Posts tagged with "books":

Jane Jacobs’ formative years take surprising turns in latest biography

Becoming Jane Jacobs By Peter Laurence University of Pennsylvania Press $29.99 Peter Laurence’s Becoming Jane Jacobs opens in 1935. This is when the 19-year-old Jane Butzner, fresh out of high school, infused with a love of poetry and driven by a streak of rebelliousness, left Scranton, Pennsylvania, and headed for New York City, bent on becoming a writer. The book closes 25 years later, in 1961, on the eve of the publication of her classic Death and Life of the Great American Cities. This scrupulously and minutely documented intellectual biography, based on extensive original archival research, set against a detailed history of urban policies adopted between the early Roosevelt and late Eisenhower administrations, reveals how the mind-set of the legendary author and activist was formed in the intervening years. This formative period breaks into two parts. The first stretches from 1935 to 1952. Two things are surprising during this period. One is that Jacobs was only tangentially interested in architectural and urban concerns; the other is that she did not get a university education. Indeed, Jacobs’s poor grades in high school ensured that she was turned down when she eventually applied to Columbia University, an experience that nurtured a lifelong abhorrence of academia, in particular of the Ivy League. Left to her own devices, she was obliged to pursue other, out-of the way paths to acquiring knowledge, unconventionally broad and multidisciplinary. It starts when she landed a job as a writer and associate editor for The Iron Age, an industry trade magazine. She then worked as writer, editor, and then bureau chief for Amerika Illustrated, a Roosevelt state department Russian-language wartime propaganda publication. During the subsequent postwar Red Scare in 1949, she was suspected of being a pro-Russian communist sympathizer and taken before the Loyalty Security Board under J. Edgar Hoover. She then spent two years at the extension school at Columbia University for non-degree-earning students, beginning in 1938, where she studied geology, medieval history, psychology, chemistry, embryology, economics, and anthropology. She became so enthralled with her course on constitutional law that she wound up publishing her first book, Constitutional Chaff: Rejected Suggestions of the Constitutional Convention of 178, with Explanatory Argument with Columbia University Press in 1941, based on a term paper. It is still considered a classic among constitutional scholars. Her writings at this time searched to unearth the subterranean nitty-gritty that made things work above ground. Her article “Men Working,” for example, charted the paths of the city’s underground networks beneath manhole covers and other street plaques. At The Iron Age, she immersed herself in the technology and economics of metallurgy and learned about the underbelly of the American industrial economy. The second phase of Jacobs’s apprenticeship begins in 1952, when she was recruited by Douglas Haskell, the new editor-in-chief of the new architecture magazine, Architectural Forum, founded by media mogul Henry Luce. Haskell deserves to be better known, and Laurence has done an excellent job in this direction. As far as Jacobs is concerned, he was a life changer. He hired Jacobs for the same reasons Luce had hired him: She was a consummate professional, and she had absolutely no architectural training. He sent her in his stead to a famous conference at the Graduate School of Design in 1956, where she lambasted Harvard’s Urban Design model, thereby earning more plaudits than anyone else. Laurence’s chapters documenting this period are some of the most fascinating parts of the book. Haskell, a former journalist for The Nation, went for “strictly architectural magazines,” which he said were “fast asleep and snoring” while Eisenhower created the federal Urban Renewal program. Municipal officials like Robert Moses, along with property developers, construction firms, and architects had been waiting since the early 1930s for this kind of (what Jacobs called) “gravy train” situation. Throughout Haskell’s tenure, the journal relentlessly exposed the omnipresence of “slum clearance” associated with Urban Renewal schemes—what James Baldwin referred to more accurately as “Negro Removal.” The resulting looming urban crisis only fanned the flames of Jacobs’s ire. By 1959 she was taking on the corrupt practices of Moses, the New York City Slum Clearance Committee, and real estate developers. She also left Forum to begin work on Death and Life. It had taken 25 years, but she had absorbed the knowledge, discipline, and outrage she needed to become Jane Jacobs. Laurence’s fascinating book has a surprise ending: Jacobs’s adherence to the ultraconservative Friedrich von Hayek, the hero of Margaret Thatcher and the laissez-faire Chicago School of economics. Jacobs not only rejected urban renewal policies but planning in general, favoring the “invisible hand of the market” as a means of “unslumming” neighborhoods.

Towards Openness, Book Launch at NEW Inc.

Book Launch and Discussion with authors Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of OPEN Architecture Drawn from keen observation of the rapidly changing social economic landscape of China, and using OPEN Architecture’s projects as case studies, Towards Openness is a symphony of seven built projects and six idea chapters that are interestingly interwoven to offer an in-depth examination of OPEN’s unique practice and the critical thinking underlying its work. OPEN is a passionate team of designers, collaborating across different disciplines to practice urban design, landscape design, architectural design and interior design, as well as the research and production of design strategies in the context of new challenges. Authors Li Hu and Huang Wenjing will introduce the book and discuss current work. The book will be available for sale at the event. www.openarch.com If you are not a member of the GSAPP Incubator or NEW INC community and would like to attend this event, please RSVP.

