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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Monday, January 16, 2006

    Sidewalk Critics

    Here in Boston 2006 has begun gloomy and overcast, snowy and rainy and icy—excellent weather for curling up with the papers and catching up on the year's-end most-notable-of-2005 lists. But the latest round of annual print retrospection has seemed to me curiously unsatisfying—which is not to say that the architecture critics of our major papers didn't find worthwhile issues to articulate (Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times zeroes in on the increasingly distressing gap between image and power: the fact that architects, although more celebrated than ever, remain politically ineffectual) and admirable buildings to applaud (Robert Campbell in the Boston Globe listed more than a dozen projects, focusing on museums around the world and science buildings in metropolitan Boston; rather less energetically, Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times expressed enthusiasm for three new buildings: Zaha Hadid's BMW plant in Leipzig and science center in Wolfsburg, and Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Música in Porto).

    No, the problem with the end-of-year summaries hasn't really to do with any of the individual critics or their surveys; the problem is that these annual lists expose what have become the limitations of the enterprise. The shortcomings of mainstream architecture criticism have, of course, been the focus of ongoing scrutiny—not to say of unflattering comparisons with that marvelous mid-century moment when critics like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and Reyner Banham managed to be both erudite and popular. The latest such scrutiny you might already have seen—I refer to the extended treatment of the topic several weeks ago in The Architect's Newspaper (no longer accessible, alas, on the paper's website). The paper's editors, Cathy Lang Ho and William Menking, do not pussyfoot around the problem. "Architecture criticism has devolved over recent years," they write, "from being consciousness-raising, progressive, and pleasurable to read—a standard that Ada Louise Huxtable worked hard to define from the moment she became The New York Times's and the country's first full-time architecture critic over 40 years ago—to being ad hominem, celebrity-obsessed, object-centric, and obtuse—a trail blazed by Herbert Muschamp, who was the Times architecture critic for 12 years before retiring last year. Is it any wonder that no one—professional or lay reader—wants to read criticism anymore?" From this blunt beginning the editors then orchestrate an eight-page, multi-vocal feature that mixes interviews with long-established newspaper critics (this group—presumably exempt from the devolutionary drift—includes Ada Louise Huxtable, Allan Temko, Paul Goldberger, Michael Sorkin, Robert Campbell, and Deyan Sudjic) and insightful overviews by Joan Ockman, Marisa Bartolucci, and Vittorio Gregotti. Skeptical readers might want to puzzle out the politics (gender, geographic, aesthetic) that resulted in the particular selection of critics to interview and to review. But overall the section is a smart summary of the scene, and it hits a lot of the sensitive spots, including the fascination with fame ("chasing celebrities," in Huxtable's succinct dismissal) and the insidious effects of the brand-market mentality (or, as the irrepressible Sorkin puts it: "The majority of critics nowadays are simply flacks: There are too many fashionistas and too few street fighters.")

    Yet nowhere does this ambitious survey hit the most sensitive spot of all. Nowhere do any of the critics acknowledge the rise of the World Wide Web, the pervasive presence of the Internet, the digital revolution that is altering both journalistic practice and architecture culture. "Alas, there's no Lewis Mumford on the horizon," writes Marisa Bartolucci. Who would disagree? But I wonder whether the real issue is not that there is no Lewis Mumford on the horizon; I wonder whether the real issue—the deeper issue—is that the socio-economic and professional-intellectual frameworks that supported his career—and those of the generation that followed—have weakened to the point of disintegration. Mumford began writing about architecture in the 1920s, Huxtable and Temko in the '50s, Campbell and Sorkin and Goldberger in the '70s—in retrospect the twilight of a still-analog era when print was the unrivaled medium of intellectual life, when serious-minded newspapers and periodicals could still aim to guide the culture, to be "general interest," sometimes "large circulation," and not infrequently "for-profit." For clearly critical influence depends not just upon the ability of the critic but upon the presence of a large and ready readership. Mumford became hugely influential—Colin Rowe called him "an American Ruskin"—not only because of his capacious intellect and prodigious output, but also because in mid-20th-century America there still existed something like a cohesive culture, a culture with discernible bounds, common touchstones, acknowledged authorities. It was a culture in which there flourished a lively and combative public-intellectual journalism, and a certain style of big-picture, ultra-confident criticism—Mumford on architecture, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg on art, Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal on books, James Agee and Robert Warshow and Pauline Kael on the movies, etc. etc.

    Today that cohesion has all but disappeared; for years now the general-interest consensus has been fracturing apart, and not much of it has survived the rise of the decentralizing technologies of digital communication. "Architecture criticism has lost its place in public dialogue," write the editors of The Architect's Newspaper. This seems unfortunately to be the case. But it might then be useful to ask: Where is that public dialogue likely to take place? What might be its sturdiest platforms? Many of the professionalized mainstream venues are now retrenching: major metropolitan newspapers scramble to survive (at the Boston Globe, half a dozen veteran arts reporters recently accepted the paper's buyout offer, leaving the culture desk depressingly depopulated) and intellectually ambitious periodicals persevere usually as non-profits, official or de facto (Harper's is underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation, for instance, and for years the red ink of The New Yorker was tolerated by its corporate parent Condé Nast); meanwhile fledgling new media generate flabbergasting quantities of content, an ever-present online multiverse of image, information, text and hypertext. Which is not to assert anything as categorical or apocalyptic as "the end of print"; but which is to suggest that old and new media together are now shaping the discursive culture of the field, and that the future of design criticism depends in some measure on the ability of print and web publishers to develop new and prosperous journalistic platforms. Four decades ago Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, and in the very first sentence he got straight to the point: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” It is still a bit of a shock, and now we might rephrase: "The media are the message."

    The outlines of a multi-media, print-and-web architecture culture are still emerging, but it's not too soon to discern one of the big challenges for criticism: the Web has made the culture unprecedentedly—amazingly and impossibly—global. Architecture has been international in outlook for years, but until lately this was mainly a matter of keeping up with the foreign journals and new monographs, attending lectures and exhibits, (sometimes even) traveling. Today this manageable world-view has exploded into a superabundance of instant-access globalism at once exhilarating and exhausting. It's not that more architecture is being made around the world, it's that we are more aware of the architecture being made around the world. Years ago—way back in the 20th century—you might have sprung for a subscription to The Architectural Review, or El Croquis or A+U or Baumeister, and every few weeks the periodicals would appear in the post and there'd be a few dozen new projects to view. Now the pace is nowhere so leisurely; now you can boot up the laptop and click on Archinect, or Arcspace, or Arch News Now, or butter paper australasia or Design Observer or dutcharchitects.com—to gloss quickly through just the first four letters of my alphabetized bookmarks—and navigate the endlessly interlinking and hyperlinking world of omnibus portals—a virtual portfolio of global architecture, the contents of which are continuously shifting and expanding.

