Michael Webb is a virtuoso English architect, inventor, and artist who was a member of Archigram in London before emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s. Continuing his link with the group and his inventive investigations, he survives by teaching in architecture schools. Yet baldly stated, these facts hardly prepare one for the extraordinary document that is Two Journeys, his latest book.Reading it, I have a serious suggestion: For those who have not had a chance to meet Webb or hear him speak, search online for a video of one of his lectures (there must be quite a few out there). Listen carefully, and then listen and watch it again. Then read the book carefully. His manner of speaking is slowly paced, often with the odd aside, spoken in a kind of English that those of us who remained in London after the 1960s have sullied through the influence of “Estuary English," the result of the cosmopolitanism of London that leads one to incorporate a faintly European sentence structure, some West Indian patois, or the occasional charming Italian bon mot. Not Michael: His parlance and manner are as charming and reassuring as the surviving BBC radio program Gardeners’ Question Time, which he still probably remembers. He speaks with a trace of wistfulness, useful hints, and a whiff of friendly irony—often with quite a laugh, but behind that lies a rapierlike thrust. That this book has finally emerged is wonderful, and for those of us who had despaired of it ever happening, it is a precious thing. Webb’s text is loaded with the same asides and nuances as the lectures themselves, accompanied by revealing pieces of characterization, such as his description of Cedric Price as, “A new suitor sporting slick-backed hair and a golden tongue”—or, “Nursing a martini whilst seated on the terrace of the Johansen house…one has the feeling that the terrace (can it really be so?) is no longer level. With the clarity of perception that a second martini brings, I realize that indeed, the plane is tipping up, at an ever-increasing angle.” Thus, in the first aside he captures the humility (or frustration) of a world where architectural ideas are the victim of style and communication, and in the second, he creates a charming lead-in to the discussion of shadow effect in the sun studies of 1988. The journeys—and there are surely more than two—take us in and out of exquisite drawings that are never really finished. Therein lies one of the agonizing challenges to observers of the work. For surely Webb can draw (and how). Long ago I once caught a glimpse of a pre–High Wycombe project, probably from his third year, in which he wielded the shaded pencil to suggest so many of Le Corbusier’s mannerisms on a single piece of paper. Yet in an early drawing of the High Wycombe project made to illustrate the ferro-cement technique, he left it just three-quarters finished because (as I remember him saying), “It didn’t capture the material.” On other occasions, he tackled the vexed territory of oil painting with a determination that did, eventually, produce the beatific Brunhilde’s magic ring of fire, with its floating angels. However, perfectionism has not always been accompanied by much archival concern for the state of the drawings, and tales of them being lost, damaged, blown off the roof of a car, or even forgotten are legion—and it shows in the book. In an attempt to keep the explanation of a project or train of thought going forward, the illustrations range from a fashion-plate exposure of clouds and translucent panels for his five-phase house to the succulent paintwork of Henley Regatta landscape details, along with the occasional, slightly hairy “rescued” item from an old slide collection. It would seem that the key search for perfection remains that of the idea, the pursuit of the drawing apparently being a means to the end. But in the cases of the reworked versions of the Henley project or developed versions of the house-car preoccupation, there is a search for finesse in the line, the shading, the sheer beauty of what we see. When publishing the odd item, he will negotiate hard to have the best version published—and why not? Well, this document is there to rescue us—friends, analysts, or new converts who inevitably will pick away, trying to fathom the tantalizingly not-quite-fathomable in his work. Yet such a book can be deceptive in its wish to explain overall significance rather than merely track the artist’s own priorities. This book is, of course, very concerned about “positioning” Michael Webb, and invites the late Lebbeus Woods to try and get inside Webb’s mind—which Woods does, invoking such dangerous allies as Faust, Freud, and God. As a fellow explorer, Woods has some insight into the significance of memory within the process, with both Webb and Woods dreaming their way in and out of it. The book presents a straightforward and rather useful chronology from Kenneth Frampton that embeds the experience of British and American culture alongside Webb’s work. Michael Sorkin and Mark Wigley are brought in, too—brilliant wordsmiths and provocateurs. But just how much “positioning” must we have? This is a tiresome tendency of books that are either too nervous just to back a masterful piece of work and let it sail, or wanting to show off just how many scholars they can pack into 200 pages. This brings us back to the narrative of the real author once again. The caption-like texts are revealing: disarmingly frank about motives when, for a drawing of the Leicester Square ramps, Webb explains, “A few dyeline prints were initially attached to the board. All of them faded to the mustard yellow you see here. So to complete the drawing, coloured paper of a similar hue had to be added.” As if this mattered. But of course, it did matter—the yellowness being part of the experience of the drawing as well as the information it gives about the ramps. Or consider Webb's near-apology for being painstaking with a plan drawing of the drive-in house, as he notes, “I am interested in the fact that during the reversing procedure the two front wheels are not parallel, hence the energy expended in the drawing on explaining why.” This underscores a delicious piece of draughtsmanship in which precise geometric lines of direction are laid over sweet exposures of steering armatures in plan