After last year’s successful pick of dark horse Wang Shu (5:1 odds), a continuation of my Pritzker Prize series seems in order. No promises for a similar success this year, but I think that Shu might be a bellwether for changes in the ambitions of the prize. Perhaps the jury as currently composed will be able to set aside the Eurocentrism of decades past and see to it that a more broad array of architects are on the list of nominees.
5:1 – Kengo Kuma (Japanese, b. 1954)
The reason Kuma’s work is so appealing is hard to put your finger on, but I think it’s mostly his experimentation with materials. In the past few years a number of his completed projects have made the rounds of architecture publications, and they have all been wonderfully inventive and quite beautiful. Kuma also strives to make an environmentally conscious architecture that is also aesthetically robust.
5:1 – David Adjaye (British, b. Tanzania 1966)
Adjaye’s profile has never been larger, with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. under construction, and with his studio’s incredible churning of publications. It would be a great boon for the Pritzker to be awarded to an architect of African descent, and Adjaye is the strongest candidate in my opinion.
8:1 – Giancarlo Mazzanti (Colombian, b. 1963)
The Pritzker hasn’t typically rewarded architects whose work has much of a social agenda, but Mazzanti is an example of an architect whose work is aesthetically daring and socially active. South American architects are extremely underrepresented in the Pritzker canon, and Mazzanti would be a great choice to start changing that.
8:1 – Liz Diller (American, b. Poland, 1954) and Ricardo Scofidio (American, b. 1935) of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Lincoln Center is done. The Hirshhorn Bubble continues to incite controversy. The High Line is ongoing and continues to accrue much acclaim. The Broad and Berkeley Art Museums are under construction, as are several large academic buildings. Now’s the time for DS+R in my opinion.
10:1 – David Chipperfield (British, b. 1953)
In recent years, Chipperfield has built up a significant portfolio of slick minimalist public buildings around the world and in Great Britain, and he just curated the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale which bade well for Kazuyo Sejima in 2010. That being said, Chipperfield is a well-known British architect at the height of his career, which doesn’t align with the stated ambition to award those whose careers are on the upswing.
10:1 – Alberto Campo Baeza (Spanish, b. 1946)
The Pritzker has recently rewarded architects whose work has maintained consistency and quality over time, and Campo Baeza is a perfect example. Both his small houses and large cultural buildings use the same minimal vocabulary and impeccable detailing. The clarity and reductiveness of his work is seductive but leaves many people cold.
10:1 - Sou Fujimoto (Japanese, b. 1971)
By far the youngest candidate on my list, Fujimoto has been on a meteoric rise the past two or three years, raising his international profile by exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, and promoting his works worldwide through photographs by Iwan Baan and others. It has just been announced that he will be building this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, and the vast majority of architects invited to do so were or became Pritzker winners. He has a strong chance.
12:1 - Manuel & Francisco Aires Mateus (Portuguese, b. 1963 & 1964)
Rising fast, the brothers Aires Mateus are nominated for the Mies van der Rohe prize this year, and exhibited an impressive work at the Venice Biennale. Good candidates.
15:1 – Steven Holl (American, b. 1947)
I think Holl has become a long shot. If they were going to give it to him, they would have done so by now. As a world-famous American architect in his 60s, he doesn’t fit the bill for the new Pritzker.
15:1 – Sean Godsell (Australian, b. 1960)
His rather amazing Design Hub at RMIT opened this year, after almost two decades of residential work that has mined the potentials of architectural skins and surfaces. I think he would be a great choice. Boxes have never looked as good.
20:1 – Ben Van Berkel (Dutch, b. 1957) and Caroline Bos (Dutch, b. 1959) of UN Studio
Though UN Studio seems to be quiet lately, its collaborative partners are still strong candidates because of the well-considered balance of theorizing and building that makes up their practice. The Mercedes Benz Museum they completed a few years ago remains one of my favorite buildings of the last decade, and seems to have been overlooked at the tail end of our worldwide obsession with iconic architecture.
25:1 – Bijoy Jain (Indian, b. 1965) of Studio Mumbai
Studio Mumbai has increased its international profile in the past couple of years, exhibiting at the Venice Biennale and the Victoria & Albert in London, and recently publishing a monograph in El Croquis. Their work is intensely regional and specific, but its lessons for the West about integration with craftspeople and constructors are invaluable.