AN rounds up our favorite tech books of 2018

Art and architecture have always been inexorably intertwined, as new innovations in materials and construction allow buildings to rise higher and branch out into experimental new forms. But after concrete, high-rise timber, and advances in digital design, how will the field continue to progress? What new technologies and typologies will arise in the future, and how can architects and designers not only adapt, but thrive? Below is a roundup of some of 2017 and 2018’s best books on digital fabrication, robotics, redefining architectural scale, and guides on how to design for a science fiction future. Towards a Robotic Architecture Mahesh Daas and Andrew John Wit ORO Editions $40.06 As Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture advocated for an architectural movement unburdened by the weight of historical convention, Towards a Robotic Architecture implores readers to consider what the field will become once automation and robotics fully come of age. Through a series of case studies, Daas and Wit examine cutting-edge fabrication techniques, buildings that interact with their occupants, additive manufacturing, drone-based construction, and the realization of previously impossible forms. 3D Thinking in Design and Architecture: From Antiquity to the Future Roger Burrows Thames & Hudson Pre-order for $41.25, to be released on May 15, 2018 How did the architectural designers of the past work within the confines of numerical systems built on whole numbers? How has the progression of mathematical knowledge influenced the way we see the world? In 3D Thinking in Design and Architecture, Burrows charts the intertwined evolution of geometry and visual logic from the dawn of civilization to the present and beyond. Active Matter Skylar Tibbits MIT Press $32.31 Fabrication has made leaps and bounds over the last few centuries, but material science has made just as many intriguing advances. In Active Matter, Skylar Tibbits curates a discussion between artists, scientists and designers who are working on the cutting-edge of transforming materials, from self-forming furniture to eye-tracking clothing, to pavilions wound up with explosive force. Responsive Landscapes: Strategies for Responsive Technologies in Landscape Architecture Bradley Cantrell and Justine Holzman Routledge $52.22 Landscape architecture is often left out of the conversation when talking about technology, but sensors, advanced modeling techniques and robotic manufacturing will eventually cause a seismic shift in landscape architecture. Responsive Landscapes explores how designers are working to future-proof their landscapes against climate change, monitor usage patterns, and track pollution on their sites, and what the future might hold for the profession. Technically this book was released at the tail end of 2015, but it sheds light on an oft-overlooked part of the field. Hello, Robot.: Design Between Human and Machine Mateo Kries Vitra Design Museum $40.14 Pushing the boundaries of architecture with robotics is one thing, but how do humans interact with and relate to robots? Hello, Robot argues that robots are much more than powerful tools, having preoccupied the human imagination for thousands of years in one form or another. As their presence becomes more commonplace, humans begin to soften and anthropomorphize robots, and they become much more than machines that imitate human effort. Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility Venkat Sumantran, Charles Fine and David Gonsalvez MIT Press $26.95 Automobiles dominated the twentieth century, with infrastructure around the world built to accommodate unending stretches of roads and interchanges, often to the detriment of surrounding communities. As Faster, Smarter, Greener puts forth though, that outdated method city planning is about to be radically changed as smart, interconnected vehicles will give rise to a new, cleaner age of mobile efficiency. Printing Architecture: Innovative Recipes for 3D Printing Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello Princeton Architectural Press Pre-order for $29.95, to be released on May 1, 2018 3-D printing and the world of architecture and design are natural fits for each other, as the technology allows for rapid prototyping and model-making at a low cost. Printing Architecture runs readers through a series of case studies, from small household items all the way up to complex 3-D-printed structures, to give ground-up examples of how the technology will change the design field. Robot House: Instrumentation, Representation, Fabrication Peter Testa Thames & Hudson $26.99 Robotics are becoming more and more ingrained in our homes, offices, schools and third places, but are we tapping their full potential? Robot House examines robotics through the three “P’s,” projects, principles and platforms, exploring how robots are used, operated and thought about. Every book on this list was selected independently by AN's team of editors. If you buy something via the embedded links, AN will earn a commission. 

Storefront for Art and Architecture asks: What are the books yet to be written?

On Saturday, September 23, Storefront for Art and Architecture will launch the New York Architecture Book Fair with a day-long conference, Architecture Books / Yet to be Written / 1982-2017-2052. The event will ask architects to think about the past and future of architectural publication, enlisting critical voices in the field, including: Diana Agrest, Stan Allen, Amale Andraos, Harry Cobb, Beatriz Colomina, Reinier de Graaf, Peggy Deamer, Elizabeth Diller, Steven Holl, Sanford Kwinter, Daniel Libeskind, Thom Mayne, Enrique Norten, Toshiko Mori, Joan Ockman, Spyridon Papapetros, Brett Steele, Bernard Tschumi, Anthony Vidler, Rafael Viñoly, Mark Wigley, James Wines, and others. This conference is presented in partnership with The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union. Each participant has been asked to present a book published in the past 35 years that they consider to be essential reading on contemporary architecture, as well as to imagine a publication for the future, a “book yet to be written.” Due to the waning number of architecture bookstores across New York, this Storefront event and attendant book fair intends to fill the gap for enthusiasts of architecture and urban speculation in print. At the conference, Storefront will also present BOOKS-NOW, a selection of signed architecture books published over the last year at a discounted rate. The New York Architecture Book Fair will open in June 2018 at Storefront's gallery space as well as at bookstores and homes across New York. Architecture Books / Yet to be Written / 1982-2017-2052 Time: Saturday, September 23 1:00 – 6:00 p.m. Location: The Great Hall at Cooper Union, 30 Cooper Square RSVP here for the event.