and, of course, impeccably drawn tires—all 20 of them. It could be called something like “poetic pedantry,” and in fact, it is the amalgam of invention and art. So what is it really all about? Fifty-five or more years of exploration track over the territory of the automobile-environment, picking up on personal space devices, started by the famous Cushicle and the Henley, or the Temple Island project that examines and reexamines linear perspective projection. Out of these and back again, he has contrived scenes, séances, gadgets, vehicles, trajectories, procedures, and—rarely—buildings. In fact, only two of the projects are buildings per se, and these are the earliest of the projects. But my—what buildings. The Furniture Manufacturers’ Association at High Wycombe was a “set” project at the then Regent Street Polytechnic. Its “rack and tubes” architecture was stunning, moving the architectural vocabulary miles forward. It still gives Webb creative food for thought. The Sin Centre for Leicester Square (his “thesis” work) is, by his own admission, a form of folly: taking the thrill of a car driving up and zigzagging around inside a lacework of a building. Again he tracks back and over the mechanism. Yet again, it resembles no other piece of architecture, and thus snippets of it can be found in Gunther Domenig’s Vienna Z-Bank, bits of Richard Rogers’s work, and anywhere that the “high tech” conversation crops up. So having created these total statements, Webb seems to have moved into the foreground with an ever more internalized pursuit, not as crazy or agoraphobic as Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, but rather taking the day-to-day world as an amusing but irrelevant background. Read, and he willingly invites you inside. Two Journeys Edited by Ashley Simone with essays by Kenneth Frampton, Michael Sorkin, Mark Wigley, and Lebbeus Woods Lars Müller Publishers
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At the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Golden Lion for National Participation was awarded to Switzerland for a minimal yet amusing installation Svizzera 240: House Tour, a mock luxury apartment that had been multiplied and re-scaled throughout the pavilion’s spaces. The humorous interpretation was meant to challenge our perceptions of scale in the domestic environment, as well as draw attention to the banality of these spaces. The Golden Lion for best individual participant went to Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura for a pair of photographs showing a before and after of a renovation of São Lourenço do Barrocal estate in Alentejo, Portugal, which was barely perceptible. The focus on architecture here, rather than a grand political statement, is in line with the overall character of the show, as well as the judge’s choices. A special mention went to the British Pavilion, for a dramatic structure, Island, that hovered over the building, which was left completely empty. On the plinth above, a cafe was setup and visitors could feel isolated from the Giardini below, while enjoying a beautiful view. Special mentions were given to Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra and Indonesian architect Andra Matin. New York–based British historian Kenneth Frampton won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Critic Peter Lang told AN, “Grabbing the Golden Lion trophy like a brick, Frampton hoisted it up to shoulder height and beamed with no small amount of delight. In an exchange of banter between him and the curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara, where they referred to his hugely influential legacy and his role as a “barometer of truth,” Ken responded wryly that they were the best architects in the world. Ken stood firmly by Hannah Arendt and his belief that modernism is an unfinished project. Clearly there will be more reflections from this British critic to come.”
Architect, educator, and author Kenneth Frampton has received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Frampton joins the ranks of past winners such as Paulo Mendes da Rocha in 2016, Phyllis Lambert in 2014, and Álvaro Siza Vieira in 2012. Born in London in 1930 and educated at the Architectural Association, Frampton has worked as an architect, critic, and historian, and taught at a number of vaunted schools over the course of his career. He’s perhaps most well-known for his 1980 work Modern Architecture: A Critical History, which has since become a seminal text in the field. Frampton has also taught consistently at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) since 1972. This year’s decision was made by the chair of the Board of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta, with recommendations from the International Architecture Exhibition curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. "Through his work, Kenneth Frampton occupies a position of extraordinary insight and intelligence combined with a unique sense of integrity,” said Farrell and McNamara in a joint statement. “He stands out as the voice of truth in the promotion of key values of architecture and its role in society. His humanistic philosophy in relation to architecture is embedded in his writing and he has consistently argued for this humanistic component throughout all the various ‘movements’ and trends often misguided in architecture in the 20th and 21st century.” "There is no student of the faculties of architecture who is unfamiliar with his Modern Architecture: A Critical History,” said Baratta in a press release. “The Golden Lion goes this year to a 'maestro,' and in this sense it also intended to be a recognition of the importance of the critical approach to the teaching of architecture.” Other than Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Frampton has authored numerous other influential books clarifying the internal language of the built environment, including Studies in Tectonic Culture, Labour, Work and Architecture, and A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form. Frampton will officially receive his award on Saturday, May 26, 1018, during the award ceremony and inauguration of the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. The event will open to the public at 10:00 AM and will be held in the Biennale’s headquarters of Ca’ Giustinian.