I have admitted that it is unlikely Peter Eisenman, Toyo Ito, Daniel Libeskind or Wolf Prix will ever win the Pritzker, so I’ve dropped them from my list. I also think that in the interest of diversification, it’s not likely that a younger North American architect will win this year either. That disqualifies Michael Maltzan, Brad Cloepfil, John & Patricia Patkau, and several others who would have been strong contenders ten or fifteen years ago.
This is an extremely remarkable little book that has reoriented my perception of the humble (and not so humble) industrial buildings that surround me. Conversational and highly personal, it explores an overlooked influence on early Modernism, a set of photographs published by Walter Gropius in 1913. Banham traces the typological developments that led to the distillation of two American building types Gropius selected – concrete grain elevators and “daylight” factories – and points out their unbelievably rapid obsolescence. These types lived on in the factory aesthetic of European Modernism, and Banham’s third chapter outlines how.
Part of what makes this book remarkable is Banham’s hybrid memoir/historical formatting, which exposes the methodology of his research. He prioritized close reading not in abstract, academic terms, but first hand visitation of buildings, a rite of passage that builds credibility for any historian of our built heritage, and is a phase of research I often find myself forgoing in the internet age. Unfortunately, many of the buildings Banham visited have since been demolished, and in exploring their history he illustrates how invaluable our industrial heritage can be and the low esteem in which we hold its monuments. It’s also unfortunate that this book, published over 25 years ago, hasn’t caused a change in perception with regard to these irreplaceable buildings. They continue to decay and be demolished at an alarming rate. They might be gone before we know it.
When I first heard that Bowling Green State University had commissioned the internationally renowned architecture firm Snohetta to design their new performing arts building, I was cautiously optimistic. For their first building in North America, the Oslo-based office had taken a surprisingly small commission in a surprisingly backwater location. Best known for their elegant landform buildings for the Oslo Opera House and Bibliotheca Alexandrina, how well could their work translate to an unmemorable campus devoid of the drama of those sites? What would their response be to the soporific landscape of Northwest Ohio?
In gestural terms, the new Wolfe Center for the Arts at BGSU is a rousing success. Rising dramatically from a flat site, its metal panels and tilted geometry have introduced a completely new vocabulary to an otherwise banal group of campus buildings. A glazed facade terminates this rise, cantilevering over the entry and imposing itself on the adjacent parking lot.
The Wolfe Center lobby is light-filled and well appointed. It is dominated by a grand concrete stair/bleacher at its center, a clever element which effectively ties together the room’s two functions: campus lounge and posh reception area. This striking element will no doubt be used as both a place to study and a people-watching perch similar to the famous stair and balconies at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera. The other dominant lobby element is a large skylight at the terminus of the stair. Its size and shape gave the space a pleasant atmosphere on the cloudless day of my visit. Early renderings show a series of these skylights, but it seems to this author that more would have caused the interior to be overlit and seem more sterile.
Equally dramatic is the skylight running the full length of the back-of-house hallway. Clad in dark gray CMU and charcoal stained wood paneling, this space, though less ambitious, is just as successful as its larger cousin. Both these spaces for movement overshadow the small theatre spaces at the building’s heart.
One can exit the building onto a small patio framed by offices for performing arts faculty, paved in a linear pattern that appears a vestige of value engineering. On this side, the Wolfe camouflages itself within a hill. This green slope will eventually be used for outdoor performances, but its sod was yet to establish itself at the time of my visit.
As successful as the overall building gesture is, a few confusing and inconsistent details almost sink it. A preponderance of small issues has added up to a big problem. The most egregious error involves a pair of sprinklerheads unceremoniously placed in the aforementioned lobby skylight atop plumbing (thankfully) painted to match the adjacent wall. Details like these are often symptomatic of a strained relationship between design and executive architects. Leaving construction administration in the hands of locals, global practices can sometimes lose control of important details to a building’s detriment. It seems likely this has happened to the Wolfe.
From a design standpoint, there are a few questionable moves as well. 1) On the building’s flanks, windows don’t occur often enough to become a pattern, and instead seem capitulations to programmatic circumstance. 2) Just inside the building’s prow lies a group of small classrooms that are fully isolated and surrounded by circulation, creating an island or a building-within-a-building. While this does create a observation spots on either side, it results in strange fish-tank-like spaces. 3) The selection of concrete masonry walls for some interior spaces is disappointing. It seems to lower the building to the level of its neighbors, and gives these spaces an unfortunately institutional atmosphere.
