Posts tagged with "Books":
Niche Tactics, a collection of essays edited by Caroline O’Donnell, approaches architecture as a living entity with a symbiotic relationship to its environment. She starts with contrasting bubble metaphors, the “ecological bubbles” of biologist Jakob von Uexkull, who studied creatures’ particular stimuli—blood for ticks, pollen for bees—with the Corbusian bubble that focuses on interior space shaped by program. External forces will burst the bubble rather than merely deform it if it isn’t designed for its ecology or able to adapt.
O’Donnell also bases her studies on Greg Lynn’s evolution of formalism unleashed from typological constraints. To this strategy, she adds the tactical niche, which references the components and resources of a habitat that influence survival. She takes us through a breadth of history, theory and cultural studies—from the Renaissance and the Picturesque, to Vitruvius and Palladio, to Colin Rowe and Peter Cook, and from sustainability and phenomenology to film and comedy—examining objects’ relations to their contexts and how this relates to architecture. Along the way she shows that basic principles of symmetry, proportion, and typology are not antithetical to an ecologically responsive architecture.
However, radical practices often get slapped with the “weird shape” or formalism label, so it’s encouraging to trace a trajectory from Rudolf Wittkower to Nikolaus Pevsner and Rowe, whose own studies of the analytic and the collage are found in O’Donnell’s research of context. Ideal Palladian villas are reintroduced to their country settings, and churches yield their historically typological forms to exaggerated responses to wind, solar, and urban orientation. Considering the urban, O’Donnell speculates what would have emerged had Le Corbusier’s clean sweep of the Plan Voisin grid considered cultural and civic landmarks as interferences. However, none of this is really all that new, foreign, or radical. The original Citicorp Center tower gave way to its site, the economics and air rights of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and O’Donnell shows how Manhattan’s gridiron deforms when confronting natural features, such as those of Morningside Park.
Moving into contemporary practice, O’Donnell reminds readers that the iterations initiated by Lynn grew from specific conditions, often dealing more with environment and evolution than more recent strategies such as application scripts and parametricism. A couple chapters addressing monsters and notions of ugliness are useful in describing how appearances that deviate from our expectations may actually indicate something more in tune with their environment or be on their way to a new “species” of architecture.
While O’Donnell laces her text with examples of analyzing and implementing contextual forces in projects, she saves the final chapter for examples of her own firm’s works. While some are no more than a paragraph, others elicit a more thorough explanation, such as her firm’s MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program winning entry Party Wall, to show how one can design to respond to site, urban context, history, and program.
The book is a welcome mix of the multidisciplinary—theory expands beyond formal analysis or historical indexing. O’Donnell combines those aspects with examples of projects in their environments, incorporating ecological and contextual referents into a living, evolving design practice. Ultimately O’Donnell argues for an ecological responsiveness to inform firmitas, utilitas, venustas contemporary architectural design.
Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site Caroline O’Donnell Routledge $59.95
“Context,” “vernacular,” and “reference” were the architectural buzzwords of choice that critic Owen Hatherley, at the start of 2017, used to recall the Architectural Review’s “Townscape” campaign. Here, he postulated that enhancing the old can be achieved by celebrating the new and serve as a deterrence to bland homogeneity. In London, viewing architecture without actually experiencing it in person is dominated by two abstract frames of reference: Instagram and flying things.
The former has helped to articulate a trend of austerity nostalgia and pastiche faux edginess, all bound by a medium that aestheticizes a bygone era and conveniently filters out context. It is, however, a deeply personal medium. The latter, meanwhile, depicts architecture within the cityscape and typically from above; lashings of context, yet devoid of any personal meaning seeing as very few of us can afford to travel by helicopter, and even fewer are birds.
New Architecture London, refreshingly and succinctly, makes no allusions as to what it's about through its title—not London looking nervously over its shoulder through rose-tinted spectacles, nor blind developer-driven optimism, this is the city as if were you to wander it right now.