Digital Frank Lloyd Wright catalogue is almost as good as the hardcover

In conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, a new online version of the exhibition catalogue book is now available to preview and purchase. 

Unlike a standard ebook, this digital version is designed specifically for an art book reading experience. While the catalogue is available in print format—and there still is nothing like thumbing through physical pages—the digitized version offers a user-friendly interface whose features make up for the lack of tactility.

Published through Musebooks, perhaps the best feature of this digital version is the ability to toggle between text view, image view, and page view while staying in the same section. The image view compiles all of the catalogue’s illustrations into one webpage and allows readers to zoom into the detailed drawings without losing much of the resolution, a feature that is critical for discerning readers.

The catalogue and exhibition highlight Wright’s expansive practice and feature architectural drawings, models, furniture, films, and television broadcasts. Focusing on objects from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, they include essays penned by architecture professors and critics like Mabel O. Wilson, Michael Desmond, and Ken Tadashi Oshima, accompanied by almost 300 illustrations.

A preview of the digital version of Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive is available through Musebooks, where it is also being sold for $25.99. (The hardcover, meanwhile, will set you back $44.15 on Amazon.)

This graphic novel aims to shape Chicago’s next generation of city planners

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF)'s latest venture is an educational graphic novel about urban planning and its challenges. While the book—titled No Small Plans—raises questions that aren’t new, it serves as an introduction for its target audience, namely children in grades six to ten. It’s tough to write a book for young teenagers on issues like urban planning, civic engagement, and the socioeconomic factors that shape our cities today, but No Small Plans, armed with colorful drawings and references to modern day life, brings light to these topics. As part of its 50th-anniversary celebrations, the CAF published No Small Plans and modeled it after Wacker’s Manual, a 1911 textbook on Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago. Wacker’s Manual was required reading for eighth graders in Chicago Public Schools for at least three decades and it aimed to engage children with Burnham’s grand, ‘City Beautiful’ vision for Chicago. No Small Plans, by Gabrielle Lyon and in partnership with Eyes of the Cat Illustration, has the same goal and will be taught in the city’s public school starting this year. It’s a reimagined Wacker’s Manual, in a 21st-century medium, to help young Chicagoans envision and build a city that they want now, and in the future. The graphic novel is split into three different time periods: the past (1928), present (2017), and future (2211). Each section follows different groups, all of whom are grappling with different issues such as racial discrimination, gentrification, affordable housing, zoning, and community engagement. It’s set in the Chicago we know today, featuring sites like the Chicago Theatre and the 606. It’s also a dive into what Chicago’s future could be. In the year 2211, the book depicts Chicago so fractured that virtual reality is the only means of connecting people between different neighborhoods. The lack of “real facing” (i.e. actual human interaction) has led to a disconnect between what residents need and what big-time developers plan for the city. The book is an attempt to bridge the civic education gap: low-income students, students of color, and those not planning to attend college have fewer opportunities to engage with questions every young city resident should be thinking about, according to Lyon. “When young people have opportunities to consider questions like the ones the characters wrestle with in No Small Plans, it makes a difference,” Lyon said in a press release. The book’s success on Kickstarter—raising more than double of its $20,000 goal—is an indication that the questions of what makes a city livable and how to foster civic identity are ones that Chicagoans both old and young are interested in. Thirty thousand free copies will be distributed over the next three years. No Small Plans is available to purchase through CAF's website.

Ambitious “Well-Tempered City” explains what makes cities work, from ancient Mesopotamia to Lagos and New York City

As a certain New York real estate figure thrusts a set of unpalatable values down the national throat, another local developer’s ideas are entering public discourse for better reasons. Jonathan Rose is, in important senses, the Antidrumpf: a developer who views the building of communities as an ethically consequential profession. He applies knowledge from nature and intercultural history to benefit entire populations. He advocates resilient development in sane, mature, well-evidenced, and convincing terms.

One finishes The Well-Tempered City with respect for a substantial contribution to the urbanist literature—and with the impression that in an administration dedicated to planetary and institutional stewardship, not plunder and bluster, Rose would merit a cabinet-level appointment. (Interior? HUD? Energy? A polymath like Rose could lead any of these departments.) The Well-Tempered City stands alongside works by Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and Christopher Alexander, deserving influence and implementation.

