Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2013

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang, Overdrive, Hartmut Esslinger.

5 books

Architects and their friends should celebrate this book but probably won’t. With the nod in its subtitle to old-fashioned “humanism,” it would be a very useful book for the college course every architect and believer in architecture wishes were required of every freshman. That is, it is general enough, reasonable enough, and accommodating enough to leave the right impression about architecture with people who will never read another book on the subject—people who will go on to work outside of architecture’s professional culture.

This is the way the author appears to see it as well.  The book is dedicated to Rybczynski’s freshman seminar students, aptly enough, and unreels in chapters arranged by ten concepts, the tools, such as “site” and “details.” The main sense here is a lack of the shrillness of most architectural discussion. Rybczynski’s career and life been characterized by reasonableness and practicality, context and measure—in short, most of the qualities absent from talk about architecture.

Witold Rybczynski came onto the public scene with his book Home: a Short History of an Idea at a time when the stridency of the dialogue of architecture was particularly irritating. He offered up a simple concept: comfort as the goal of designers.  Some of us knew him even earlier from his book Taming the Tiger, a thoughtful consideration of technology that showed his range of interest and thought, and we delighted in his little book, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

Rybczynski is real architect—someone who can design a building. Until recently he taught in an academic design and planning program that did not shy away from using the term “real estate” its name. In the age of star architecture he feels the need to remind the reader that buildings reflect much about the corporations as well as the cities and countries that build them. (Cherchez the client!)

A virtue of the toolkit of concepts format is that is shows how down to earth architecture can be, in terms of both function and aesthetics. Rybczynski says, “Most architecture, a backdrop for our everyday lives, is experienced in bits and pieces—the glimpsed view of a distant spire, the intricacy of a wrought-iron railing, the soaring space of a railroad station waiting room. Sometimes it’s just a detail, a well-shaped door handle, a window framing a perfect little view, a rosette carved into a chapel pew. And we say to ourselves, ‘How nice. Someone actually thought of that.’” Along the way, we get good explanations of the skyscraper story—steel skeleton, Sulllivan, the whole tale—in just a few pages, plus talk about things like why there are no mosquito screens at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. He manages to work in the basic names and ideas and stories, the Wright, and Sullivan and Le Corbusier chestnuts, but he also walks up to real landmarks and looks at the hinges on their doors.

The book is also dedicated to the proposition that theory has no place in architecture. “I believe that architecture emerges from the act of building,” he writes. “Theories, if they have any place at all, are an indulgence of the scholar, not a need of the practitioner.” That at least is one theory. Architecture should work, as the title suggests. The passage is likely to set off many practitioners and professors equally. It suggests that many of the problems of recent architecture, measured by half centuries, say, has to do with the persistent overlap of scholar (or at least academic) and practitioner. But I also like to imagine that this is the sort of book that will help produce a more tolerant and understanding City Councilman or a board of directors member decades hence.

Christopher Mount Editor
Foreword by Jeffrey Deitch

A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California was created to accompany an exhibition curated by Christopher Mount and set—after some controversy—to run June 10, 2013 to September 2, 2013, at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Some context: the Pacific Standard Times “suite” of shows has largely done its job, earning South California more respect as a hotbed of arts innovation in the 1950s through 1970s. Beginning two years ago, in dozens of exhibitions, more than 60 cultural organizations across Southern California celebrated the emergence of the Los Angeles art scene during 1945–1980. Now the focus has moved on in time and subject—to architecture in the 1980s. A New Sculpturalism is one example. It is billed as “the first extensive, scholarly examination of the radical forms in Southern California architecture during the past twenty-five years” and one of its focal points is work from the mid-1980s by Frank Gehry, Franklin D. Israel, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, and Eric Owen Moss. In this era, Los Angeles underwent one of those periods that cultural historians love, where things visibly changed in the cultures, high and low, and you can talk convincingly about zeitgeist.