    You can see the challenge for architecture criticism—at least as construed as a type of arts review, the weightiness of which hinges inevitably upon the degree to which the reviewer's experience is comprehensive. How can any individual critic gain comprehensive experience of a field whose boundaries have become so vast, so perceptually extensive? The ambitious literary critic can place an order for next-day delivery and stack a season's reading on the bookshelf; the movie critic can become an encyclopedic authority on the basis of trips to the local multiplex and a Netflix subscription. In disadvantageous contrast, the architecture critic is confronted by a multi-continental production, the range and plenitude of which defy any effort to achieve extensive knowledge. Just to remain au courant with the far-flung projects of the big-name firms would require tireless travel (not to mention an ample expense account), and it certainly wouldn't leave much time to track the less-promoted work of promising young practitioners. How to choose what to review? How to define the critical beat?

    Nowadays the pressure, or the temptation, is to pursue the global beat, which means usually the big-name beat: a natural temptation, for the global is glamorous. Yet the global beat tends to produce criticism that seems paradoxically slight, criticism that is noncontextual, episodic and fragmentary, directed more to remarkable moments than to complex narratives, the kind of criticism that Ho and Menking characterize as "celebrity-obsessed, object-centric." But what if these characteristics say less about the talents of the critics than the limits of the genre? Herbert Muschamp was notorious for his loyalty to "a small coterie of avant-garde architects" (to quote Clay Risen in the New York Observer); but in retrospect this might be understood also as tacit admission that there really is only so much that anyone can experience and assimilate. This might account too for Ouroussoff's listing of a mere three projects by two architects (talk about a small coterie) in his roundup of the year's best.

    So here it might be worth considering that much of the criticism that seems now so exemplary was largely local: that critics like Mumford, Huxtable, and Sorkin all found their voices—hit their critical strides—as keen and close observers of the New York scene. Mumford, who began writing the "Skyline" column for The New Yorker in the early '30s (and would continue until the early '60s) was both a champion of progressive architecture and a five-borough populist; he covered not just major projects like Rockefeller Center and the '39 World's Fair but also cheap lunchrooms, shop windows, neighborhood playgrounds, and public housing. In the '60s and '70s, Huxtable eloquently advocated for both high-modern design and historic preservation, but she was especially expert at teasing out the intricacies of bureaucratic planning and real estate financing, the politics and money that were transforming the multi-layered and fine-grained prewar city into the world capital of what she called "death by development." And Sorkin, Village Voice critic in the Age of Reagan, carried on where the other two left off: to read his Voice pieces now is to revisit a city in the early stages of what has since metastasized into full-blown Disneyfication and terminal Trumpitude. (Recommendations: Sidewalk Critic, a delightful selection of Mumford's '30s criticism; Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, a collection of Huxtable's journalism for the New York Times; and Exquisite Corpse, Sorkin's cris de coeur of the '80s.) And of course the tradition of local criticism, of ongoing and detailed exploration of a metropolis, continues today in the thoughtful work of Blair Kamin, at the Chicago Tribune, and David Dillon, at the Dallas Morning News.

    I do realize that good criticism, and a lively critical culture, cannot be reduced to any simple opposition between "local" and "global," and that ambitious writers will always seek wide experience; and in any case, the local and global exist on a continuum, with each informing and influencing the other. But it does seem that much of the best criticism has resulted from sustained and ardent engagement with a particular place: engagement that allows the critical observer to gain comprehensive knowledge not just of the architecture of the place—the ordinary as well as exceptional buildings—but also of the diverse forces—civic, social, political, economic, regulatory, demographic—that shape the architecture. Mumford never studied architecture—his last degree was his diploma from Stuyvesant High School—but he was an indefatigable and brilliant student of New York City, which he called his "true university."

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Monday, December 5, 2005

    The Post-disaster Disaster

    In recent weeks I've been logging travel miles, sans laptop, which hasn't left much time for weblogging. I've been to San Francisco, where I saw the brand-new De Young, and to Dallas/Fort Worth, where I saw the now-classic Kimbell; both of which museums, so extraordinary in their very different ways, raise intriguing issues about the evolution of the art-building as icon, issues I'd like to delve into sometime soon.

    But first I want to persist with the ongoing story of post-Katrina reconstruction, and to respond to readers who felt that my last post, on the Mississippi Renewal Forum, was a bit rough on the New Urbanists and their design ideas for rebuilding a dozen or so Gulf Coast towns. David Sucher, in particular, of City Comforts, argued that I failed "to separate urban site plan—which is the core of New Urbanism—from architectural style"; and then wondered whether I and other critics would "really prefer to have Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry—as opposed to Andres Duany et al.—taking lead roles in helping Mississippians in their rebuilding." Perhaps I was too hard on the New Urbanists' efforts to advocate pedestrian-oriented communities; though I'd still argue that the popular appeal of the movement is based less on its planning principles than on its neotraditional pattern books; which means that developers often forsake the principles—the emphasis on regional planning, mixed uses, multi-family housing, transit corridors, et al.—and focus on the period decor, on the porches and porticoes, the gables and gambrels.