The enduring fivefold path

With ambitious scope and explanatory clarity, Rose offers a unified theory of urban history grounded in five core concepts: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion. He also identifies nine variables critical to the rise of ancient cities: cognition, cooperation, culture, calories (energy), connectivity, commerce, control, complexity, and concentration.

The alliterations may imply a professorial top-down scheme, but Rose infers the nine C-concepts from historical studies before elucidating how stagnation or resilience depends on “urban operating systems” promoting the five principles. Cities that manage resource flows efficiently, generate socially beneficial incentives, and respond to shocks have thrived (e.g., today’s Copenhagen or Singapore, the altitude-adaptive village of Shey, Tibet, or the flexibly organized cities of Islam’s golden age). Wasteful, dis- or over-organized, militaristic, and parasitic cities (e.g., imperial Rome) have ossified and decayed.

Rose distinguishes complication from complexity: the former merely reflects scale, while the latter describes volatile conditions where small inputs trigger large outputs. The acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), he contends, describes urban as well as biological systems. Design suited to a VUCA environment will avoid the oversimplifications of 19th- and 20th-century planning by incorporating feedback phenomena and by continually adjusting incentives, technologies, balances among market and public-sector mechanisms, and other determinants of civic well-being. Ecosystems’ cyclical resource metabolisms are particularly important, avoiding linear extract-and-discard economies.

Déjà vu will kick in for readers of Jacobs, whose Death and Life chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is” drew on Warren Weaver’s observations about “problems in organized complexity.” To this foundation Rose adds a broad familiarity with global cultural practices, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cognitive science, and network theory: He has the intellectual discipline to be usefully interdisciplinary.

Discussing how the efficiency metric of energy return on investment (the ratio of usable energy generated to energy spent creating it) correlates with civilizations’ rise and fall, he notes how China’s recent agricultural practices resemble those that doomed Rome for a thousand years; how New York, Detroit, Lagos, and Baltimore have benefited from better data collection; and how a Big Mac takes seven times as much energy to produce as it provides to its consumer. One strong chapter, “The Cognitive Ecology of Opportunity,” links the neurohormonal threat response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to environments that traumatize children, exacerbated by exposure to neurotoxins such as lead, producing vicious cycles of maladaptation and social isolation. Tragic cases like Freddie Gray’s death in a struggle with Baltimore police illuminate interwoven civic and individual pathologies.

Taking the polis in for a tune-up

Rose’s master metaphor is the tuning system popularized by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, an advance beyond Pythagorean “just intonation” (grounded in astronomic-mathematical ratios and generating beautiful scales within each key, but unable to change keys without discord). Music from the baroque through bebop is inconceivable without it. Bach didn’t invent equal tempering; Rose scrupulously credits the discovery to Ming prince Zhu Zaiyu’s Fusion of Music and Calendar (1580), brought to Europe by a traveling monk and incorporated into German music theory by Andreas Werckmeister (1687), then into practice, gloriously, by Bach.

Conceiving harmony broadly, Rose looks to Mesopotamia for another key (if unfortunately named) concept. The societal codes that the Ubaid civilization (5500-4000 BCE) considered divinely ordained, known in Sumerian as meh, are the archetype for subsequent codes found across world history. Rose finds similar operating-system principles in Chinese nine-square geometric urban forms, Lübeck Law regulating trade in the Hanseatic League, and contemporary Smart Growth codes. Conversely, when civilizations embrace a poorly designed code—as when the Federal Housing Administration incorporated racist residential legislation into redlining, or when Chicago School economics ignores environmental externalities or network-scale Nash equilibria, in which choices maximizing individual benefits produce worse outcomes than coordinated choices do—disharmonies are inevitable: congestion, impoverishment, waste, and disease.

Socioeconomic reharmonization requires a comprehension of how codes handle inputs and outputs. Humanity’s mandate is thus to approximate nature’s advanced harmonies. Rose’s spiritually oriented conclusion points out how the Hebrew concept tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) has cognates across cultures. Humanity, he finds, has “evolved with an innate metacode” in which “altruism flows through every bit of a city’s interdependent social and cognitive ecologies, and is embedded in the morality of its systems.”

The audience that needs Rose’s analysis most drastically may be the least prepared for it. “Meh” in current parlance also names the shoulder-shrugging indifference of the incurious to anything beyond their truncated attention spans. Recent electoral results inspire little confidence that American society can decode principles observable in Uruk, Göbekli Tepe, and Chengzhou, and act on them purposefully. In his November 9 AIANY book talk, Rose emphasized how increasing immiseration in poorly built cities requires more comprehension of history and the sciences than partisan politics could muster: “I don’t believe either side of the election had the intellectual capital to deal with this.”

If Rose’s tempering theory omits anything vital, it may be a recognition of evil: Another synonym for the civic distempers flowing from greed and fear. Yet in accentuating the positive, the connectedness that has outlived such distempers, he reinforces our sense of harmony even in out-of-tune times.

