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
Posts tagged with "Michael Webb":
A grand celebration for the publication of Michael Webb: Two Journeys, an exquisite survey of his life’s work, took place last week in Paul Rudolph’s Modulightor Building on East 58th Street. The room was filled with long-time friends, colleagues, former students, all so pleased for Michael and for the wonderful publication that has finally appeared, despite all doubts. The event was introduced by Ashley Simone, editor of the book, followed by one of Michael’s unique, funny, and brilliant disquisitions, and concluded with words from Lars Müller, publisher. We will publish a Peter Cook review of Two Journeys in the next issue of the newspaper.
The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) will be the location for the Graphic Novels / Novel Architecture Symposium on April 1st. Organized by Kent State University College of Architecture & Environmental Design (CAED), the symposium will explore the relationship between architecture and comics. The influence of animation, cartoons, comics, illustrations, and storyboards will be discussed in two sessions and a keynote discussion. Participants will include architects, illustrators, and educators. Graphic Novels / Novel Architecture will be the first event of an annual series that will explore architecture and different narrative media. The first session, starting at 1:00 pm in CMA’s Gartner Auditorium, is entitled "Hot Technology." The session will include short presentations and a discussion between California-based architect Wes Jones, London-based architect and illustrator Alison Sampson, and Archigram’s Michael Webb. The second session, entitled "Cool Diagrams," will start at 3:00 pm. This session will include presentations and a discussion between University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture Director Robert Somol, Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular, and Dutch cultural anthropologist Mélanie van der Hoorn. A closing keynote discussion will feature acclaimed comic book artist Chris Ware and Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are encouraged. For those not able to make it to Cleveland, the entire symposium will be live-streamed online. The proceedings will also be archived on video, and produced into a short video documentary. A book is also planned documenting the event.
On View> The Cooper Union presents “Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky & the Architectural Association”
Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky & the Architectural Association Cooper Union 30 Cooper Square, New York Through November 25, 2015 Boasting a remarkable array of artwork from both past and contemporary architectural figures such as John Hejduk, Michael Webb, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Bernard Tschumi, Drawing Ambience reflects and encourages the late Alvin Boyarsky’s assimilation of architectural drawings. During his tenure at the Architectural Association in London, Boyarsky developed a profound appreciation of these drawings. Known as a man with a keen eye for talent, Boyarsky fostered many young architects who would later dominate the field. He urged his students to investigate contemporary issues and use the evolving global culture as a vehicle to develop their own architectural agendas. These agendas manifested in the students’ visual work that Boyarsky regarded as equally important to the physical structures they depicted, viewing them as pieces of architecture in their own right. Visitors can expect to see works ranging from Hadid’s chaotic and crisp visualizations of her un-built projects to Koolhaas’ playful, almost Gameboy-esque The Pleasure of Architecture. The exhibition is currently on view at the Cooper Union in the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery and closes on November 25.
The Woolworth Building just a few short blocks from Zuccotti Park—the spiritual home of the Ocuppy movement—was itself bathed in radical red last night to celebrate the iconic "red" work of Barbara Krueger and Bernard Tschumi. The two celebrated figures were being honored by the Storefront for Art and Architecture at their annual Spring fundraiser. The yearly event always brings out a fun mix of young and distinguished professionals who come to support the Storefront and drink with friends and collegues. For the event last night everyone was asked to wear something red, and many did including Rick Scofidio who had one long red sock rolled over his pants leg, Archigramer Mike Webb carried around a red tequila laced drink, and Bernard Tschumi wore his iconic red scarf. Storefront board president Charles Renfro (with sorta red glasses) and Beatrice Colomina introduced Tschumi and Kruger at the top of the building's grand marble staircase, but the echo in the room made it impossible to hear a single word of their introductions. Never mind everyone on the staircase looked so fashionable, especially the resplendent Storefront Director Eva Franch. Ms. Franch, who makes all of her own clothes, wore a brilliant red, loopy draped dress that could only come out of the inspired mind of a Catalan like Ms. Franch. View more photos of the event at Storefront's Facebook page.
Dennis Crompton and Michael Webb plugged into the London launch of the Archigram website on Monday from New York City via a Skype connection to Westminster University. The two Archigrammers were meant to be present at the launch, but the Eyjafjallajökull volcano grounded their planes and kept them from joining Peter Cook and David Greene, who was scheduled to be at the event. So Crompton walked the assembled Londoners through the website from his Skype-enabled computer screen in Lower Manhattan. Crompton pointed out the significant but still burgeoning content to be found on the site and was able to see and hear the audience reacting to the virtual tour on his screen, while the audience watched Dennis and Michael on their large screen. Westminster organizers Kester Rattenbury, Clare Hamman, and Murray Fraser described the cross-Atlantic evening as “very Archigram,” but Cook was not sure if something was missing, and wondered if the real Archigram spirit was not more alive in various out-of-the-way pockets of experiment and energy than on this evening on Regent Street. For his part, Webb thanked those who worked on the site and came out to the event, but Greene was nowhere to be seen or heard—at least on this side of the Atlantic. A second launch in New York with Archigrammers reporting from London is in the works—and perhaps Greene might even walk us through his version of the site?
It’s hard to remember that the phenomenally influential Archigram only worked together as a group for two years: 1962–1964. But all six members (four are still living) carried on extremely active practices on their own, sometimes in combinations with other members, and they produced an amazing body of work. The University of Westminster has embarked on an archival project to assemble this creative output in digital format and make it available online. Though this monumental task is far from complete, the university has amassed almost 10,000 images, and will go live with the website on Monday at 7 p.m. London time at a special event. I have been planning on flying over for the occasion, and, should Iceland’s volcanic eruption permit, will be in Westminster to report on it next week.