    But certainly I wasn't suggesting that the better strategy would be to round up Koolhaas and Gehry, or any of the usual stars, to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. (Although here the intrepid follower of Koolhaas's oeuvre, built and unbuilt, might recall that his Office for Metropolitan Architecture has not shied away from the grand geo-hydrological gesture: in the plump and prodigal late '90s, OMA proposed that in order to accommodate the expansion of Harvard University, the cities of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., should redirect the course of the Charles River). No, what the reconstruction needs right now is not celebrity aura or iconic buildings; given that hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless and displaced, that insurance claims and mortgage payments are bollixed up in bureaucracies, that electric and gas service are spotty, and that essential infrastructure requires large-scale repair and region-wide redesign, it seems still too soon to be debating matters of architectural style. (The Mississippi Renewal Forum and the Congress for New Urbanism have just co-produced a "A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods"; but considering that many coastal residents were uninsured, who exactly will be rebuilding, and with what resources?) Today, three months after Katrina, it's appallingly plain that what the Gulf Coast needs is strong and unswerving federal commitment—commitment to developing interim and permanent housing, to paying insurance claims and helping the uninsured, and, most of all, to reconstructing the infrastructure, the levees and dams and wetlands, that most agree are vital to ensuring the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

    But in recent weeks the leading story of the reconstruction has become the story of the lack of such commitment: what some are already calling "the disaster after the disaster." Here, for instance, is New Orleans writer John Biguenet, in an op-ed in the New York Times on Thanksgiving eve: "New Orleans is on the verge of death, but still, just as in the days after our levees crumbled, the government dithers, refusing to offer an unequivocal commitment to provide protection against Category 5 hurricanes. Why is this so crucial an issue? After what we have been through in the last three months and face in the coming year, there is not a homeowner or a business executive who will invest insurance proceeds in rebuilding if we are to remain vulnerable to a similar catastrophe every hurricane season. Anything short of protection against Category 5 hurricanes will condemn the city to a slow death."

    Here is New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss, in a Nov. 27 op-ed in the Washington Post: "At the site of the worst urban disaster in American history, we are a city obsessed. Rebuilding New Orleans is our breakfast-table conversation, our lunchtime chatter, our pillow talk. But while we talk, we also wait. . . . Above all we are waiting for Congress and the federal government to decide that New Orleans deserves strong levees—stronger than the sorry system, designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers, that collapsed, wrecking our neighborhoods. We want word from Washington that a great American city will not be left to die. . . . New Orleans has become two cities—an enclave of survivors clustered along the Mississippi River’s crescent and a vast and sprawling shadow city where the water stood, devoid of power and people. The ancient heart—the French Quarter and Uptown—is throbbing with commerce and signs of life from the hardiest returnees. But cross Freret Street, and you enter a dim realm. The neighborhoods that extend from there to the lake are comatose. At night, I drive through darkened and abandoned streets, past acres of housing that marinated in polluted floodwater for weeks, past blocks where I know people died, unable to escape the storm, past the homes of poor, middle-class and affluent New Orleanians—all devastated alike. . . . The vastness of this destruction is almost impossible to fathom. . . . "

    And here—alas—is a report from the Nov. 30 Times-Picayune, with the understandably exasperated headline "Recovery Chief Coy on Levee Overhaul": "President Bush's hand-picked federal coordinator for Hurricane Katrina recovery hinted a stronger levee system is in order for the New Orleans area, but he offered no specific commitments or timetable for meeting that goal. . . . Donald Powell, a former Texas banker and chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who stepped into the role this month as the president's front man leading Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco in Baton Rouge and later toured the hurricane-ravaged state in a Blackhawk helicopter. . . . Although Powell was noncommittal when pressed about whether he would recommend the White House support a levee system designed to withstand a hit by a Category 5 storm, he did say he 'anticipated upgrading' the area's flood protection. . . . Powell said he does not see himself as a chief executive of the recovery effort, but rather a listener and facilitator to carry a message back to Washington. . . ."

    Well, as the always wise and quotable Molly Ivins slyly asks in her Nov. 17 column: "Which Bush crony will be the next Brownie?" For the "message" would seem to be blaring through loud and clear, in print and online. In addition to publishing Biguenet's pre-holiday cri de coeur, the New York Times has followed the story tenaciously, with substantial articles on the inadequacy of the levees and on the logistical and financial difficulties of restoring power to New Orleans, and with editorials on the "post-Katrina housing debacle." The web site of the Times-Picayune, NoLA.com: Everything New Orleans, publishes in-depth news on recovery and rebuilding, with stories that range from the straightforward (a report on New Orleanians who are homesick in Houston) to the mordant (a lifestyle piece on the FEMA Cantina, a weekly potluck supper-cum-survivors' support group, with dishes like "Katrina Cauliflower au Rotten," "Levee 'Leak' Soup," and "'You're Doing a Heckuva Job' Brownies"). It also features a photo gallery, with images that offer more information—more message—than the aerial view from a Blackhawk. And the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch, sponsored by the Institute for Southern Studies, features original reporting as well as articles from diverse print and web sources, with the goal of promoting a "democratic and accountable reconstruction of the South." Recent stories probe the administration's contracting priorities (e.g., "Of some $3.1 billion in business awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone, only 12 percent has gone to contractors based in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana . . .") and describe the growing political activism of citizens of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

    And these are just a few of the sources documenting the post-disaster disaster: today when you Google “post-Katrina,” you get more than a million and a half hits, and tomorrow it’ll surely be more. That the recovery is moving so slowly, that so much time is being lost, is shaping up to be not just a huge political-economic issue but also the most extraordinary infrastructure-architecture challenge of our era.

    But of course there are signs of hope and optimism. How could one not, after all, be impressed by the gallows-humor resilience of a city where, at a festival a month ago, people were sporting tee-shirts asking “Got Mold?” And when the rebuilding begins, it's a good bet that there'll be no shortage of inventive architectural solutions, solutions variously prefab, green, and sustainable. More on all that, very soon. . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:30 pm | Permanent link
Friday, October 21, 2005
    Beyond the Front Porch

    The six-day Mississippi Renewal Forum—centered in Biloxi and concluded earlier this week—hasn't lacked for heavy hype. Earlier this week the New York Times ran an Arts Section story in which reporter Robin Pogrebin recounted the visiting architects and planners' tour of Biloxi ("Armed with box lunches, the Biloxi troupe boarded a bus in the morning. First stop: City Hall. . ."); apparently paraphrased architect Stefanos Polyzoides's ruminations on rebuilding ("It's like the Three Little Pigs fable . . . If you rebuild hurricane-flattened houses out of brick, they will have a better chance of withstanding any repeat of the 30-foot surges that churned this city into what looks like a war zone today. But brick is expensive. And it does not necessarily reflect the wood-porch aesthetic that Gulf Coast residents so treasure. . ."); and offered what must surely be reductive snippets of the designers' brainstorming ("the talk turned to how to transform the beachfront strip into something closer to the French Riviera. . ."). But alas, the Times piece failed to convey what would seem to be the essential information about the Mississippi Renewal Forum: that the design charrette was organized by the Congress for New Urbanism, led by the Miami-based New Urbanist Andres Duany, held under the auspices of Gov. Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, and underwritten by a million-dollar grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (Here I must note that these omissions have been remarked upon—and then some—in a recent post by the always intrepid Guttersniper, who helpfully linked to this informative report in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., which provided all the who-what-when-where-why of the event.)