A central question for me is whether this commission even worthy of Snohetta. Commissioning an internationally recognized office for such a modest building meant it must have been a chore rather than a labor of love, and perhaps its shortcomings are the result of a lack of attention. But when Craig Dykers and co. are simultaneously working on the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan and an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who can blame them? While the Wolfe Center is far from perfect, here’s hoping more state universities take chances on ambitious architecture in the future. Perhaps the lesson here is for other campuses to work with younger, perhaps local outfits looking to establish themselves rather than an international crew whose reputation may not be tarnished by a failure in a flyover state.
The good detail is not the part from which the whole is generated, not the idea of the whole carried into the part, not the consistent application of a set of principles, not the paradigm for the totality of the building [...] At its best it is an autonomous activity, and, at times, even subversive. (45-46)
The new book by Edward R. Ford, author of the weighty Details of Modern Architecture, sets out to answer the question, “What is a detail?” His answers are fragmentary at best, but their contradictory conclusions seem to support Ford’s argument better than a succinct, universal answer would, and the book itself seems to be constructed as an analog to said argument. The book is divided into seven chapters, presenting a series of different definitions of the architectural detail, and concluding with a chapter instead defining the activity of detailing. Defining a derivative rather than the root – or the means rather than the end – is a successful gambit for Ford, permitting his speculative conclusion rather than an encyclopedic one.
Ford begins by dismantling a number of widely held opinions about the function and form of details. An early chapter (‘There Are No Details’) battles the opinion that “To many modernists [...] details are impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable.“ In response, Ford outlines reasons why the way parts come together matters even when the architect may say it doesn’t. What is at issue in details for Ford is the negotiation of contradictory forces, and the artful exposure or concealment of inconsistencies. His book walks the same fine line as the details he discusses, outlining all sides of a debate that Ford sees as central to modern architecture, but his inordinate revelation of contrasting views muddies and obscures what might otherwise be a convincing position statement. In an effort at comprehensiveness, Ford undercuts the authority of his intriguing conclusion.
His selection of examples is adept at times, but often seems arbitrary, as if Ford had selected only buildings about which he had previously written instead of selecting them to support his argument. The dearth of canonical buildings is peculiar, but perhaps that is part of Ford’s argument. He takes issue with the way popular histories of modern architecture have been constructed, and this text (along with his previous books) serves as a corrective, refocusing attention on the making of buildings and how their construction can underline or complicate architectural ideas. For Ford, the independence of building parts is a pragmatic but also poetic solution to the modernist dilemma of form and function; architecture may be autonomous, but only because its parts do different things than paintings or novels or three piece suits. This definition of architectural autonomy – that its parts act independently based on their disparate purposes – is very different from that espoused by other theorists, whose disciplinary territorialism leads to un-collegial isolation.
Paradoxically, reading this book led me to reflect not on architectural details, but details in other disciplines, in particular fashion and literature. There are many analogs to Ford’s “autonomous” architectural details, one of the most obvious being the penchant in menswear for unexpected textures, patterns or colors in things like socks and pocket squares. In literature, similarly surprising details have instead been called “adventitious,” seemingly based on forces contrary or tangential to a narrative; Ernest Hemingway, for example, used these unexpected specifics to alter and ultimately amplify the power of his clean, straightforward descriptions.
Ford’s argument is similar, that buildings are flat and soulless without exceptions to prove the rule. The richness engendered by an intricate Alvar Aalto handrail or Carlo Scarpa structural connection is undeniable, and Ford does an admirable job outlining the reasons for the appeal of such subversive and unexpected componentry. This book is a worthwhile read for advanced students, practitioners, and anyone interested in philosophies of architectural assembly.
The Pritzker Prize Laureate for 2011 will be announced in April, and here is my list of favorites. I missed my chance to do this last year, but given that the last two laureates were on my 2009 shortlist (Peter Zumthor [12:1] and Kazuyo Sejima [10:1]) I decided it would be fun to try again this year. I think it will be among these ten architects, unless the jury goes weird, like they did in 2006 with Paolo Mendes da Rocha. You just never know.
