have been dead a long time ago.” Although Lippincott’s monograph is visually-driven, it includes an engaging, lengthy biographical text about Murray, as well as a candid, chatty question and answer between the author and his subject. The two appear to have forged an affectionate rapport. We learn about Murray’s Canadian boyhood, his inspirations for the monumental works of art, and the process of making those sculptures (some sixty of which were made at Lippincott, Inc., the Connecticut-based fabricator of monumental works of sculpture, founded by the author’s father). But what resonates throughout the book is Murray’s collaborations with and respect for architects. There was a time not so long ago when art and architecture were more closely aligned. Lippincott describes, for instance, the Percent for Art program that flourished in the U.S. and Canada in the mid-1960s, whereby, according to the author, “one percent of the budget for any new building would be dedicated to purchasing artwork…an unprecedented amount of funding to purchase and commission artwork for government buildings and public spaces.” Murray’s large-scale abstract (some would say minimalist) sculptures were coveted by architects of the time. I.M. Pei, for instance, commissioned Murray for a massive work (Shawanaga) to occupy the plaza of Pei’s Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. For a 1968 group show of sculptures at the then-new Boston City Hall, a Brutalist edifice designed by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, Murray was invited to include what is now one of his iconic works, Windhover. “The only bad part of it all was the new city hall, which wasn’t a very attractive backdrop,” he told Lippincott. “But it was a nice plaza, a good space, and that show got a lot of attention.” Murray’s relationship with architects and architecture began early. In 1958, at the very start of his career, he received a commission from a local Saskatoon architect to fashion murals composed of mosaic tiles for a new government building. Barnett Newman collaborated with Murray to create an imagined, or conceptual, synagogue that Newman described as being “organized like a baseball diamond, the rabbi on the pitcher’s mound, the men in the dugouts, and the women in the bleachers.” Murray designed two models for the project, one of which was exhibited at a show at the Jewish Museum in 1963 organized by Richard Meier. And in his native country, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada awarded him their Allied Arts Medal in 1977. As Lippincott emphasizes, “The award recognizes artists or designers in Canada who create work intended to be integrated with architecture, and Murray was one of the first artists to receive this award for contemporary sculpture.” Both Lippincott and Murray are adept at describing the architectural aspects of the sculptures. Of Murray’s Breaker (1965), Lippincott lovingly relates the structural issues in such a way that the piece can almost be envisioned without seeing it: “[Breaker] consists of two arcs that are almost identical; one extends beyond the other, providing a point of contact with the floor, adding stability to the work and extending its energy.” Because of this book, Murray reputation as a great sculptor will endure. That reputation rests particularly on his public artworks, many of which are positioned with notable works of architecture. But as Murray said to Lippincott, “Until the public starts making it, it’s not public art, it’s private art put out into public situations.” With Lippincott’s fine book, we now have the definitive visual and chronological map for finding Murray’s works and enjoying them in public settings. Murray can be experienced in person on April 7 at the David Richard Gallery, 211 East 121st Street, New York. The gallery will present a solo exhibition of Murray’s large sculptures and two-dimensional artworks, with an opening reception on April 7 at which both Murray and Lippincott will be present. The show runs through May 5.
Placeholder Alt Text

All-Star Cast

Plaster Monuments casts the history of reproduced sculpture in a new mold
Andy Warhol very likely attended art classes in the Hall of Architecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The Hall of Architecture is a star attraction at the Pittsburgh museum, a manifestation of Andrew Carnegie’s instruction to bring the world to the people of Pittsburgh. An eclectic troupe of fragments considered seminal for design practice in the early 20th century, the Hall of Architecture may well have seemed both glamorous and anachronistic to teenage Warhol: glamorous in its array of iconic monuments from Europe and the Middle East, anachronistic as the very concept of plaster casts was antithetical to High Modernist mores, to the cult of function and originality. In Plaster Monuments, Mari Lending takes her readers on a richly informative tour of this curious yet once vanguard world of architectural casts and their presentation in some of the world’s most prestigious museums. Pittsburgh has survived, perhaps as the Carnegie was not so infatuated with the diktats of Modernism. In London, the Cast Courts with their bifurcated cast of Trajan’s Column remain in situ at the heart of the Victoria and Albert Museum; and much of French architectural history is still present in Paris, in what is now the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine, at the Trocadéro. Nevertheless, other collections, like those in Boston and Brussels, have long been abandoned or dispersed. “Only a decade,” Lending writes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “after ‘THE MOST IMPORTANT COLLECTION OF CASTS IN ANY PART OF THE WORLD’ was installed in New York City, taste—as well as fortunes—was changing, and in 1905 the position of curator of casts was abolished…The biggest collection of Parthenon casts in the world,” she notes wryly, “survived a 1937 referendum when the people of Basel suggested drowning it all in the Rhine.” Happily, Pittsburgh held out against these slings and arrows of architectural and museological fashion. Lending is Norwegian, a professor of history and theory at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design; she has also recently published a book with Peter Zumthor titled A Feeling of History. In her introduction, she posits Plaster Monuments “within the emerging scholarly field of architecture exhibitions.” For Lending, the past seems to shadow the present, toying with memory and assumptions of linear progress or of a fixed canon. She makes connections not only with the 19th-century museum and architectural theory but with such diverse contemporary technical and political phenomena as photography and colonialism. The book divides into five chapters—spanning, back and forth, across two centuries—plus a coda bringing Lending’s account into our era of digital reproduction. She starts with the Grand Tour and a watercolor, Student Surveying the Temple of Jupiter Stator at Rome, commissioned by John Soane and exhibited—along with twenty-one casts and many drawings, paintings, and engravings—in Soane’s own museum in London. Soon the French are leading the way, at the École des Beaux Art and the Trocadéro (originally the Musée de sculpture comparée). Lending describes the rivalry of Classicists and Romanticists, with the Trocadéro’s Viollet-le-Duc being assaulted at the École by eggs and apples and donkey brays. For the French, casts played a critical role not only for education but also the establishment of national identity. By the time the Met embarked on its collection, these Paris institutions possessed molds to produce multiple new casts. In addition, an entire profession of cast-makers—the formatori—existed to supply museums and private collectors. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie boldly envisaged architecture at the heart of his museum/library/music hall complex, in a roof-lit hall modeled on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Lending emphasizes the speed with which this was achieved, in part due to the frequent use of transatlantic cablegrams. The Carnegie determined its selection through correspondence with two dozen contemporary architects, many inspired by H.H. Richardson. Thus its signature cast of the Romanesque church of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, facilitated by a personal gift from Carnegie and transported from France in 95 crates. Lending’s final chapter sets up a duality at Yale: Josef Albers versus Paul Rudolph. She quotes Albers stating that “the French Beaux-Arts casts had no place in the methods of the German Bauhaus.” Only a few years after their banishment however, Rudolph incorporated many of these casts—outcasts?—into his Art and Architecture Building, itself a monumental cast of hand-hammered concrete. Whereas Charles Jencks once criticized the building as a “four million dollar architectural potpourri” with “tasteless exhibits”, Timothy Rohan recently suggested that Rudolph’s inclusion of the casts “may have been an instance of homosexual camp." Sounding positively Warholian, Landing writes in her coda to Beaux Arts cast culture that "copying was a serious matter." Can newer technologies now allow facsimiles to replace lost or destroyed works, as with the replica of the Palmyra arch erected in Trafalgar Square in 2016? Plaster Monuments sets the context for many such future discussions. Plaster Monuments Mari Lending Published by Princeton University Press, $39.99
Placeholder Alt Text