    Beyond any specific news stories, though, what seems notable is that already the architectural battle lines of post-hurricane reconstruction are being demarcated. Already the New Urbanists are making a pitch for their popular brand of neotraditionalism (what National Public Radio describes as "a way of developing more compact, diverse and walkable mixed-use communities" and what the real estate blog Polis breezily dismisses as "white picket fence crapola"), while more progressive architects and critics are warning that this approach will produce a kind of NOLA Land, a Biloxi World, a theme park of Gulf Coast architectural pastiche (in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Tulane dean of architecture Reed Kroloff argues, without specifically mentioning New Urbanism, that "the worst thing that could happen is a bad 21st-century version of a great 19th-century home"; in a critique earlier this week in the New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff does refer specifically to New Urbanism, disparaging it as "a sentimental and historicist vision of how cities work").

    I do agree with Kroloff and Ouroussoff, et al. (in an earlier post I described my misgivings about this most zealous of architectural crusades). And yet at this point I can't help wondering: Isn't it too soon—just weeks after Katrina, and maybe days before Wilma, with thousands still lingering in temporary shelters, with enormous economic and engineering challenges still awaiting federal action—to be arguing about architectural style? Isn't it premature to be debating about wood porches and period details? Perhaps it's inevitable: certainly it's easier to imagine the rebuilding of wood porches than to envision the reengineering of networks of pumping stations and miles of levees (as evidently it was easier for our feckless Commander-in-Chief to anticipate lounging on the porch of the house that would arise from the "rubbles" of Trent Lott's destroyed home than to grasp the scope of the disaster).

    The hard fact that is easy to overlook in the arguments about retro styling versus forward thinking is that whatever gets built—no matter whether neotraditional or neomodernist—will look new and raw and unmellow. No reconstruction project will be able to replicate what took decades and centuries to make—the buildings that weathered and aged and were then repaired and refurbished, the live oaks and magnolias that softened and shaded the buildings. Another uncomforting fact—at least in the short term—is that whatever gets built today will come to look, after a century or so of seasons, as gracefully ripe as the historical structures destroyed by Katrina.

    But of course a design debate will be an essential component of reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast—a spirited and substantive debate that embraces not just aesthetics but infrastructure, environment, technology, and economics. In that same Christian Science Monitor interview, Reed Kroloff argues that New Orleans might find new vitality as "the center for sustainable modular housing." In the November Metropolis, editor Susan Szenasy outlines a similar vision. "As thoughts of rebuilding New Orleans and the gulf region turn to action," she writes, "some important questions must be raised. At the heart of the matter is finding efficient and humane ways to combine high technology with the area's natural and cultural resources. The design community—with its admiration and respect for the city's creativity and beauty—can play a key role in making the New Orleans region sustainable. Who else will take up the cause of exploiting the area's abundant sun and wind, and the new possibilities these bring for architecture and planning in this hot and humid place with abundant water, itself a potential energy resource?"

    New possibilities for sustainability: these aren't as easily sketchable as neo-quaint cottages and homey front porches, but they'll give us a lot more to debate.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:00 am | Permanent link
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
    Around New York

    Some downtown news: Last week Ground Zero once again made the front-page headlines. This time the dismaying—but unsurprising—report was that the International Freedom Center, like the Drawing Center, is out of the sixteen-acre picture. By now, of course, after so much has gone so wrong, it is hard to work up much indignation. That both organizations—one of which proposed exploring the historical connections between September 11 and the Civil Rights Movement, the Soviet Gulag, Tiananmen Square, etc.; the other of which is dedicated to "the significance and diversity of drawings throughout history"—were deemed programmatically inappropriate precisely because they might sponsor controversial exhibitions is only the latest stage in what Ada Louise Huxtable described six months ago as "the progressive downgrading and evisceration of the cultural components" of the site. Still, it was unsettling to open the New York Times last Friday morning and read—right next to a bittersweet piece on Truman Capote that evoked an earlier Manhattan, a lost Manhattan of Breakfast-at-Tiffany's and Black-and-White Balls—that just one day after Gov. Pataki gave the heave-ho to the cultural group, his chief of staff announced plans for a half-million square feet of retail space at Ground Zero, and that the business-community breakfast where the plan was discussed—held at the un-Tiffany-like Sheraton Hotel—was attended by "a table full of Wal-Mart executives," eager to emphasize "their commitment to building in New York City." The chairman of Port Authority, which owns the site, denied that the agency was "planning a big Wal-Mart"; but disillusioned observers of Ground Zero—and aren't we all?—might still wonder whether the biggest store on the planet will prove demonically persuasive. Talk about the high cost of low price.

    Some uptown news: Last week the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from Joan Didion's latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the excerpt, "After Life," Didion recounts in reportorial, almost forensic, detail the death of her husband of forty years. "[A]t approximately 9 o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003," she writes, "my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table at which he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. . . . When the paramedics came I tried to tell them what had happened, but before I had finished they had transformed the part of the living room where John lay into an emergency department. One of them (there were three, maybe four, even an hour later I could not have said) was talking to the hospital about an electrocardiogram they seemed already to be transmitting. Another was opening the first or second of what would be many syringes for injection. . . ." Didion describes with equal austerity, and power, her months of grief: "Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. . . . Such waves began for me on the morning of December 31, 2003, seven or eight hours after the fact, when I woke alone in the apartment."