5:1 – Liz Diller (American, b. Poland, 1954) and Ricardo Scofidio (American, b. 1935) of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Like 2010 laureates Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, DS+R are nearly ubiquitous at the moment. They have recently been awarded several major commissions, including the Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles, a temporary events bubble for the Hirschhorn Museum (designed by Pritzker Laureate Gordon Bunshaft) on the National Mall in Washington, and a two-building campus for the Business School of Columbia University. Their work on New York’s High Line, in collaboration with Field Operations, is rapidly becoming a landmark, and their surgical reconfigurations of Lincoln Center have been extremely successful and critically acclaimed. I think this might be their year.
7:1 – Steven Holl (American, b. 1947)
Just give it to him already… He’s finished several enormous projects in China in the past two years, and they’ve all been well received. Plus, he finally built the Knut Hamsum Center in Norway after fifteen years on the drawing board. No one is more deserving in my book, but maybe there’s something I just don’t know.
10:1 – David Chipperfield (British, b. 1953)
Chipperfield has recently completed two major European projects: the Barcelona City of Justice, and several renovations and additions to Museum Island in Berlin (which seems neverending). Every time I turn around he’s building another museum, and in the next couple years he’ll finish one each in Saint Louis, in Norway, and in Zurich to name a few. The jury might swing his way this year.
15:1 – Toyo Ito (Japanese, b. 1941)
Ito’s work has remained consistently elegant through many decades of change. While recent projects have become less and less conventional both structurally and organizationally, there has been little change in quality; see in particular his Tama Art University Library and the “White O” House in Chile. If his project for UC Berkeley would have gone through as planned (a revised commission was given to DS+R last summer), he’d be a shoo in.
15:1 — Wolf Prix (Austrian, b. 1946) of Coop Himmelb(l)au
Coop have a few major projects under construction across Asia and Europe. Look for Wolf’s chances to significantly increase in the years to come.
20:1 – Ben Van Berkel (Dutch, b. 1957) of UN Studio
UN Studio seems to have lost a little steam lately. It may be the economy, or that they have a lot on the way. I’m skeptical Van Berkel will be the choice this year, but given the overwhelming success of the Mercedes Benz Museum a couple years back, don’t count him out entirely.
20:1 – Kengo Kuma (Japanese, b. 1954)
He might have a stronger chance if he stopped going around saying he wants to “erase architecture,” but Kuma’s international profile has increased after winning the commission for the Victoria & Albert branch in Dundee, Scotland. His inventive use of materials and adaptability to local contexts are a welcome alternative to most of the globetrotting practices with whom he competes.
30:1 – Daniel Libeskind (Polish/American, b. 1946)
Libeskind seems to have become the go-to architect for luxury shopping malls in recent years, and his two most recent institutional commissions (the Denver Art Museum and Royal Ontario Museum addition) were both cooly received by press and public alike. I highly doubt the likelihood of his selection.
30:1 – Peter Eisenman (American, b. 1932)
I doubt they’re going to give the award to a 79 year old American iconoclast that hasn’t completed any projects lately. Not many people are enthusiastic about his City of Culture in Spain, and there doesn’t seem to be much else on the drawing board. The jury leans toward architects on the rise, and Peter is on the wane.
The author is dead. Long live the algorithm.
So says The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo’s addition to the “Writing Architecture” series (edited by Cynthia Davidson of Anyone), recently published by The MIT Press. Carpo is known for crosswise cuts to the history of architecture, and here he aims to reframe our still-nascent transition toward a digital architecture. The new frame is based on what he terms the paradigm of identicality. Carpo posits that the transition to digital production media is one from production of identical copies to mass customization and participation. Digital technology, Carpo argues, can and must change both the subject and object of architectural design; no longer will the designer have total authorial control, and no longer must the object be singular and specific. For Carpo, the choice for architects and designers is between powerlessness and control. They must choose between the production of what he calls “objectiles” (a term he lifts from Gilles Deleuze via Bernard Cache) and objects themselves. Objectiles – algorithmic constructs from which infinite variations originate – are the only future for authorial control.
