Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2013

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang, Overdrive, Hartmut Esslinger.

12 books

The process by which news turns into history is a strange one: nothing ages faster than new technology, for instance. But the personal computer is making its transition to the area of history—the laptop, the PDA, the mobile phone all will follow soon. One recent part of the process is a new book from Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frogdesign (“Frog”), the firm that worked with Apple Design in the 1980s. Esslinger’s book is an illustration of this process in action. (In a token of 1960s, counterculture informality, Esslinger insisted on spelling the name frogdesign, with a lowercase initial, which was undone by the firm’s later acquisition by a larger corporation.)

Esslinger emphasizes the idea of “strategic design” as a key business discipline. His other clients included Lufthansa, A.T.&T, Louis Vuitton, Sony, and SAP. The book also includes work with his students at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Praise for Apple design has tended to focus on Jonathan Ive and his staff and ignore the longstanding, but quite different contributions of Esslinger and Bob Brunner. In a reminder of the company’s earliest days, Esslinger includes photos of “concept” products mocked up for Apple. These early Apple products suggest a wide level of experimentation. They include upright workstations, amazingly contemporary laptops, small computers (“Baby Mac”) and the “MacPhone,” a slate with stylus and telephone handset—attached with a cord.

In retrospect, the question that is clear and is the nature of Apple’s success was figuring out which technologies were mature enough for which designs. The stylus-driven screens, say, or integrated telephones or some of the cooler concepts were not commercially ready in the late 1980s.

There is a consistency in appearance to the concepts. Frog’s achievement was to bring to Apple the idea of a consistent corporate design language, as practiced by Sony and IBM (or Kodak for that matter.) Esslinger named his “Snow White.”

The language stipulated the regular use of color, gridded ventilation areas, and consistently radiused corners for all Apple products. Its name referred initially to seven Apple product lines—“dwarves”—that were to be designed but also perhaps an echo of the fairy-tale Snow White. Esslinger had been inspired by the design consistency of Sony and of Braun. But he saw the limits of pure, cold geometric modernism. Snow White evoked “Snow White’s coffin”—the famous nickname given to an iconic Braun radio/record player hi-fi unit.

Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 and Frog’s work for the company soon stopped. Frog went on to work on Job’s start-up, Next.

Apple was only one of the high-tech companies and projects Esslinger and frogdesign worked on. One interesting example, around the same time as Apple’s Newton handheld, was the 1993 A.T.&T. EO “personal communicator.”

It is amazing how fast high-tech projects and products can be forgotten—think of Palm Pilots and CD ROMs. But it is critical that designers record these early days of digital technology to avoid repeating mistakes. Many quirks of design turn out to have been the results of technological limits of the time that ended up embedded in our common standards. And many early ideas that were impractical at the time could now be successfully revived. One of the virtues of Esslinger’s book is to give us a longer-view technological perspective at a time when we narrowly focus on this month’s or even this week’s technological innovations. His lesson is about matching design and technology.

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.

Charles Churchward

Alexander Liberman lived multiple lives—some of them sequentially and some of them simultaneously. He was a vector, as immunologists call it, of modernism. Liberman (1912–99), was born in Kiev under the czars on the eve of the Russian Revolution and his bio tracks modernist history from Constructivism through exile in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s across the Atlantic to the flourishing of modernism in postwar America. Modernism came to America through New York, riding ocean liners and the waves of war and revolution. Liberman stands as sort of node of influences, Kevin Bacon style, of its major personalities.

The son of an economic advisor to the czars who even Lenin found so useful he continued to rely on him for many years, young Alexandre drew and painted and visited museums in Europe after the family left Russia. He ended up educated as a French aristocrat just in time for the arrival of World War II and he moved on to New York.

Liberman was hired at Condé Nast magazines. He rose quickly—aided as much by personal charm as by skill. By 1960 he headed all the Condé Nast magazines, and would continue to do so for more than 30 years. For those magazines he hired Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton and then little-known photographers like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Deborah Turbeville. (He visited Matisse and Picasso in their studios and made photographs himself.) He was pals with Calder and Motherwell.