The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life Jonathan F. P. Rose Harper Wave, 2016, $29.99

The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Mid-century Personality Study

What is creativity? Who are the creative geniuses among us? How can the talents of the creative individual be identified and cultivated?

These questions were asked about architects six decades ago in one of the most comprehensive studies of creativity ever done. The work was carried out by a talented cadre of psychologists led by director Donald MacKinnon of the University of California’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research with support from William Wurster’s Berkeley architecture faculty.

It was part of a five-year research program funded at a cost of 1.4 million in today’s dollars by the Carnegie Corporation to measure the personality characteristics of a range of creative types. The hope was that the “creative promise and dormant potential” of individuals could thus be identified and encouraged to blossom for the benefit of society as a whole.

Given the major investment of time and money involved, it is curious that relatively few outside the world of personality research were aware of the architect study and that no comprehensive account of the work has existed outside the files of IPAR until now.

Serendipitously, the forgotten records of the study were discovered languishing in IPAR’s archives several years ago by Bay Area author, architect and educator Pierluigi Serraino whose painstaking efforts bring them to light in an engaging and fascinating history, The Creative Architect.

Serraino’s attractively packaged volume has a welcoming layout that is easy to navigate. The text is illustrated with abundant examples of original study documents and findings. Practitioners for whom blueprints evoke nostalgia will encounter a color scheme that resonates positively, and those who appreciate a behind-the-scenes approach to storytelling will find his account especially pleasurable. Throughout he lends a historical perspective that provides a unifying context for the information presented.

Serraino traces the origin of the study to several factors: the growing interest in the post-WWII zeitgeist on the creative potential of the individual, the wartime experience of key IPAR staff in administering large batteries of tests under standard conditions for personnel evaluation, and MacKinnon’s fascination with the scope of the architect’s work. In 1962 he notes: “in what other profession could one better observe the multi-farious expressions of creativity?” To him the successful architect is an artist and a scientist, able to juggle and apply “the diverse skills of businessman, lawyer, artist, engineer, and advertising man, to say nothing of author-journalist, psychiatrist, educator and psychologist.”

These influences shaped the design of a multifaceted study in which 40 highly creative American architects from across the country assembled in Berkeley in 1958 and 1959 for three-day sessions to undergo a 20-hour battery of 22 tests and observations covering 7 broad areas.  Comparison data were collected by mail from two groups chosen to represent lesser levels of creativity, one with 43 former colleagues of the “highly creatives” and the other with 41 practitioners chosen at random.

Individuals seeking a sense of the culture of architecture of the 1950s will savor descriptions of the often politicized procedures that were followed to select subjects and to design and carry out the study, supplemented by unvarnished views of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the icons of American architecture, gleaned from their interactions with the research team and each other. Particularly rich are portrayals Serraino has assembled from original records to reveal the formative influences, philosophies, anxieties and inspirations of Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutral, Eero Saarinen and others.

Serraino transports the reader back in time to group testing sessions in which participants, fueled by well-iced martinis, debated pre-selected questions even as they were being taped and under the intense scrutiny of the full research staff. During discussion their unique personalities emerge: “each participant appears as a distinct character type—Saarinen (phlegmatic), Johnson (socialite), Lundy (lively), Ain (ideological) and Born (aristocratic)—pouring out their worldviews…then engaging in a passionate exchange.”

The independent and competitive natures of participants are revealed by the Mosaic Construction Test, an activity intended to mimic the creation of an artistic product. Participants used their full allocation of time to develop unique and idiosyncratic designs “that held their own,” seizing the opportunity to “make a declaration of their own talent.” Their resulting designs are faithfully reproduced and fascinating to examine.

It is hard to find serious fault with this engaging and sometimes dishy history (two participants were observed cheating on a creativity test), but readers lacking a background in psychological research will find the tangled chapter on study design tough sledding. And many will be disappointed when they realize that tantalizing references made to a twenty-five-year follow-up study of the same subjects are not supported by a meaningful presentation of findings.

Serraino strikes a proper note of caution by acknowledging the shortcomings of the IPAR study—selection bias, self-reporting of key data, choice of testing site, and, of course, the almost exclusive focus on personality traits. On the other hand, he accepts and builds perhaps too readily on generalizations that MacKinnon made about creativity. As a result, the composite portrait of the creative architect with which the book concludes strains to bring a finality to the IPAR work that the original researchers could not.

The IPAR study stands as a historical milestone in the ongoing study of how architects create. Although it cannot be said to have succeeded in its intent, in all fairness, psychology as a whole has made relatively little progress over the intervening sixty years in answering the basic questions posed earlier. What Serraino reveals in his book is that for now, in architecture, the back story is the real story.

And as we have all heard, it’s often the journey and not the destination that matters. Serraino shows what an interesting journey it was.