Early chapters deal with Leon Battista Alberti – inaugurator of the paradigm of identicality – and his many representational innovations. Alberti, Carpo argues, was constantly struggling for control of his products, something nearly impossible in an age of artisanal production. He gradually evolved a system of orthogonal projection – plan, section, elevation – to enable a one-to-one relationship between design and product: identicality. We still operate under this set of assumptions today, but their days are numbered.
After Alberti, Carpo rapidly shifts toward the present, lingering in particular on that transformative digital decade, the Nineties. Carpo effectively synthesizes an unruly net of conceptual threads (Deleuze and the fold, Calculus, the Baroque, the Blob) into an engaging but misleadingly linear narrative of the recent past. His analysis raises many questions (not the least of which are the veracity of his prognostications) but provides a beginners guide to the onset of digital representation and production. As an attempt at writing history in progress, this book succeeds because of its clarity.
Students should be aware of the changes afoot in the field they are entering, and therefore this book would make appropriate reading material for BIM and information technology courses. It is vitally important that those learning current platforms understand where they have come from and where they are going.
Carpo argues convincingly that designers need to engage in the production of tools. The alternative, says Carpo, is confinement to a prison house of software, forever limited by the capacities of our mechanisms. Perhaps that’s not so different from the past …
In Reinhold Martin’s second book on postwar architecture, he vividly reconsiders what is called postmodernism from many angles and on many levels. The eponymous “ghost” of utopia, Martin argues, continues to haunt the fractured, juxtaposed narratives of postmodern architecture, despite the architects’ best intentions.
Martin is at his best when making use of architecture as a ground, and unfortunately the first half of his book contains precious few buildings. That changes with a chapter on materiality. Dealing mostly with mirrored glass in the work of Philip Johnson, Martin argues that we mustn’t look into the mirrors, but at them, within which he finds only capital. These mirrors construct a feedback loop, reflecting and refracting themselves in a mise-en-abyme that Martin diagnoses as one of the central ciphers of postmodernism.
Martin continues to build steam until the book concludes with a chapter almost overflowing with buildings and projects (unsurprisingly titled “Architecture”), by and through which Martin riffs on his themes of global capital, feedback, and the specter of utopian thinking. The projects in this final chapter are some of the canonical works of postmodernism (Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery, Ungers’ Architecture Museum) and Martin’s climactic use of them is a dramatic and erudite jouissance.
Like all great theory, Martin’s book will cause considerable reconfiguration of one’s preconceptions. In my case, this book transformed my understanding of the ways modernism (the construction of grand, utopian narratives) lived on in that which symbolized its death. Perhaps more importantly, this book lays bare architecture’s (in)escapable complicity in global capital. The only escape, Martin argues, is to dive ever deeper.
Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt recently wrote a rather positive review of the Roe Green Center for Theater and Dance on the main campus of Kent State University, and my own opinions about the building renovation are so strong I feel the need to weigh in.
For some reason, I can’t look at Holzman Moss Botino (HMB)’s addition without thinking of Dennis Hopper. But more on that in a moment. First, it’s necessary to take notice that Brutalism is back on campus. The style that dominated American collegiate architecture from the ‘60s to the ‘80s has returned to Kent State, heroic as ever, in the form of a black box theatre, part of a transformation of the existing Music and Speech Building into the new Roe Green Center (RGC). Articulated with striped and textured block reminiscent of Marcel Breuer’s 1972 Education Wing for the Cleveland Museum of Art, it takes the form of an inverse ziggurat, stepping outward as it rises. Like Breuer’s addition, the RGC’s black box introduces a new material language, but here that language gels with the blonde brick of the original building. The trouble is, this brutal block blends better with the original building than it does with the rest of the RGC. I attribute this disharmony to the absurd number of form and material changes the architects used. The building reminds me of clunky acting, a series of outsize gestures independent of one another, not integrated into a cohesive character, and that’s where Dennis Hopper comes in.
Like Brutalism, the Method acting for which Hopper is known is a macho, muscular and heroic style, searching for the emotional and psychological truth of characters in between the lines of a script. When used effectively, “The Method” yields deeply affecting, subtle performances like those of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but “The Method” also produced Hopper’s twitchy, psychotic photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. A flurry of movements and juxtaposed tones of voice, Hopper’s performance fills the entire space he’s given and demands attention whenever he’s onscreen. It’s that type of prodigiousness that I see in the Roe Green Center. The addition speaks in many tones, and fills its allotted space robustly. But unlike Hopper’s genius portrayal of paranoia and psychosis, the result is a cacophonous composition of stepped profiles in competition with their surroundings. HMB seem to have had difficulty deciding which of their voices should occupy the foreground, and therefore no discrete character emerges.