Across 163 pages, photographers, Agnese Sanvito and Richard Schulman present a perpetually changing London in the “now;” a city, evidently rich in history, but not bound by it. For Schulman portraits of architects—and not just their buildings—is a hallmark of his work. While no portraits are featured in this book, it operates at a personal level with Schulman and Sanvito's lenses curating a pedestrian perspective of the city’s contemporary buildings.
In his foreword to the book, critic Edwin Heathcote describes Norman Foster's 30 St. Mary Axe (known by its colloquial moniker: The Gherkin) as a "bullet emerging from a city that has been bombed three times in a century." “Now it can barely be seen,” he continues, noting the structure as a stylistic and typological catalyst for its more contemporary, Boris-approved counterparts. It’s not all heroic, however. A generation ago, as Heathcote acknowledges, London was populated by few structures by architects of international repute, but now it is a playground for Pritzker Prize winners to plonk their iconic structures.
When Renzo Piano's Shard is framed with the abstract geometry of more glass you wonder: if the U.K.'s tallest building wasn't in the picture, would we know what city we were in? On the next page, a counter: the Shard rising above a Georgian wall, amid an equally mundane, yet historically inflected setting. In both, the Shard is the only visual indicator of place, but how long will this continue to be the case? Heathcote remarks, though, “it’s not just [London’s] skyline that has seen radical changes; its streets and its public spaces are being transformed” too.
This is a precedent for the photographers' work which looks at the abstract and intimate relationship between old and new (Amanda Levette’s 10 Hills Place and RARE Architects’ Patriot Square being notable examples). It also allows London's new architecture, in light of Townscape, to frame and be framed by its context. This is achieved sometimes by letting reflections, light, and shadow alternate focal points. Other times, it is as Heathcote remarks, “glimpsed around corners… or poking above streets.”
The technique encourages you to seek the narrative of a place and imagine the moment which is presented, as Schulman’s photograph of Caruso St. John's RIBA Stirling Prize winning Newport Street Gallery demonstrates. Even if you don't know what a delayed Southwest train service destined for Waterloo sounds like, the act of placing yourself in that scene isn't hard as the skyward facing photograph frames the saw-toothed roof and train reflection in the gallery's windows. Sadly, however, this image is afforded little page space by Prestel. The same could be said for a few other images too.
The term "shot" perhaps is a disservice to the photograph. Implying it was taken sporadically in the moment (a trait intentionally and successfully articulated) hides the fact that Schulman, in fact, spent considerable time to capture the moment and essence of place—even if a particular place is lacking in just that. He typically visits sites 20-30 times before shooting. "To take great pictures, you have to be prepared to lie on your back in the middle of the street," he told me.
Or sometimes, you have to be in a gondola—the Emirates Airline to be precise—from which Wilkinson Eyre’s Emirates Royal Docks and the Crystal can be spied. A synopsis states the cable-car system “connects directly to the London Underground while granting passengers a much more absorbing visual experience.” Don’t be fooled. When the summer tourists disappear, the supposed infrastructure is a ghost town gimmick—and a costly one too.The Emirates airline is the only transport-orientated project featured, which says a lot for London’s building priorities. It could be said today’s starchitects were beaten to the opportunity largely by the Victorians, but Norman Foster's British Museum proved great work can be done when working with buildings from this era. New Architecture London is also ordered as haphazardly as London itself. A chronological or geographical route through would have been handy.
Three brick blockbusters, O'Donnell + Tuomey's LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Center and Herzog de Meuron's Switch House, in addition to Newport Street Gallery, can be found at the end of the book and remind us that London was once a brick-built city; a gracious nod to, not fetishized fawning, of the past. Looking forward, meanwhile, is New London Architecture, presenting an honest and refreshing take on a city still working out where it wants to go.
New Architecture London Prestel $45.00
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
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
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
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.