The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study Pierluigi Serraino The Monacelli Press $45.00

Luigi Lucaccini teaches creativity, innovation, and applied design at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management

A new book explores John Portman’s influence on American architecture with photos by Iwan Baan

In 1995, Ramón Prat and photographer Jordi Bernadó published Atlanta, a book of images of that city on the edge of the 21st century. A generation later, a new volume titled Portman’s America & Other Speculations revisits Atlanta—and American urbanism at large in this not-so-new century—through the work of hometown architect John Portman.

Photographer Iwan Baan traveled to Portman buildings around the United States, documenting his work in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and, of course, Atlanta.

The images reveal a humanism that’s lost in the Hunger Games films and the Walking Dead television series, which exposed Portman’s work to most of America. Lush shots of Entelechy I and II, the Georgia houses the architect built for his family, coexist among now-classic takes on his supersized atria and their stacked balconies. Amid the drama, Baan’s work captures the everyday: a woman on her phone outside the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, a guy perched on a curved red banquette at the Westin Bonaventure hotel in L.A., and the sculptures and furniture Portman created to enhance the spaces he developed and designed.

Four essays (including one by Portman himself), a conversation between the architect’s close friends and family, plus student work from a Portmanian architecture class at the GSD, complement Baan’s images.

“The resulting photographs,” wrote editor Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), “capture the view as if in a state of distraction; Portman’s architecture, and by extension Portman’s America, is presented as it is today, for all to see.”

Portman’s America and Other Speculations, Lars Muller Publishers, $35, June 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright vs. Philip Johnson rivalry plays out in new page-turner

As heroes need rivals, winners require competitors. Champions stay on top only when challenged. The status quo in any area of human endeavor lasts only when staving off oncoming alternatives. While change comes eventually—whether gradual or abrupt, graceful or under siege—habit, doctrine, or tyranny often stall its advent, and when change does come, it is often less than complete. Historic practices and traditional principles underpin progress with lingering connectivity: What’s best from the past informs progress or even pulls it back from misguided tangents when the test of time delivers a failing grade, like elevated highways slashing the urban fabric only to be cursed later as killers of community.

The stakes of such successive challenges to established orthodoxy are especially high in architecture, the most public of artistic disciplines. Shifting design solutions shape the bedrock business of construction and the lives of end users regardless of the relative awareness of polemical origins. Along the way, land-use regulations and profit seek to play their according roles, making change all the tougher.

Such a contentious continuum sets the historic stage for Hugh Howard’s lively depiction of the professional and theoretical rivalry of the two most renowned American architects of the 20th century: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. Early on in this all-too-rare design-professional page-turner, Howard sums up his premise: “They shared a deep commitment to the cause of architecture, but the two could have hardly been more different, separated as they were by age, region, and sexual orientation…the yin and the yang. In love and in hate, the positive and negative charges that gave architecture its compass.”

The reader might emerge wondering if at times the book tries too hard to portray a tense, ideal dual-personification of a central axiom of the 20th century’s design evolution: The Romantic (Wright) versus the Modern (Johnson), informed as capital “M” Modernism often was at its applied outset by an “enduring fondness for the classical.”

Yet the effort proves pleasurably worthwhile as a way to chronologically measure two legendary careers, enhanced by their silver-tongued exchange of competing visions. A shared penchant for righteous control loosened as their long careers unfolded, if more in deeds than in words. Theirs proves an oddness of mutual gain.

Their rivalry’s defining crucible, as Howard reveals it with justified relish, is MoMA’s fabled 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, organized by the precocious (and independently wealthy, thereby prematurely well-connected) 26-year-old Johnson, along with certifiable scholar Henry-Russell Hitchcock.

In a none-too-soon nod to the European upheaval in design, museum founder Alfred Barr gave the go-ahead, asking only for some trace of American participation. Despite joint skepticism and caustic distrust, Johnson and Wright finally cooperated with a never-built plan called “House on the Mesa.” MoMA visitor traffic received a boost from the inclusion of the best-known stateside practitioner, and an inspired Wright emerged newly invigorated, with the modernist masterpiece of Fallingwater carrying straight through to the final assignment of the Museum of Non-Objective Art (the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). The currency of polemical sparring started to pay rich creative dividends for all, no less than for Johnson himself who emerged as America’s official boy genius of design connoisseurship.

After his German flirtation with fascism and architectural studies at the GSA, Johnson took his place as Wright’s closely watched rival practitioner as well as critic, with his 1949 Glass House in New Canaan and the philosophical crossfire that it refreshed, according to Howard.

Howard quotes Johnson in response to Wright’s dismissal of the Connecticut retreat: “Was he born full-blown from the head of Zeus that he could be the only architect that ever loved or ever will?” Contrary to Wright’s insistence on originality, Johnson made no bones about his distilled use of precedent ranging from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Andrea Palladio, who likewise reacted to site in a “formal way that alludes to the classical past.”