If there is a tell-tale detail here, it’s the glass detail abutting the black box theatre. The glass datum simply stops, and the theatre form continues uninterrupted. Each of the discrete pieces (block theatre, metal roof, glass wall, column) remains independent of one another. The construction of this glass wall encapsulates the slapdash use of materials, colors and textures that has permeated almost all recent construction at Kent State. Starting from the bottom, the profiled block clashes egregiously with the block types used for the black box, both in color and texture. Why this particular profile and color were selected makes little sense other than to differentiate the form of the lobby from that of the black box and existing building. Further distinguishing this lobby space is its back wall, painted the putrid yellow color that has propagated like a virus on the Kent State campus in recent years. The University Architect, it seems, would like every interior to feel like an overripe banana.
The contrast between the built iteration of this entry space and early renderings tells me a particularly harsh value engineering phase was required of HMB, leaving a patchwork where there once was a clear concept. While it may make practical sense in the snow belt to include a solid base for curtain walls, certainly a more elegant solution could have been found.
Light-filled and pleasant as they are, the insertion of dance studios offered an opportunity for HMB to open up the sterile, institutional hallways of the original building, but instead the connection is timid and unarticulated, easily overlooked. From forms so outspoken on the outside, one would expect a more significant presence on the interior. On the exterior, these studios introduce yet more formal and material contrast, this time a running brick pattern and a haphazard pattern of horizontal windows.
To HMB’s credit, RGC must have been an incredibly difficult commission. Its intent was to modernize (or perhaps post-modernize) the look of an large, confusing building with a small number of redeeming characteristics. HMB chose to further complicate that reading with an ensemble cast of new formal and material characters. They set an almost impossible task for themselves, and it is no surprise the finished product disappoints. This is one instance where less ambition would be preferable, an understated Brando rather than a convoluted Hopper. While I appreciate that the University administration has branched out and hired an out-of-town architect for this project, it seems to this author that they could have gotten something this slapdash from anyone under the sun.
Me and Frank Gehry go way back.
I’ve never met him, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll make an analogy: Y’know how the music of your teenage years is first to be ejected once you reach maturity, how the anger and angst of youth just seems trite and adolescent once you’re reprogrammed by the liberal arts? That’s how I felt about Frank for a long time. He was a gateway for me to the great architecture of the recent past, my first discovery, and learning about and (attempting to) understand his work was my first experience of membership in the exclusive club called architecture.
Sometimes, however, the music (or the architecture) of youth is rediscovered, only to reestablish its place at the top of one’s pile. This has recently happened for me with Jay-Z’s recorded output from the 1990s, and it’s also happened with ol’ Frank.
I was browsing the Cleveland Public Library’s rather extensive architecture collection, and came across Rizzoli’s recent collection of private residences designed by Frank, Frank Gehry: The Houses. Glancing through it, I remembered what I once found so fascinating about his work, namely the fractured- and fragmented-ness of it all, the sense that he had made architecture out of the detritus of American building. He was putting together the leftover pieces from all that was already familiar to me, a suburban kid coming of age in Ohio.
When restricted to a single building type, monographs can often be stale and repetitive, dealing in small differences rather than broad strokes. But Frank’s houses are most definitely of sufficient deviation to warrant such a lush publication. From the California modernism of his early works to the orgasmic outpouring of his experimental Lewis House, this book thoroughly covers the development of his architectural thinking, and could help familiarize neophytes with the headspace from whence his recent works come. In my case, however, the book brought me back to that first moment of discovery and understanding, and helped me better understand my own headspace.
For years I’ve been reacting harshly to Frank, who often seems to be the object of derision in schools of architecture. It’s easy to see why when one looks at something like his Norton House, one of the projects featured in Rizzoli’s monograph. There’s just no way to teach what he’s doing, it comes from the years of the experimentation and the trial-and-error Rizzoli’s book encapsulates. It’s understandably difficult for teachers to deal with students who think they can do what Frank does, and the knee-jerk reaction is to condition them against it.