    I thought "After Life" painfully unsentimental and deeply moving. But what I've been thinking about is its curious presentation in the magazine. The Times chose to accompany Didion's spare and eloquent text with a series of illustrations of the Didion/Dunne apartment. In the opening spread there is a photograph of Didion, looking pensive and frail, standing in what looks like the foyer; to her right is a portrait of Dunne by Eric Fischl, and, to the right of that, part of an etching by Richard Serra. On the next page there is a closely cropped shot of the living room focusing on a small dining table—"the table where Dunne had his heart attack," the caption says—flanked by Chippendale chairs; in the foreground a branching orchid hovers above a 1966 photograph of Didion and her and Dunne's daughter Quintana. Next there is a large photograph of the living room, a comfortable, stylish room with a marble mantelpiece, herringbone parquet floor, slip-covered chairs—"Dunne usually sat in the white chair"—a Cy Twombly lithograph, and shelves crowded with books and photographs. Finally there is a small image of a notepad personalized with Didion/Dunne letterhead, across which are three pens—"idea catchers," the caption tells us.

    The photographs, by photojournalist Eugene Richards, are excellent. And yet their presence is unsettling, for these moody and atmospheric images are a strange blend of crime-scene noir and shelter-magazine luxe. Are we meant to fix on the fact that we are seeing the chair in which Dunne was sitting when his heart stopped beating? Or to imagine the used syringes left scattered on the floor? Or do the images allow us to be distracted from Didion's narrative of sudden death and long grief? Do they soften its sting by showing us the enviably spacious and indeed beautiful Upper East Side apartment the two writers shared? The effect is, perhaps, a bit of both. As an ardent admirer of Didion's writing—what John Leonard once called her "ice pick/laser beam/night-scope sniper prose"—I wish the Times had held back and left the language alone on the page, or simply shown photos of Didion and Dunne over the years. But as a fan of the celebrated author, I was shamelessly eager to peer into her world: to scan the books in the living room shelves (biographies of Iris Murdoch and Vanessa Bell, essays by Jan Morris and George Orwell—were these the British shelves?) and the objets on the mantel (hurricane lamps, seashells, glass bottles), to imagine the author pacing the apartment, perhaps finding some solace in her lovely works of art, the Fischl and Twombly and Serra.

    Actually, the Times story wasn't the first in which I'd relished such an up-close-and-personal view. The Didion/Dunne apartment has been published previously, in Metropolitan Home, or maybe Elle Decor, probably five or six years ago (I can't remember, and the pages that I clipped and saved have no footers or headers with publication information). To someone who years ago had to tape up the spine of a much-read copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (a $3.45 Dell paperback, catalogued under "Sociology"), and who had practically inhaled The White Album and After Henry, this six-page spread, titled "History and Attitude" and written by Didion and Dunne themselves, was almost embarrassingly fascinating. How could it not be, with its twenty-three color photographs, all offering the intrepid fan clues about the domestic settings that nurtured the famous essays and novels; I am thinking, for instance, of the vignettes of the author's office (on her desk a no-nonsense blotter, Luxo lamp, vase of fresh roses, and, in a frame, her rejection letter from Stanford, dated April 25, 1952) and of various tabletops with artful arrangements of idiosyncratic and meaningful mementos (an old silver tea service next to a mid-'70s FBI flier about the kidnapped Patricia Hearst; a grouping of family photos alongside a March 1970 telegram to Didion reporting on weekly casualties in Vietnam).

    Clearly I'm not in much of a position to be too editorially puritanical about the mixing of hard words with easy images. Not that I haven't tried to be: About half a dozen years ago, when I was editing Harvard Design Magazine, I wrote to Didion to invite her to contribute. I had just read "Last Words," a marvelous essay she published in The New Yorker about Ernest Hemingway and the posthumous transformation of the author's famous style—and lifestyle—into a marketable brand. Didion focused largely on the literature, but she referred also to the introduction, by Thomasville Furniture, of the "Ernest Hemingway Collection," with motifs based on his residences in Havana, Ketchum, Key West, and Kenya. In my letter to Didion I wondered whether she might have more to say on this topic—"on the odd ways in which artists' lives are memorialized through the fetishization of their houses and accouterments, and further on the ways in which such efforts actually replace engagement with the very work that presumably makes the bric-a-brac interesting." Maybe I was feeling a bit hypocritical even then; nowadays we want not just the work but the life, too. But I'd still love to read whatever Didion had to say on the subject; no pictures needed.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, September 22, 2005
    Unwatering New Orleans

    Is there a risk of national attention drifting away from the Gulf Coast? asked the host of an NPR talk show during a recent hour devoted to the post-Katrina recovery. A fair question, to say the least. Katrina was an epochal event, and we live in a momentary age.

    But now that what the Army Corps of Engineers refers to as the "unwatering" of New Orleans is proceeding apace (look here, for the Corps' detailed diagram of "New Orleans Vulnerabilities"), the long and grueling reconstruction will soon begin — less a news story than a history chapter. And as many have noted, we've got an opportunity — you might even say an obligation — to reconstruct it right. Or, in the case of New Orleans, as right as possible; I say this because (thanks to a link on the indispensable Archinect) I've just read a fantastically good article by John McPhee. Published eighteen years ago in the New Yorker — and still posted, I hope, on the magazine's archive page — "Atchafalaya" is an extraordinary piece of literary reportage, a fascinating account of the massive, heroic and hubristic efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the Mississippi from moving its course westward, from being captured by the Atchafalaya River — a natural occurrence that would effectively have destroyed the economies of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. McPhee's article is in the old, rambling-elegant New Yorker manner — but at 28,449 words it seems to me not a comma too long; not when the author describes so powerfully and precisely the engineered unnaturalness of the delta:

    The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand — frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier — arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

    For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina — with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places — it was often called "the American Ruhr." The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. . . . Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

    Of course, our current state is an enemy of nature, and our oilman-in-chief has always been an ever-dependable crony of all those petrochemical corporations that "made the river glow like a worm." (No wonder that Molly Ivins, in a recent column on the big fat post-Katrina cleanup contract awarded to Halliburton, gets so exasperated: "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Still, the reconstruction will outlast the current administration — and probably influence the choice of the next. Rebuilding cities and reviving economies, not to mention civil engineering and coastal hydrology — these aren't the readiest talking points. It's easier to editorialize about a tabula rasa. But that is sheer ahistorical fantasy, and it ignores the human dimension, what McPhee describes as "the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent." That ambition will surely prove as powerful as ever. And so will something else, something that Richard Ford evoked when he wrote, in a moving op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month: "It is — New Orleans — the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. A certain kind of person wants to go there and never leave."