One of the most charming and instructive accounts of the modern architect’s design process was offered by Filarete, architect of the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan and author of the long, neo-Platonic Trattato di architettura. Writing around 1450, Filarete compares the architect to a mother who conceives and gives birth to a child—the building. “When this birth is accomplished—that is, when he has made in wood a small relief design of its final form, measured and proportioned to the finished building—he then shows it to the father.” In this fable of creation the “father” is represented as the patron, and like Plato’s demiurge, or craftsman, the architect does not create a complete building, but rather its model in scale relief. Models since antiquity have taken on the roles of varying kinds of architectural representation, from the symbolic to the ceremonial. Yet the primary function of an architectural model was the demonstration of a design in three dimensions, made to scale and itself derived from drawings. But beginning in the 18th century, with the establishment of educational institutions—the Ecole des Arts of Jacques-François Blondel, the school of the French Academie Royale, and notably the school of the British Royal Academy—models came to seen as indispensable teaching tools. Sir John Soane’s Model Room in his museum-cum-house documents the scales and contents of a curriculum geared to those students who were (at least in the midst of their training) unable to visit the real thing in Italy or Greece, or even hypothetical reconstructions of lost or ruined monuments. Today “modeling” has become a virtual affair. Google “architectural models” and the first entries to appear are advertisements for modeling software. Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has long been countering this trend towards the virtual. For the past few decades Frampton has taught the course Studies in Tectonic Culture, which is dedicated to, in his words, revealing to students “the tectonic essence” of works of architecture, a “constructive poetic.” By which he means the way in which a built building, as an object constructed out of materials with structural logic, could not be understood—let alone internalized—by architectural students through drawings or photographs alone. Consequently, over many years of teaching he has had his students build models of existing structures. However, these are not “representational” models of the kind an architect might display to clients, financiers, or even the public. Instead, they are analytical models whose process of design and realization—a process of careful interrogation of the constructive and tectonic nature of a building—is as important as the final object. “A tectonic model,” Frampton explains, “must be expressive of its intrinsic structure by way of the way it’s made. The tectonic is an expressive culture of construction… So what you choose to reveal and what you choose to conceal are part of its poetics.” For Frampton, an architect must internalize such “poetics” on many levels, which encompasses an aesthetic that is not purely visual, but that is grounded in the very process of material construction. Hence the difficulties of virtual modeling in revealing this process: only by, so to speak, re-living the step by step conception of a design, and its transformation into a tectonic object, can the student internalize the work of architecture on all levels. A selection of these extraordinary models is now on display in the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia GSAPP. Six of what must have been dozens of such objects built by students over the years have been rescued from the school’s storage and meticulously restored. They range from sectional models of the Bagsværd Church (1976) by Jorn Utzon and the Saint Benedict Chapel (1988) by Peter Zumthor, a fully furnished three-dimensional presentation of Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House (1924), to constructional analyses of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux (1937) and Norman Foster’s Renault Distribution Center (1982). Each is clearly a work of affection and intelligence; each demonstrates what the student has identified as a guiding formal, poetic, and constructive principle of the work. These six models, standing at appropriate heights in this small, spare gallery, would have been eloquent enough alone—they do, in a very concrete way, speak for themselves. But the curators have chosen to pair them with a series of specially commissioned photographs by the architectural photographer James Ewing. However, rather than replicate what the models exemplify in the straightforward fashion of model photography, Ewing has chosen to work with the models to fabricate his own artistic, photographic essays. In fourteen remarkable images he has responded to the history of the buildings represented by the models, as well as to his own photographic intuitions. Using projected backdrops, special lighting, and in one “spectacular” case a smoke machine, Ewing photographically manipulates the models in order to propose alternative, supplementary readings of their original analytical positions. Here, the results are mixed. Where these supplementary readings involve a demonstration of the power of the model and the photograph to produce, together, a new realization of the qualities of the building—as, for instance, in Ewing’s exemplary photograph of the interior light at Zumthor’s Saint Benedict Chapel—the photograph and the model are brilliantly paired in conversation. Where, on the other hand, the photographic image attempts to constitute an entirely different reality from that implied by the model—as in the case of the hyperrealist image of red clouds hovering behind Le Corbusier’s exhibition pavilion—the effect is less one of conversation between model and photo, as one of contrast pointing to the difference in medium. In sum, the importance of this little show is to open up another conversation—one that is sorely needed today—between the virtual, the visual, and the concrete, in a way that pays eloquent homage to a pedagogical approach and a teacher, whose indefatigable defense of architectural qualities has informed and inspired his students and colleagues for over half a century. Anthony Vidler, New York, March 2017 Stagecraft: Models and Photos is on view through March 10.