What Wright denounced as a mere box or “monkey cage” instead took its enduring place. It represented not only the International Style taking further hold of America’s design imagination and marketplace, but also an architecture based upon ideas and historic interplay: the midwife of modernism. Howard summarizes, “Johnson wrote few melodies but he was a great orchestrator…with the application of a critical and evaluative intelligence rather than the inventions of an inductive creative imagination.”

This tension of romantic originality and New World self-assurance versus the cerebral, globally ecumenical distillation of built excellence both past and contemporary defined the core theoretical crosscurrent during “The American Century.” Howard’s pairing succeeds at personifying this central debate, concluding: “Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Wright’s most important public admirers. As a man who worshiped zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy…work that transcended style and even time.”

Like the interpersonal artistic skirmishes enlivened recently by Sebastian Smee in The Art of Rivalry, attention should be given to a book that offers such engaging access to architectural theory and its visible results as sources for future impulse.

Architecture’s Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson Hugh Howard, Bloomsbury Press, $19.99

The unknown story of New York City’s brutalist playgrounds, as told by artist Julia Jacquette

The idea of concrete being the dominant material for a children's play area seems bizarre today. What about the grazed elbows and knees and scratched palms? What if, God forbid, someone hits their head?! In 1970s New York, however, it worked: Artist Julia Jacquette recalls the concrete playscapes built during one of the city's most socially turbulent eras in her new book, Playground of My Mind. A combination of personal memoir, playground design guide, graphic novel, and story of New York's modernist architectural scene, laced with snippets of feminist ambition, Playground of My Mind is narrated retrospectively by Jacquette, who illustrated the book with her own distinctive graphic style. It starts by plunging you into the depths of Columbus Park Towers, a confusingly named, singular high-rise apartment block on West 94th Street. It's here, in the tower block's basement, where Jacquette's interested in playgrounds started. Described as a "city within a city," Jacquette uses the now-demolished play area, designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, as a springboard to illustrate the egalitarian principles found in modernist architecture and recount how such design influenced her. Another example is the Adventure Playground, found in Central Park and designed by architect Richard Dattner. Emphatically, Jacquette states: "Much of the Adventure Playground was made with poured concrete aggregate: CONCRETE WITH PEBBLES IN IT." Jacquette touches on more design details as she chronicles her experiences, which include playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck in Amsterdam, where her childhood is also rooted. She portrays these play areas as a reaction to the out-dated, one-dimensional curated fun prescribed by former NYC Parks Commissioner and Chairman, Robert Moses. In Moses's parks, objects encouraged limited means of interaction, and were, as critic Phineas Harper described, "modeled on Victorian notions of character-building gymnastic exertion." Swings were for swinging in, see-saws were essentially the same (just more wooden in every sense of the word), and you slid down slides. Jacquette's account of these play areas may be useful today as Harper described contemporary playgrounds as "totally prescriptive," citing researcher David Ball who found that the commonly deployed rubber "safety surfacing" has a negligible impact on children's' safety. Instead, Jacquette prefers playgrounds that encourage inventive ways of using and navigating them; places where fun is free to be had and above all interpretive: A hollowed, spiraling mound could be a mountain, volcano, castle or river, while at the same time referencing ancient architecture such as Roman amphitheaters and Egyptian pyramids. The author's illustrations complement this personal narrative, playing with scale in a similar fashion to the featured playgrounds. This is supplemented by text design and layout consultant, Cathleen Owens's meandering arrangement of text that weaves through the book, working its way around the axonometric, plan and graphic drawings that fill every page. Her father an architect and mother a stylish librarian, Jacquette ascribes the unified aesthetic vocabulary that played a big part in her childhood to her making today, drawing on memories such as: the clothing worn by her mother who confidently strode around gritty New York; Manhattan movie theaters; playgrounds in the Netherlands and parks designed by her father. Today, Columbus Park Tower sits atop a cleaners, cafe, boutique, cobblers, bar and two restaurants and is engulfed by residential high-rises lining Columbus avenue. It's cream colored (originally white) balconies which Jacquette mentions protrude out and contrast against its aged (but not damaged) brickwork. They amplify the linear orderliness of the facade—an aesthetic retained today. Look north and there are newer, modern, high-end apartments. The area is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble neighborhood that Jacquette grew up in, but the bold spirit of the place evidently lives on in her work. Playground of My Mind was published by Prestel in conjunction with the Wellin Museum of Art, where a mid-survey exhibition of Jacquette is currently on show, located on the campus of Hamilton College. Julia Jacquette: Unrequited and Acts of Play looks at the theme of identity through the nostalgic lens used in Playground of My Mind. The exhibition is on view through July 2, 2017, and an abridged version of the show will travel to the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, New Jersey, where it will be on view from September 24, 2017, through January 14, 2018. Playground of My Mind Prestel, $49.95

This new book challenges your preconceptions of architectural ornament, past and present

In 1902, the under-known Prussian architect and author, Hermann Muthesius, promoted what he labeled Sachlichkeit, prior to the prophecies of his seminal Austrian contemporary, Adolf Loos. It summarized a design philosophy that advocated the “elimination of every merely decorative form,” giving way only to “form according to demands set by purpose.” 