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:30 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
    Summer's End

    Most of us haven't the fortune or flex-time to have whiled away the summer in one of those rambling coastal cottages built a century ago by merchant princes or eccentric industrialists; but last week, along with near-obsessive reading of the print and online post-Katrina reports, I spent a few hours happily lost in the beguiling pages of The Big House. Subtitled "A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home," the book is a memoir, by writer George Howe Colt, of the shingle-style house built by his proper Boston forebears in Buzzards Bay, on Cape Cod, in 1903, and of the five generations that gathered there to swim off the rocky coast, to sail in small wooden boats, to play tennis with wooden rackets on laboriously rolled-out clay courts — to pursue, in short, the Brahmin pleasures of upper-class austerity.

    With a graceful mix of familial pride and contemporary perspective, Colt describes the "peculiar combination of wealth and masochism" that for decades made the Big House so characteristic of its kind. Situated on a splendid waterfront promontory, and designed by William Atkinson, a gentleman-amateur architect and brother of the businessman ancestor who commissioned it, the four-story residence had nineteen rooms, seven fireplaces, and a generous encircling porch where the grownups would gather for cocktails in the late afternoon. But none of its seven bathrooms had a shower; only one of the three ancient stoves in the kitchen was even "semifunctional"; the eleven bedrooms were apt to be outfitted with unyielding horsehair mattresses and prickly straw pillows; and guests who might have hoped to find a TV or stereo were out of luck (although the place did have, says Colt "a battered portable radio, used primarily during hurricanes or Red Sox games").

    Clearly The Big House is not just a memoir but also an elegy. By the time the book begins, in the early '90s, the place had long since become an anachronism — a summer estate with a servants wing, a 10,000-square-foot gabled and dormered relic of an era when "summer" really was a verb — and the Colts had run short of the wherewithal to maintain it and had put it up for sale. Over the next few hundred pages the author manages to generate considerable suspense as to whether the property truly will be sold, and if so, whether to a subdividing developer or McMansionizing financier. Neither scenario comes to pass, and, although the house does not remain exactly as it was — comfortably tattered, reassuringly scruffy — the resolution is unexpectedly cheerful. But change was inevitable. The world that Colt is remembering is gone. And the world that Colt is remembering is more than the milieu of an anglo-yankee aristocracy; ultimately he is memorializing a certain idea about summer, an idea of summer as a season of permissible regression, of vacation times when we dress down, sleep late, leave the machines unplugged and the hours uncommitted, when we reinvigorate ourselves for the quickening of autumn.

    This idea of summer has hung on — certainly in the ad copy of resort realtors and Ralph Lauren collections — but as a practical matter it's become pretty tenuous. So too have the kinds of places and landscapes that it inspired. Colt imagines a room from the Big House preserved in a museum: a "New England Summer House Bedroom" that would capture the unselfconscious informality of a mid-20th-century summer vacation, right down to the iron bedstead, the painted pine furniture, and the lamp made from an old wine bottle filled with sea glass. But you needn't have ancestors who prepped at Groton to understand Colt's curatorial impulse. By now a lot of Cape Cod has earned its place in that archive of resort life of the recent past. Like George Colt, I spent childhood summers on the Cape; but since we were second- and third-generation middle-class Jews the place we returned to year after year wasn't a roomy shingle-style pile but a beach shack with a screen porch. It was part of a cottage colony developed in the '20s, and when we started renting there, in the '60s, not much had changed. The cottages shared a broad secluded beach and a dilapidated clay tennis court (the Colts would've approved). The landscape was beach grass and scrub pine. The architecture was no-frills: the house had an electric heater but no telephone — if you wanted to make a call, you could walk down the road to the pay phone. But who wanted to make a call anyway? That was part of the point of the time away: you could let the din die down.

    Today the cottage by the beach has got phone service. And a lot more: in the mid-'80s a developer bought the weathered old colony and poured a pot of money into de-rusticating the cottages and genericizing the environs. The houses were enlarged with second floors and poshed up with new appliances and cable connections. The beach grass and scrub pine were dug up and replaced with neat patches of grass. A familiar story, I know: Cape Cod has been suburbanizing for a generation, and much of what was once maritime is now manicured. But more has changed than the architecture and landscape. The well-appointed little villas by the beach, with their telecom links and high-maintenance lawns, seem less about getting away from it all than about carting it all along with you. No wonder that today's time-off is increasingly a matter of what a friend of mine calls "engaged retreat." You might be sitting on the porch gazing at the water, but you've got the iBook on your lap and the cell phone in your pocket, and you're calculating the relative stresses of checking email while on holiday or facing the inbox when you get back.

    So I understand George Colt's nostalgia. "For nearly a century," Colt says at the start of the book, "my family has thought of the Big House as an unchanging place in a changing world, a sanctuary we have assumed we would always be able to return to, as would our children and our children's children." Maybe it's a boomer predisposition, a natural emotional response to living in a time when change feels less evolutionarily organic than challengingly quick. You feel too young to feel so old — to see places that had endured and evolved, maybe even the scenes of your childhood, change so suddenly and irrevocably. The Big House is a moving tribute to the power of architecture to embody and evoke the past, and to make you feel, despite everything, that it isn't really past.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 10:15 am | Permanent link
Thursday, September 1, 2005
    Hurricane Season

    I had intended to post a brief essay about summer, and summer houses; but that can wait. I have learned from fellow Arts Journal blogger Terry Teachout that today is Blog for Relief Day, devoted to raising awareness of organizations helping in the recovery and rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy of TT, here and here are links to various humanitarian agencies. And here is the site of HurricAid, a new blog focused on Katrina's effects and aftermath.

    Also, from Forbes, I've learned of two new charities: the Hurricane Katrina Displaced Residents Fund and the Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Recovery Fund. The latter will focus on reconstructing infrastructure. So too will Architecture for Humanity, which is accepting donations "to support the work of local architects in the reconstruction and repair of the region's hardest hit areas."

    And speaking of architecture: I was moved by Robert Ivy's poignant personal memories, posted on the Architectural Record web site, of leaving the city three decades ago, as Hurricane Carmen threatened the delta and its gorgeous, fragile settlements. I've been impressed too with the resilience of blogger James Stamp, of New Orleans, who two days ago managed to post an entry in his Life Without Buildings from an exile in Houston that is likely to be, as he says, extended. (Was it just two weeks ago that he posted all those lovely images of modern architecture in New Orleans, taken on a bike ride through neighborhoods that may be no more?)