At his book launch at New York’s Center for Architecture, Kenneth Frampton admitted that he had not visited all of the 14 pairs of building analyzed in A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form. This distance to some of the buildings by the author makes even more pertinent the rigor of the analytical method presented as a way to read buildings as a cultural construct deep in meanings and references as in literature or painting. The index of the comparative analysis: First, the dialogue between type and context referring to the site and the programmatic type of the built form. Second, the coding of the space according to the variable degree of public, semi-public, and service space is indebted to his close reading of Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition rather than as a reference to Louis Kahn’s famous served-service spaces. Third, the dialogue of structure and membrane is indebted to his previous book on tectonics and of course, The Four Elements of Architecture by Gottfried Semper. And fourth, the connotational summation is the synthesis of these categories as they refer to larger cultural values. With this book Frampton gives teachers and students an important pedagogical tool as an alternative to the schematic reductionism prevalent in the contemporary architectural practice and education. Frampton writes, “Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, first published in 1945, augments the ontological implications of The Human Condition by introducing the concept of the ‘body-being’ as the prime agency through which we experience the world. This recognition is intimately linked to our motility through which we experience space.” The public-private and goal-route analysis conjoins a structuralist-phenomenological point of view established by the close reading of the body’s movement through space in the plan and section drawings and then corroborated by the archival photographs. The articulation of built form in terms of typology, tectonic expressivity and referential detailing allows us to experience the architecture through its representation guided by the belief in the “body-being” as if touching, hearing, seeing, and smelling while actively moving-reading the represented spatial sequence. The historical frame of 1923–1980 is marked by a “post- 1945 denouement of the myth of progress (that) first permeates our late modern consciousness through the successive traumas of Stalinism, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima.” The modern project is thus divided into two distinct periods: The period between WWI and WWII 1918–1939 and the period post WWII 1945 until the Venice Biennale of 1980, organized by Paolo Portoghesi, that acknowledged the advent of a postmodern condition, both aesthetically and politically. Frampton believes the three main factors at play in the evolution of the modern movement being are the classical tradition and its tendency towards the abstract, the technological and the vernacular. Each of these categories is present in different proportions as we travel throughout Europe as Le Corbusier noted in his annotated map of his Voyage d’Orient of 1912 and published in L'art décoratif d'aujourd'hui of 1925. Frampton notes “The contrast between the latent classism of Le Corbusier’s Purist paradigm in his entry for the Société des Nations competition was more capable of achieving a rational solution” than Hannes Meyer’s reductive functionalism “insisting on using the same module irrespective of the egg shaped auditorium and leading to an unresolved juxtaposition between the inclined supports of the auditorium shell and the surrounding orthogonal structure.” Yet Frampton ends his introduction with a return to Arendt’s “space of public appearance”: “Today, however, we may still assume an ideologically progressive approach to postmodern architectonic form via a sensitive response to context, climate, topography, and material, combined with the self-conscious generation of place-form as a political-cum-cultural space of appearance.” In his comparison of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum and Aalvar Aalto’s Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Frampton writes “Aalto’s organic planning within the orthogonal re-enforced concrete frame enabled him to provide appropriately dimensioned ancillary spaces as found in the lecture halls…This in contrast to Kahn’s dependence of the width of a single vault, irrespective of the function. The comparative analysis pointing to the limitation of Kahn’s insistence on the vault and at the same illuminating how structural invention as large curved beams (not vaults) allowed Kahn to achieve a free plan. The book is lucid not only in the literary content but as a graphic document where each illustration re-enforces the text and analysis. This is the result of a long process of design undertaken by Frampton and his editor Ashley Simone to achieve a coherent graphic design that works a handbook in the tradition of Serlio. It is the ethical content of this book that is rare today. Frampton insists, “architecture is a singular material culture that by its very nature it has the potential to resist the current pervasive drive to commodify the entire word.” Frampton, the architect, historian, and critical thinker, makes clear in this extraordinary book of curated comparative analysis what architecture can achieve.