The Norton House isn’t necessarily the best place to start a discussion of Frank’s work – like others, it is an expression of individualism responding to a particular client and particular context, in this case Venice Beach and writer Bill Norton – but it is emblematic of his tendency toward composite or collage, what he calls the village concept. For Frank, a home should be a village, composed of several unique forms, each with their own function and material. For the Nortons, he arranged a haphazard array of material types and applications on a box not much smaller than the site dimensions, supplemented by the best known an most easily recognized element, a study-cum-lifeguard shack for the writer husband facing the Venice beachfront.
Frank’s village concept is most clear in his Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minnesota. Here, discrete rooms pinwheel around a tall central space. Each of these rooms is an individual, covered with a different material and of a disparate shape. So disparate are the forms of the Guest House that the pieces were separated, moved and reassembled after a change in ownership.
The seeds of this village approach were sown in some of Frank’s earliest projects, namely the Danziger and Davis Studio Residences. While neither is as ostentatious as Norton or Winton, both exhibit steps in the direction of the fragmentation and dissonance Frank would later explore. Between the bifurcated cube of Danziger and the haphazard interior articulation of Davis, an idea took hold: each room should have its own character, its own personality. This idea, I think, has permeated all of Frank’s work since, as seen in his schematic technique of piling and re-piling wooden boxes before shrinkwrapping in metal and plastic. Even Bilbao, that game-changer of all game-changers, is similar in plan to Winton, a series of discrete forms fanning outward from a large central space.
It all has something to do with family and a little to do with community. For Frank, the worst thing in the world is a balloon-frame tract house, built like everything else and undermining our sense of community by giving everyone their own private space. If his houses are like villages, they reinforce the importance of interaction through the necessary movement from one private space to another, bumping into family or friends in the private streets of a house.
In larger scale works such as his much-maligned Stata Center at MIT, Frank explores this village concept with more vigor. Central to Stata is a bad joke: a computer nerd, a philosopher and a linguist walk into a bar… The Stata is an engine that hopes to construct such a meeting. His houses aim for a smaller goal, bringing together fathers with sons or mothers with angsty teenagers, even if only momentarily. Here’s hoping it works.
Dealing only with his houses seems to me an effective way to introduce the work of Frank Gehry without becoming distracted by the shimmer and shine of Bilbao and of his personality. It doesn’t tell the whole story by any means, but gives an effective outline of the plot. Frank Gehry: The Houses is probably available at your local bookstore, given the ubiquity Frank has achieved in recent years. If it’s not, find a new bookstore. Or a good library.
Among the things that so fascinate me about the work of German architect and designer Jurgen Mayer is his obsession with the data protection patterns we all find within secure mail from our banks, our employers and government agencies. His recent monograph contained a scattering of reproduced envelopes, inserted as chapter dividers but also as reminders of Mayer’s preoccupation. But why don’t these willfully decorative and saturated surfaces somehow make their way into his architectural design? Why are all his walls so blank?
The answer might be that Mayer uses the security pattern as a gambit, a metaphorical security device for his design process. He obfuscates the willfulness and specificity of his forms with data protection patterns, covering his tracks by saturating shape with color.
Mayer’s forms are a registration of absent forces, forces he feels no need to map or describe. Instead of the explanations and justifications (i.e. diagrams) that so obsess his European and American contemporaries, he prefers to have a signature and stick with it, ignoring or remaining intentionally naive to the need for clarification. His designs retain an element of mystery – a mystique – that enables them to overcome specificity and look almost universal or transportable, something out of science fiction or the future.
Another of Mayer’s preoccupations is the use of thermosensitive materials, a concept repeated in most all his gallery installations over the past decade. Similar to the data protection pattern, one could see these disappearing traces as metaphors for the way Mayer works. The traces of his design process have a life span, they don’t matter after a given period, at which time the thing itself takes precedence. The ends exceed the means.
Together these two preoccupations serve as purifying filters for Mayer to act within a discipline too concerned with means and not enough with ends. Diagrams and narratives of design have become unnecessary encumbrances for Mayer, and these material preoccupations betray a subconscious intent. He speaks of data protection as “a text without meaning,” but that Eisenmanian phrase must merely be a hangover from Mayer’s education. The patterns and traces in his design work insulate him from the theoretical and linguistic concerns of the previous generation, and demonstrate what makes him distinct from other contemporary designers.