    I visited New Orleans only briefly, but you didn't need to spend much time there to agree with those who have called it the most beautiful — most strangely beautiful — city in the United States. Which perhaps explains at least in part why so many are optimistic that its citizens will regroup and reconstruct. As Bob Ivy puts it:

    While the Dream-Queen may be struck-down, she’s been mortally wounded before by disease and fire, by war and flood. Waters will recede; she’ll pull up and remake herself, not dead or dying, but ready for a fight and another dance. Like me, too many people love her. She cannot fail — only fade for a while. . . . We have to rebuild, and build better, avoiding cheap solutions, lowest bids, and graft. The vast history of the place (which looms like a form of interlocking human memory) demands it, and we are intent on restoring her to her splendid life.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:04 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, August 4, 2005

    I have let my weblog languish . . . partly it's been the demands of the day job, and partly too the distractions of the season. Somehow when the days get steamy and the breezes balmy, when everyone's slouching around the city half-dressed or motoring off to remote but on-the-radar waterfront retreats — and too, when the New York Times is reduced to blithery puff about Richard Meier weekending in East Hampton, marinating his chicken in Coca-Cola and ketchup (!) and firing up his Viking Ultra-Premium — well, somehow the urge is to unplug, to get liberal with the sunscreen and prove that Henry James was right when he described "summer afternoon" as "the two most beautiful words in the English language."

    But summer idylls are hard to hold on to . . . especially when you scan a week's worth of news reports and learn the latest from the always overheated sphere of starchitects (surely the least beautiful word in the English language). I refer to the recent news that Santiago Calatrava has been hired by the Fordham Co., a Chicago developer, to design a 115-story, 2,000-foot-high, half-a-billion-dollar hotel/condominium tower that would be the country's tallest — a twisting and tapering structure that's been variously compared to an "oversized birthday candle," a stick of licorice, a "swizzle stick," a "concrete and glass drill bit," a "massive corkscrew," and — in an intriguing fit of critical psychodrama — a "tall, stately woman in a flowing, gauzy gown that swirls around her legs."

    Given that the design is conceptual and the financing vague — or, as the Chicago Tribune tactfully notes, "not yet finalized" — and that none of the condos (which will cost $850/s.f., give or take) has yet been sold, it's tempting to dismiss all this as over-easy public relations — only marginally less featherweight than the style-page paean to grillmeister Meier. Or, as Lynn Becker at ArchitectureChicago Plus so aptly puts it, the project's "thrust into the 'world's tallest' sweepstakes is being hyped with the kind of sloppy inanity usually found in spam emails for penile enlargement."

    At some point, of course, should the project prove to have staying power, we'll need to stop concocting metaphors and get a firmer grip on the tenacious and non-aesthetic matter of security. Calatrava himself, according to the New York Times, is "not concerned" that what would be the tallest building in the U.S. might be targeted by terrorists; but it's possible that the authors of a hefty National Institute of Standards and Technology report on tall-building safety, due to be published in September, might have a more nuanced, not to say objective and public-spirited, view of the issue. In any case, at this point I'm inclined to agree with the Slatin Report, which views this as a cautionary tale wherein meaningless hyperbole has replaced thoughtful planning, a project in which, as Peter Slatin says, "a great designer is commoditized, and a great city is caricatured."

    And the past couple of weeks have brought more news from Chicago — news that takes us far from the cushiony world of top-dollar residential real estate and world-conquering celebrity designers-cum-security experts. The news is sad: on July 14 Richard Solomon, executive director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, died of a heart attack, at age 62. I never met Rick Solomon, but spoke to him often over the years, in connection with various book and magazine projects (and as co-editor of Harvard Design Magazine, I shared in one of the foundation's grants); and he impressed me as the ideal head of a philanthropic organization — a magnanimous and generous personality who was scrupulous about not letting personal predilections sway the foundation's decisions. Which perhaps accounts for the diversity of work supported in the past decade by the Graham. Already this year, for instance, the foundation has funded several dozen research and publication projects on topics ranging from East German modernism to the resurgence of Shanghai, from the legacy of Eero Saarinen to historic Montana barns, from sick building syndrome to architecture and terrorism.

    But what is really striking about the grants, even more than the scope of topics, is the modesty of the awards. Here in the U.S. we pour copious resources into high-rise construction — and come to think of it, into penile enlargement, too — while our cultural endeavors make do with sums that are comparatively paltry. According to its web site, in the past six months the Graham has awarded 77 grants that together total $477,850; the average grant was a few thousand dollars — enough to purchase about half a dozen square feet in Calatrava's corkscrew. What's more, when you consider the list of books supported in the past decade, you realize how profoundly — and perhaps unsustainably — indebted architectural publishing is to foundation money.

    Not that this is news; for a long while now we've gotten used to a corporate/commercial/market sector that's full to bursting, and to an arts/culture/non-profit realm that scrapes by on scraps. But it seems reasonable to wonder whether the gap is growing, the disproportion becoming grotesque. I've just started to read The Economics of Art and Culture, which estimates that art-and-culture account for less than one percent of the American economy. Is it possible that someday the cultural life of the U.S. will cease to be grounded in professional structures and depend wholly on the largesse — and the whims — of patrons? Not a pretty prospect . . . but at least for now we've got foundations like the Graham, which from what I can tell seek to operate in ways that are not partisan and cozy but open-minded and adventurous.

    And now, for at least a little while, back to summer-and-sunscreen . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, June 30, 2005
    Freemarket Tower

    Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
    — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

    The reviews are in — and if the new(est) Freedom Tower were a Broadway show, the producers would already be striking the set. The critics have been unsparing, the metaphors plentiful. David Childs's latest compromise of a Ground Zero high-rise — with its newly bunkered-up base and blandly symmetrical shaft — has been likened to a "crystalline Popsicle," a "gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top," an "85-story piece of folded graph paper," and, in an online discussion, to a "huge hypodermic needle" and grotesquely over-scaled "perfume bottle." Slightly gentler assessments rate the design as "monumentally ordinary," "fundamentally . . . conventional," and "highly derivative." And some keen observers have suggested that the artistic failure of Childs's latest redesign — a redesign of his and Libeskind's redesign of Libeskind's competition-winning design — is woefully beside the point, since the point of Ground Zero redevelopment has always been not architectural invention but rentable space. Which makes the sorry spectacle even sorrier — for of course this most talked-about development deal of the decade has yet to attract any tenants.