Endeavoring with fin-de-siècle fervor to shape how a new century could build, Muthesius declared that “ornament” would exist only if endemic to the overall conception of surface and materiality rather than as some extraneous froufrou that groped back at a severed past.    

Loos later solidified his place as modernism’s harbinger with his more dogmatic credo: “Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength … (it) cannot any longer be made by anyone.” 

The design platform for Europe and the Americas at least seemed fixed. Ornament gave way to “decoration” shaped by the personal choices of the end-user. Architecture’s task was best fulfilled when separated from art and replaced by the more practical assignment of delivering comfortable utility: The proverbial machine for living and a blank state of decoration with ornament led to its further devaluation, despite its former centrality to place making.

As this important volume reveals by concentrating on the greater Mediterranean basin of Christian Europe and the fluctuating contours of the Islamic world (descending from the classical Greek suzerainty and its successive Roman Empire shaped by Vitruvian aesthetic orthodoxy), the debate is far more nuanced. The case is made that—in built reality—no break with ornament ever fully took place, despite the intent and ethos of the modernists. Like history itself, ornament did not end in the 20th century but merely evolved with renewed force, ultimately from postmodernism’s backward glance.

Histories of Ornament was inspired by papers delivered at an international conference held at Harvard in 2012. Whether translated or seamlessly edited by Necipoğlu and Payne, it covers an unprecedented and stringent collection of scholarly research and reflection. It is not a history of ornament per se, but rather a rigorous and sometimes cautionary record of the history of ornament’s shifting meaning and theoretical basis. This volume assesses ornament as a legitimate aspect of designing the future built environment. 

It is neither elegy nor encyclopedia; the purpose instead is summed up simply in the editors’ introduction as “to address what ornament does [and did].” The result is a summons to surrender preconceived notions about ornament as somehow apart from or inferior to architecture in its full range of possible expression.

Despite varying assessments by the diverse contributors on the present state of ornament, the book is enlivened by an acknowledgment that it owes part of its resurgence to the digital tools available in this still young century.

In Part I, “Contemporaneity of Ornament in Architecture,” the scholar Vittoria Di Palma acknowledges that even traditional ornament, such as that of the classical orders (so long removed from any underlying structural imperative) remains off limits to progress, while new technologies are both jumpstarting and inventing many others. Overall exterior surface patterning rendered essential to core architectural intent has been made feasible in ways that Edward Durell Stone or Frank Lloyd Wright were striving toward a half-century ago.

Di Palma reminds us, however, that “technology is not the wellspring of desire” and considers how other forces, distinct from the historic, religious, or nationalistic narrative, drive ornament’s return. Among her conclusions is their root in sensation and how “by operating on a biological level, by privileging the body and its forms of knowledge, both its affect and effect hold out promise of a potential universality.” In this way, globalization and its gradual imposition of common expectations across cultures emerge as an opportunity for shared sensation.

The sections build the case that while ornament often served as a signal of some victorious cultural imposition, the result was its absorption and adjustment leading to new, assimilated meanings.

In chapter six of the polemical Part II, “Ornament between Historiography and Theory,” scholar Maria Judith Feliciano examines the conceptual and syncretic invention of Mudéjar design by the revisionist 19th-century art historian, José Amador de los Ríos, who invented a label for the profound place of Islamic design ornament on the Iberian Peninsula. He transmuted the historic impact of seven centuries of regional Moorish control and, above all, the Arabesque expression of its distinctive ornamented architecture into a metaphor of ultimate Catholic vindication.

Feliciano explained, “De los Ríos defined it as a reflection of the grandeur of the Christian national character, which was capable of effecting conquest, tolerating diversity, and demanding the artistic and intellectual participation of its citizens in the construction of a productive enlightened state.” In other words, the act of ornamental expropriation defined in terms of cultural and political submission underscores the inevitable goodness of a unitary monarchy. In the 20th century this led to its successor, the Fascist Francisco Franco. Franco’s minster of fine arts went farther still in pronouncing that Spain was not only the foremost agent for extending the Catholic religion and the past glories of Rome, but also “the transmitter of the artistic culture of Islam in the New World…which in an effort unparalleled in history was discovered and conquered by Spain, and by her was incorporated in the Occidental and Catholic culture.” 

Ornament takes its place as the characterization of civilization’s advance whether good or evil.

Rather than being superfluous, ornament reclaims its design role freed from normative narratives. Its utility shifts not only in its application, but also in its innate, essential meaning for both contemporary practitioners and occupants alike.

In the architecture of today, Sachlichkeit gives way to Gesamtkunstwerk. Muthesius and his cohorts did not so much get their wish, as they set the stage for design theory and its built yield as a new vocabulary characterizing ornament’s essential place in architecture.

Humankind relies on sensation to thrive, rather than merely survive.

Histories of Ornament Gülru Necipoğlu and Alina Payne, Princeton University Press, $60