Several key points can be noted as symbols in the history of this period: the 1984 Olympics, the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)—the Temporary Contemporaryand the completion of MOCA by Irata Isozaki in 1986, which established the opening to the west, and a sense of Los Angeles as a genuine world city. The list might be extended to the 1992 civil disturbances and the Northridge Earthquake of 1994—even the O.J. Simpson live television chase, a pop monument to new omniscient and omnipresent media. The city’s mood may have been summed up in Mike Davis’s influential book City of Quartz, which depicted L.A. on the edge of disaster, from earthquake, drought or fire or their social equivalents.

The sculpture of the title is visible in the twisting and fracturing of the pure geometries of modernism. Modernism had come to California as an immigrant, and like so many immigrants at first thought it had found paradise. But the challenges to the economic dream were matched by those to the purity of the modernist dream. By the 1980s, the “techtonic” twists to modernist geometries made the mood visible: they were the tensions of failed modernism, or at least of modernism under stress.

What is refreshing about the book is a sense of architects who are open to new approaches—even, in the clichéd view of the Golden State, to crazy new things. There is a sense of California as a place where architects become more daring and perhaps more show-offy.

The examples in the book appear to have been chosen in part to show that however much it draws from the state’s “terroir,” its dynamics are also exportable. Two cases are Frank Gehry’s downtown Manhattan Beekman Place residential tower and Thom Mayne’s Cooper Union building.

The book comes with a series of complex charts of the relationship of study and work among the architects. In addition to the curator’s introduction, there are essays by U.C. Berkeley professor Margaret Crawford, the Los Angeles journalist Sam Lubell, the architectural historian Nicholas Olsberg, and the exhibition’s curatorial research assistant Johanna Vandemoortele.

Wim de Wit Editor
Christopher Alexander Editor

Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 dovetails nicely with A New Sculpturalism. It offers a series of essays on “experiments” in architecture and urban design. The book is edited by Wim de Wit, head of the Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and Christopher James Alexander, assistant curator of architecture and design there, and accompanies an exhibition at the Getty Center that opened on April 9 and runs through July 21.

The theme is an apt fit for a region given to utopian dreams (if not otherworldly cults) where the movie back lot produces surreal juxtapositions like a mad scientist of urbanism. The lab theme also works well to unify chapters that are as disparate as Southern California’s many towns and neighborhoods. Essays on freeways and the barrio, surveys of the downtown arts center, and radical approaches from the Eames house to Case Study houses are boats of different size and shape, made to sail in the same fleet.

Both this book and A New Sculpturalism are free from the dominant tone of much past discussion of Southern California architecture, which was shaped by the finger-wagging, clucking criticism of visiting Easterners who complained how much people drive in Los Angeles and lamented the failure of the city’s neighborhoods to resemble Greenwich Village. The two might be profitably interposed with a watching of Thom Andersen’s 2003 film Los Angeles Plays Itself, in which the city’s pride in its architecture shines through an assemblage of feature film clips that also turn out to be an architectural tour and guidebook.

R. James Breiding

The world-weary Orson Welles intones this line in The Third Man, Carol Reed’s classic 1949 film based on Graham Greene’s novel: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” But R. James Breiding’s Swiss Made shows that Switzerland produced much more than that, and besides, the cuckoo clock is a pretty big deal.

Clocks speak of a culture of time and punctuality and of timepiece making, from wristwatch to Swatch, that says much about modern life as well as about Switzerland. Swiss Made, which is subtitled “The Untold Story Behind Switzerland’s Success,” is one of the rare titles to put design in the context of business case studies and cultural economics.

It is full of fascinating stories of familiar products seen from unfamiliar angles. Switzerland is a land not only of hardware but also of software, pharmaceuticals, and prosthetic inventions of all sorts. The stories show the unanticipated ways in which ideas develop. Innovation in elevator design, for instance, at Schindler, came from such unexpected areas as scheduling cars with the so called “hall call” algorithm.