    And here the most relevant questions have lately come from observers beyond the world of architecture — questions about the wisdom, the ethics even, of the misbegotten building. As Frank Rich argued in an op-ed that ran in the New York Times on Memorial Day weekend: "The simple question that no one could answer the day after 9/11 remains unanswered today: What sane person would want to work in a skyscraper destined to be the most tempting target for aerial assault in the Western world?" And as Ron Rosenbaum asked in an essay in a recent New York Observer: "Who needs an empty gesture when others may have to pay for it with their lives? . . . The discussion should not be about how to save 'Freedom Tower,' but rather: Who will save us from 'Freedom Tower'?"

    Something to ponder as we prepare for the big Independence Day holiday . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 4:45 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
    Remembering Nanna Ditzel

    A brief note on a matter that has gone surprisingly unmentioned by most of the design press: One of the great Danish designers of the past half century has recently died. Nanna Ditzel never attained the international prominence of some of her illustrious compatriots — of, say, Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, Hans Wegner, or Poul Henningsen, to name just some of the designers who made Denmark such a powerhouse of postwar modernism — but in her homeland she was a hero, the unofficial first lady of design, a prolific craftswoman whose work was much honored and widely exhibited.

    In a career that lasted almost six decades — beginning in 1946, when she and her first husband, Jørgen Ditzel, set up a studio in Copenhagen, and ending only a few months ago, when she became ill — Ditzel designed hundreds of objects in diverse media. She was best known for her furniture — for early projects in that unfussy and affordable idiom that become known as Scandinavian Modern (e.g., the egg, a hanging chair of woven cane, and the toadstool, a set of stackable pine seats for children), and for later creations in a more exuberantly decorative mode (e.g., the eye-catchingly chromatic bench for two, and the Trinidad stacking chair). But she also designed textiles, tableware and, especially, jewelry. In the mid-1950s she began what would be a long association with Georg Jensen — the first woman to design for the prestigious company — and over the years she crafted a series of sensuous silver brooches, pendants, and bracelets, some of which are still in production and viewable on the Jensen site (where not even the droid-like models mar the elegance of the work).

    The politics of reputation is always a puzzle. Ditzel's comparatively modest profile (at least on this side of the Atlantic) has possibly something to do with gender (but no! I am writing on a balmy summer day, and I won't roil it with post-feminist angst). Or maybe it owes to the fact that none of her many designs has become one of those objects so immediately recognizable — like Jacobsen's Series 7 chair, or Henningsen's artichoke light — that it hovers in that uncertain zone between icon and cliché. Or perhaps it was due, as is so often the case, to temperament; perhaps Ditzel was content to enjoy the kudos of her design-savvy countrymen (and women), and let the rest of us discover her when we might.

    My own introduction to Ditzel's work came by way of that incidental research tool that is eBay, where the powersellers have cannily perceived the value of creative cross-referencing (and where this week a seller is offering one of Ditzel's Jensen pieces from the early '60s, a curvy sterling brooch set with a simple black pearl). But no matter the means, Nanna Ditzel's work is worth knowing. Perhaps her death will inspire our design periodicals to explore her life and career. In the meantime, for an overview of both, I recommend the graceful obituary in a recent Guardian, written by design historian Penny Sparke.

    Also, at the right, I've posted a new list of books — books about designers both famous and not so famous.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link


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In the past decade forward-looking and fast-moving cities around the world have been investing in railroad stations — or "intermodal transportation centers," to use the vogue terminology. Here are some of the most ambitious, both built and on the boards.

UN Studio, the Dutch firm led by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, is planning the mammoth Arnhem Central. When finished, the 1.7-million-square-foot station will accommodate not just rail, trolley, and bus lines but also shops, offices, and apartments. In true Dutch style, the garage will house 1,000 cars and 5,000 bicycles.

Designed by the partnership of Wilkinson Eyre Architects, Stratford Station, in East London, links four rail lines. The steel-framed, aluminum-clad, quarter-ellipse roof is designed to enhance natural ventilation and provide a contemporary look for a redeveloping neighborhood.

Scheduled to be completed in 2006, Lehrter Station (images here), designed by von Gerkan, Marg + Partners, will be among the greenest in Europe, with photovoltaics integrated into its south-facing glass roofs. It will also be among the biggest, handling more than 200,000 passengers per day, 30,000,000 per year.

The Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has described his spectacular World Trade Center Transportation Hub (images here), which will connect subway, rail, and ferry lines, as consisting of "glass, steel, and light." Some of those materials aren't cheap: Unveiled a year ago and scheduled to be completed at the end of the decade, this Ground Zero station is budgeted at $2 billion.


A few books published in the past decade, on designers famous and not so famous.

Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the 20th Century, by Pat Kirkham

The indispensable Eames book, a joint biography of Charles and Ray and a smart critique of their prodigious output, from the buildings and objects to the films and exhibits. Kirkham is especially good on the contributions of Ray, which were too often, she notes, “hidden from history.”

Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World, by Glenn Adamson

By the end of the book — the catalogue for a show at the Milwaukee Art Museum — the nervy subtitle is convincing. Born and raised in the Midwest, Brooks Stevens designed graphics for Miller Brewing, outboard motors for Evinrude, cars for Studebaker, motorcycles for Harley Davidson, and bicycles for Roadmaster, not to mention stylish steam irons, toasters, mixers, and fridges. The author's goal is to spotlight this highly productive and yet underappreciated designer.

Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism, by Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf

A well-illustrated biography of another successful but often overlooked American innovator; from the 1930s to the ‘50s, McCardell created what retailers came to call the “American Look” — easy but stylish clothes for the sportif modern woman.

Eileen Gray, by Caroline Constant

This artistic biography focuses not just on Gray's celebrated furnishings — the lacquered screens, patterned rugs, etc. — but on her lesser known buildings — what the author calls the "nonheroic" modernist houses Gray designed in the interwar years. The shy and well-bred Gray understood that she never received the acclaim of her male peers. "I was not a pusher and maybe that's the reason I did not get the place I should have had," she said, "but then everybody was so busy promoting their own work." Plus ça change . . .


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