But Liberman brought ideas as well as contacts. The book title, It’s Modern, comes from a phrase of explanation he regularly directed at young art directors after altering their work. The torn edges and collaged layers of magazines he ran were some times mocked as “ransom note style.” Happily, actual magazine pages are reproduced in this book, whose format is unusual—a sort of scrapbook of photos, works of art, and sketches. These are interspersed with memoirs, all edited by Charles Churchward an editor, author, art director, and designer who worked with Liberman. (I wrote about Lieberman in the early 1980s. I met him in his office. He was proud how clean and empty his desk was. I did not know then but the book suggests those walks generated waves of terror among employees ahead of his visits.) He could tear up layouts and stories.)

Liberman’s story is a reminder that modernism moved through magazines and advertising as much or more as through galleries and museums. This book makes clear the perhaps surprising tie between the layouts of, say, Self magazine in the 1980s and the cutting-edge newsmagazines in Europe in the 1930s.

Liberman ran his magazine empire while simultaneously forging a career as painter and sculptor. He painted and drew constantly. If during his life his own art was underrated because of his success in the “conventional” (media) world, the examples included in the book, however, stand out well. There is a painting that is visibly aware of the Russian constructivists; it stands comparison to Ellsworth Kelly of the same period, circa 1950. The sculpture is smart and witty.

One of the modernist strains in Liberman’s story is the familiar one of the European falling in love with America and discovering new things there and revealing them to the native. Some European modernists fell in love with American skyscrapers and grain elevators. Lieberman and others found inspiration in what Duchamp called “bridges and plumbing”—mundane structures like T-square girders and piping. Liberman made sculpture of giant boilers and pipe sections. Painted red and welded in 3D collage, they became public sculpture, shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington to and at Storm King sculpture park in New York State. But he was never separated from his origins: the pipes also reminded him of cannons at the Kremlin, he said.

Another of Liberman's lives resembles a Nabokov novel. Hollywood dapper and suave, he recalls any number of film characters and played many roles. He has been described as a chameleon with women. Around 1936 he was briefly married to a German ski champion named Hilda Sturm and became for a time an outdoorsman. But for much of his life he was famously indulgent toward one wife. He ended up married to Tatiana du Plessix, a legendary Russian beauty famous as the muse of the doomed poet Mayakovsky and the mother of Francine du Plessix Gray. I met Tatiana briefly. What left the deepest impression was the famous pool built to indulge Tatiana—an open-air saltwater heated swimming pool in steaming in winter Connecticut. In the middle of those energy crisis years it seemed an indulgence worthy of the czars.

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.

David Kelley is one of the founders of IDEO and of the Stanford d.school (note the small “d,” using Silicon Valley-style informality for what is officially the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design). His brother Tom Kelley is an IDEO partner and the author of the best-selling book The Art of Innovation. The brothers’ new book builds on the idea of innovation, America’s favorite business value these days, and is wrapped in the concept of “design thinking.”

The book looks like one of those business books for sale in airport shops, with big type, lots of pull quotes in large type, and bullet points. This is unfortunate, because it is more profound than that and packed with important ideas. “Too often, companies and individuals assume that creativity and innovation are the domain of the ‘creative types,’” the authors argue. Their idea is to show that everyone can and must be creative—by which they mean everyone also can and must be innovative and, yes, can and must be designers.

Creative Confidence is full of useful techniques for analysis and research (and indeed indoctrination) taken from IDEO’s practice to bolster this claim. Many of IDEO’s famous techniques involve groups. They are also good politics for designers, who must persuade employees of companies they are doing something important to have their work implemented.

Some of the Kelleys’ advice provides the commendable function of demystifying creativity. For instance, one page shows a box of tips on how to look at customers of clients—hang around, like a fly on the wall, talk to longtime employees like a receptionist, experiment with customer service. There is the suggestion of what the Kelleys call a “bug list,” to chart defects in a situation or product. The brothers also address the problem of getting people to draw who don’t normally do so, with a series of exercises and a suggested stick figure vocabulary.