Layered Civilization

Syria Before the Deluge is a poignant photographic journey through prewar Syria

In 2009, architectural photographer Peter Aaron set out to Syria with his wife Brooke Allen, an author and professor of literature at Bennington College, and their two daughters. Armed with a Canon 5D modified to only register infrared light, Aaron began a two-week journey in a minivan to visit 15 sites across Syria. Put on exhibition at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, what began as a personal collection stemming from a family vacation has developed into the photographic project that is Syria Before the Deluge.

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, there has been no dearth of imagery and footage bringing the horrors and destruction of the conflict to an international audience. The country’s history has been relegated to a veritable carousel slide projection of architectural and human destruction; Aleppo lies in Stalingrad-esque ruins while pent-up political and sectarian animosity has unleashed one calamity after the next, at a level not witnessed since the Yugoslav Wars. Syria Before the Deluge presents the country's ancient architectural heritage in 40 images of breathtaking detail, clearing the fog of war by casting a humanizing light on the war’s victims with scenes of daily life and placing the conflict within the vast continuity of the region’s civilization.

Traversing the country’s ancient urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo, through their many souqs, mosques, and labyrinthine streets, Aaron’s images display a vibrant contemporary society inhabiting the successive layers of the old. Remains of Roman civilization are embedded within these urban ensembles, sites such as Damascus’s Bab Sharqi, a Roman arch topped with a medieval minaret, have collected the accretions of time with Islamic and Roman architectural pieces—towering minarets and geometric spandrels—abutting contemporary concrete construction. 

Outside of the country’s principal demographic centers, past the Aramaic-speaking mountain towns of Reef Demashq, the “dead cities” of northwestern Syria are depicted as moraine-like vestiges dotting the rugged arid landscape. The abandoned urban settlements, numbering over seven hundred, are the hallmarks of a Byzantine civilization that gradually vanished, with its Greco-Roman architectural language of archways, colonnades, and carefully proportioned stone ashlar. The author notes that the current refugee crisis afflicting Syria has led to a renewed life for the "dead cities" as an embattled shelter for those fleeing the civil war's armed factions. 

Where Syria Before the Deluge rises to a work of historical record is in Aaron's depiction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites now ravaged by the conflict. Palmyra's Temple of Bel, infamously exploded by ISIL, which documented the event for the world to see, is captured in its ruinous magnificence as a global exemplar of Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern architectural syncretism, with nearly 50-foot tall fluted Corinthian columns and detailed Middle Eastern scenes. Located less than 15 miles from the Turkish border, the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, now subject to multiple military incursions and aerial bombardments, still stands—complex stonework along its archways, pediments, remnants of vaults, and all. Considering their historical role as military bastions, it is none too surprising that the imposing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers and the Citadel of Aleppo have renewed their intended functions. Over their millennium-long existence, the forts, like Syria itself, have passed through the hands of Kurds, Christians, Ottomans, and Arabs, with Aaron capturing the layering of one civilization's architectural character over the next. It is on this note that the author expands: the general audience cannot "comprehend the intense concentration of ancient structures; many of them have been in continuous use for centuries and even millennia, through waves of different civilizations.” Through pictorially contextualizing the current civil war within Syria's successive waves of invasions, cultural flowering, and internal strife, Syria Before the Deluge inspires a degree of hope that the region will emerge again from the ruins.

Syria Before the Deluge Peter Aaron, Blurb $150.00