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
In his new book The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, Pierluigi Serraino writes about a forgotten psychology study of well-known creative people that U.C. Berkeley’s Institute for Personality Assessment and Research conducted in the late 1950s. In addition to writers and scientists, participants included Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and dozens of other major architects of the day.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How did you find out about the studies that became the basis of this book?
Pierluigi Serraino: From different sources. A large part of it was a result of spending time with Don Olsen when I was working on NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism and then on my monograph on him. Also, Jack Hillmer told me Charles Warren Callister was in the creativity study. The daughter of Fred Langhorst told me about her dad coming home from participating in the study and telling them about this absurd problem the study posed, how to put a third arm to use. Raymond Neutra told me that he had seen the study’s files about his father and that he knew where they were.
Where was the material stored?
U.C. Berkeley has a large storage facility in Richmond, California. The archives are in a little room filled with file cabinets.
When I ran into Neutra, he told me that he had met Wallace Hall. Hall was the right-hand man to Donald MacKinnon, the director of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, a research institute at U.C. Berkeley, better known as IPAR. I called Hall. He was very old and in declining health. He said that they had wanted to do a book.
Hall was the gatekeeper of everything IPAR. He wouldn’t give access to anybody. So when he died, no one had a vested interest any longer.
Why do you think the well-known architects of the day participated in the study?
It was largely due to the political clout of William Wurster, whom MacKinnon asked to reach out to the architects. Wurster was an important architect himself, and he was dean of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley.
Who funded the study?
The Carnegie Corporation. IPAR applied for a large grant in November of 1955. The people who were at the top of the funding agencies for these kinds of studies were in the Office of Strategic Services [OSS, a precursor to the CIA] and worked at the same OSS station together during the war, performing assessment studies of troops. They assessed candidates for very delicate missions.
Why did the Carnegie Corporation want to do this study?
It was the result of the Cold War. The researchers changed gears completely. There was a shift from studying human effectiveness to studying creativity in general. There was a desire to identify the folks who were going to be the most creative people, so that the U.S. could have a competitive advantage against the Russians. It was deeply nationalistic, if you think about it.
Why was the study not published?
That is the biggest mystery of all. Territoriality and politics about authorship of the study, perhaps. I think they strung this thing along too long and they lost the momentum.
Also, in the 1970s, there was a shift in the conception of personalities: Maybe it’s not just about the person, maybe it’s also the environment. Psychologists started thinking they were giving too much credit to the individual.
Describe the Mosaic Construction Test.
The architects were given tiles and told to create an eight-by-ten-inch mosaic. They also had a form that they had to fill out, answering questions about the intentions behind what they were doing.
The mosaics reveal that the creative person explores colors and fields in a non-formulaic approach. Some very creative architects did some rather dull mosaics, so it’s an imperfect procedure. For example, John Funk, who did the Heckendorf house in Modesto, did a very uninteresting mosaic. Victor Lundy’s was really superb, just very lyrical. He was a fantastic architect. Louis Kahn used some rather gloomy colors—there’s some darkness in it. I have to say, Neutra’s wasn’t interesting.
There is the famous story, reported by Charles Eames in 1963, about why Eero Saarinen used only white tiles. Apparently, Saarinen said, “I use only white, because I’m interested in texture.”
Did the researchers come to a conclusion about creativity as a result of this study?
Yes, but the conclusions were broad. One of them was that the creative person is not teamwork material. And in corporate society, this doesn’t sit well. What are we going to do with that? Are we going to have a bunch of people who do whatever they want?
Courage may be the great differentiator. You can have the intelligence, the talent, the intuition. But you have to have the courage to act on your instincts. You have to create conditions to do the work that you deem necessary, based on your aspirations, your vision. The condition of creativity is that you have to sustain the vision that you have for very long time, because you have a very long period where people resist you.
So who is the creative person?