Another of the Kelleys’ key points is the need to celebrate failure. One case of repeated failure they cite is that of Ankit Gupta, who developed the iPhone app Pulse while still a student. The story demonstrates the importance of iteration: the designer spent days working on the app in café on University Ave in Palo Alto, taking suggestions from other cafe customers. “1 learned that creativity is always hindsight,” says Ankit. “It's not about just coming up with the one genius idea that solves the problem, but trying and failing at a hundred other solutions before arriving at the best one.” The story suggests one of the many ways the word “creativity” itself needs a redefinition—or is that redesign?

Like design thinking or innovation—both overused terms—creativity as a word may be a problem. Creativity suggests imagination, whole visions, and worlds. But many of the situations and solutions described in the book are closer to cleverness than creativity. The point may be that the innovative and creative are often not so brilliant or aesthetic. Many of the suggested creativity exercises end up turning a situation sideways to look at it from a new perspective.

The book’s voice slips from “we” to those of individual brothers in a slightly strange way. The pair wrote the book when David Kelley was fighting for his life against cancer, we are told in first few pages—jarringly, since the news comes amid the book’s upbeat, even jaunty graphics. Perhaps this is why it appears at times to be a summary of life lessons as much as a book on design. But that could be the point, since the argument of Creative Confidence is redefining creativity.

Paula Champa

Novels about design are rare, novels about car design rarer still. Of course, The Afterlife of Emerson Tang, Paula Champa’s story about great cars of the past and new ones of the future, is about much more. It is ultimately about time, memory, and change.

Built around a mysterious car, the book is also about an entrepreneur redesigning the technology of the automobile for a greener future. Champa has based her novel on reporting and observation of today’s automotive world, from high-tech garages to concours d’elegance where high net-worth collectors assemble.

Ultimately, however, the book is a story about hope and regret, grief and self-expression, wrapped around an old-fashioned mystery. “I mused on this,” Champa writes. “What is a vehicle but a private capsule? One in which the mundane errands and memorable adventures of a life are accomplished. By some alchemy, through this constant association, a mingling, a transmutation, can occur. In memories alone, a car is capable of encapsulating an entire life. Or more than one. . . . I wondered: Do you possess a car, or does it possess you?”

Bobbye Tigerman Editor

The encyclopedic Handbook of California Design, 1930-1965: Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers gives lasting form to the research and analysis that went into the Pacific Standard Time shows. The reference volume was published jointly by LACMA and MIT Press. It serves as a companion to the  2011 MIT Press/LACMA publication California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way," but also offers an invaluable backdrop for both New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California and Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990.

Included are more than 100 biographies of architects, designers, and craftsman and in a chart or infographic sketches out the social links among them, routed through universities and firms.

The publisher promises that “the book will become an indispensable reference for scholars, students, collectors, and all those interested in modern design.. .. it emerged from the realization that years of research could not be contained the in the show catalog." Entries include a biography and image as well as references. Edited by Bobbye Tigerman, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the book has a mid-century period design by Irma Boom. Individual biographies were written by Jennifer Munro Miller, Lacy Simkowitz, Staci Steinberger, and Bobbye Tigerman. There is also a map of influences and connections and collaborations among the architects and designers, along with an extensive bibliography.

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.”

Jeff Brouws Editor and Compiler
Wendy Burton Editor and Compiler
Hermann Zschiegner Editor and Compiler

When artist Ed Ruscha offered up books full of his dry documentary photo views of gas stations and parking lots in the early 1960s, he could not have dreamed that he was foreshadowing not just typical content but also a typical business model for art-book publishing in the next century.

Self-published in small numbers, Ruscha’s books bore such titles as Twentysix Gas Stations, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, A Few Palm Trees, and Various Small Fires.