The tale of how the Nespresso coffee system, at first feared by executives as a potential cannibalizing rival to Nescafé instant coffee, took years to grow up at the edges of Nestlé’s empire. Developed at Nestlé’s branch in Japan, and promoted through clubs and shops there, it ended up a very different product before becoming a global success. Breiding explains that “Nespresso took more than a decade to make a dent in the market and Nestlé’s Chairman refused to put a machine in the board room because he was skeptical of its success. Now it is the most profitable among Nestlé’s 4,000 products.”

The source of innovation, Breiding argues, is the Swiss economic model. It has produced high average income without a disproportionate concentration of wealth at the top. Nestlé and Novartis may be familiar Swiss firms, but the book is also full of surprising examples of Swiss companies built on design, such as Logitech, the pioneer of the computer mouse and accessory design, established in 1982. (And of all the Swiss innovations, the cuckoo clock is not one: Breiding says it was developed in Germany.)

Dhiru A. Thadani
Introduction by Paul Goldberger
Foreword by Vincent Scully

Like the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart where leading modernist architects built houses in 1927, or new towns of the 1930s like Radburn, New Jersey, the new town of Seaside, Florida became famous as a subject of architectural discussion almost before it became a physical reality.

A pioneer design of the so-called New Urbanism, Seaside was built beginning in 1981 by Robert Davis, a visionary developer, who inherited the land in the Florida panhandle where the town rose. Seaside was intended to define the essence of comfortable towns in New England, Savannah and Charleston, and other areas in a model town. Its plan, carefully combining public spaces and private areas, was laid out for Davis by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andrés Duany—with much advice. Individual buildings were designed by Deborah Berke, Steven Holl, Léon Krier, Aldo Rossi, and Robert A. M. Stern, who also authored essays included in the book.

The book provides an extensive history of the town as well as discussions about its ideals. Each house— and other buildings, including many that were merely planned, not built—is profiled in this Bible-size collection and the volume is packed with suggestions for alternative town layouts. The book also outlines a blueprint for developing the town over the next 25 to 50 years. 

In the 1980s, Seaside served to crystallize, in alliance and in debate, a widening community with a shared set of ideas, but very different sensibilities, from Léon Krier to Christopher Alexander. The New Urbanism was about ideas but it was style that ultimately defined its limits. But as it took shape, Seaside emerged in popular media—and it was widely covered—as a cartoon of itself. It was depicted as a sort of pastel, po mo village. The houses grew larger and more elaborate than planned. This was in contrast to the town’s early days, which involved a vision of more rugged vernacular architecture, more beach shack than cottage.

As roses and tents selling crafts appeared at Seaside, some of the architects who were early supporters joked about a lost alternative: Darkside, which would have been built of plywood and corrugated tin. The town’s specific rules for building masses and details could seem overweening and bossy. But the results were surprising, as exemplified by a requirement that each house have a white fence in its front yard—a seemingly petty regulation that resulted in a wonderfully eclectic variety of fence designs.

Seaside was criticized as not being “a real test” economically because it was effectively a resort. Indeed, the pattern of Seaside’s growth was not unlike that of early suburbs, like Llewelyn Park, New Jersey, where simple refuges from the city grew into prestige enclosed communities. It was also conflated in the public mind with Celebration, the showcase town built on New Urbanist themes by Disney in Florida. That may be due to its appearance as setting for the 1998 film The Truman Show, where it seemed a colder, less human place than it actually is. Like many things from the 1980s, Seaside suffers in memory.

The historicist and “cutesy” aspect of Seaside architecture may have obscured the ideas of street and town, with emphasis on walking and biking, that it shares with younger urbanists. Younger new modernists differ from the new urbanists before them. They look not to upgrading the suburbs but to upgrading the inner city, and focus less on the house than the apartment building. But Seaside has a lot of lessons to teach.

The need for more discussion of Seaside is established eloquently in the opening pages, with foreword and introduction by Yale’s venerable architectural historian Vincent Scully and critic Paul Goldberger, respectively. Both make the key point: ideas transcend aesthetics at Seaside. As Paul Goldberger puts it, “Form, Seaside tells us over and over again, is not style. And neither is urbanism style.”

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