Everybody has a capacity to be creative. This is a capacity that we always have at birth and we lose. We lose the authenticity of who we are. In a way, the message of this book has to do with life choices. What do we want to do with our lives? The creative person is someone who picks one field and explores it to its full extent.
If there’s any justice, history will recognize John Zukowsky for his singular place in documenting and disseminating Chicago’s architectural history. He’s produced several of the most significant visual records of the city, including the two-volume companion to the milestone surveys [Chicago Architecture 1872–1922 and 1923–1993] that he mounted at the Art Institute in the early 1990s; together the catalogues create an amazingly comprehensive chronicle of built Chicago. And, shortly before leaving the city in 2004, he published Masterpieces of Chicago Architecture, a visually breathtaking timeline of the city’s greatest buildings.
An assessment of Building Chicago, Zukowsky’s latest contribution to the canon, more or less demands the inquiry: Is it necessary? Given the increasing interest in the subject over the past couple of decades and the number of pictorial surveys of the city that others have published, do we really need another iteration of “Chicago’s Greatest Hits?” And hasn’t Mr. Zukowsky said it all already anyway?
The short answers are “yes” and “maybe, but so what?” Indeed, there is probably not much new to say on the subject that Zukowsky himself hasn’t already said. (Beyond the fact—and this is not insignificant—that a dozen years have elapsed since Zukowsky’s last compendium, and a lot has happened architecturally in the last dozen years.) But with architectural history, you can always find new ways to look at the material—not only conceptually, but visually. And in Building Chicago, Zukowsky has lucked into a whole new inventory of visual materials.The image collection of the Chicago History Museum (formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society) recently acquired rights to most of the spectacular archive of Hedrich Blessing, generally considered the world’s greatest architectural photography studio, dating back to the 1930s through to 1979—in addition to the museum’s already impressive collection of vintage photographs.
In his introduction, Zukowsky acknowledges he’s revisiting much of the territory he covered in the 2004 work (also for the publisher Rizzoli), which drew mostly from the Art Institute’s extensive collection of drawings, artifacts, and photos. Here, Zukowsky’s source for imagery, while almost exclusively photographic, is actually much broader than the Art Institute’s and really makes for a much more vivid picture.
Zukowsky is a fine scholar, but the writing in Building Chicago is generally dry and uninspiring, particularly if you’re well-versed in the subject matter. But you’re not reading this book for the text. Like any picture book—and, while it’s a serious historical work, Building Chicago is primarily a picture book—its success depends on the images. So it’s particularly fortunate that Zukowsky was able to indulge his “curator’s choice” and assemble a brilliant iconography of the most emblematic buildings in the city from the museum’s collection.
Zukowsky admits that he didn’t intend this as a comprehensive history of the city’s built environment: It is, quite frankly, a look at the city’s most important, influential and prominent structures. Aside from some high-profile apartment towers and one lakefront mansion, there’s little about residential design, almost nothing ecclesiastical, and very little outside the city’s core. The visual story Zukowsky is presenting here doesn’t pretend to reflect anything beyond the public realm or show us much about the neighborhoods in a city that is supposed to be all about neighborhoods. It’s about the architecture that has become a key element of the tourism industry and an economic engine on its own, celebrating the great, important buildings of Chicago that provide the city its one real claim to international distinction and are the source of boundless hometown pride.
Readers familiar with the cityscape will not be surprised here with the choice of buildings illustrated. But the book’s real distinction is the historical selection from Hedrich Blessing—both in its great period photos of grand buildings now demolished (the Michigan Square Building) or recklessly remodeled (the Prudential Building lobby) and of projects far less glamorous: A 1944 photo of the Monroe Street Red Line platform and another of the newly finished Lake Shore Drive pedestrian overpass at North Avenue are particularly edifying.
It’s hard to imagine a better compendium: Building Chicago is an important addition to any serious collection of books about the city.
Building Chicago: The Architectural Masterworks John Zukowsky, Rizzoli, $85.00