Ruscha’s books began as art, but their approach was soon preempted by others and became a means for analyzing and studying design. The subject matter of the photos in the books—such as gas stations and retail storefronts—was also emerging as subject matter for architectural study. Ruscha inspired both subject matter and approach. An example was Steven Izenour’s book White Tower, a study of the typology of the hamburger chain buildings. The Sunset strip views inspired Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s students of architecture and urbanism in the 1970s as an analytical tool.

Now, a new volume appears treating the books inspired by Ruscha’s books. That is, a book about books about books. The dizzying mirror in a mirror effect suggests the way Ruscha’s work has resounded in the visual culture. Ruscha’s gas stations inspired Jeff Brouws, one of the book’s editors, when he was setting out as a photographer.

The tone of cool detachment of Ruscha's volumes influenced many artists of the conceptualist era. As the authors explain, the Ruschas feature "mundane subjects photographed prosaically, with idiosyncratically deadpan titles." These "small books" were sought after, collected, and loved by Ruscha's fans and fellow artists. Over the past 30 years, close to 100 other small books that appropriated or paid homage to Ruscha’s have been created. Some are imitations, some come close to parody. The best build on the basic premises to introduce something new. For instance, Every coffee I drank in January 2010 by Hermann Zschiegner takes off from typologies of coffee-cup lid designs. It presents photos of the actual individual lids fitted to cups, day by day, many still bearing stains of the beverage. The result is a whimsical diary described as one of “a series of tributes” to New York City. Both the tops and bottoms of the lids have been photographed; on a few occasions the pages reflect that there was no cup consumed, on others more than one. “Zschiegner's coffees of January reside one to a page. Rectos feature the topside of a single lid, versos the corresponding bottom . . . As metonyms and indexes of the coffee that has been consumed, the uniqueness of each lid gives the respective drink a specificity that might otherwise be lacking from a straightforward inventory. The day’s consumption becomes a ritual act that produces a drawing . . .”

The Ruscha-inspired books tend to be limited-edition, even self-published volumes, reflecting a strategy of book making that appears to be growing more popular among photographers and designers. That business plan, like the limited-edition strategy of prints or other artworks, is a form of seriality that reflects the serial arrangement of objects photographed in such books. The result is an even more disorienting contemplation of “bookness.”

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.

Mason B. Williams

Thousands of fans heading for Yankee Stadium pass the sign “Bronx Terminal Market 1935,” its letterforms cast in a sturdy concrete facade suggesting their era. The market was the site of one of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s triumphs--over government inefficiency and organized crime—and serves as one of the smaller symbols of his role as city shaper.

I thought of that market while reading City of Ambition, a study of La Guardia’s relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and thus of the New Deal.  City of Ambition is important reading for anyone interested in the design of cities and particularly how plans and visions are translated to physical and social reality—or not.  The Bronx Market, whose days since La Guardia have been less happy, is proof of how much New York is still the city of Roosevelt’s New Deal—still the city La Guardia and FDR built. Bridges, highways, parks, schools, and more were constructed as economic stimulus measures. They are what we today call infrastructure; they are also extensions of the market, in its ancient sense of the agora, the common, public space.

So, as the author writes, “The book is also a study of how government came to play an extraordinarily broad role in a quintessentially market-oriented city.” The Federal government accounted for about a third of New York’s budget at the high point of the New Deal. The story is a useful corrective for the naïve policy wonk: it tells of political club houses, ethnic resentments and crime, organized and semi-organized. Aside from intermittent stiffening into academic jargon, the narrative is engaging.

La Guardia summed up New York’s variety: his parents were an Italian and a Jew, he was born in Greenwich Village and raised in Arizona.  He was a progressive Republican. He managed to charm even FDR and the two crossed party lines in mutual support. He was also folk hero, part neighborhood grocer, part favorite uncle, the “little flower” who read the Sunday newspaper comics on the radio to children when a newspaper strike prevented their delivery. Such acts were given physical form in parks and pools and schools, many of them still in use in the city today.

The book comes at an appropriate time, when Federal stimulus is under discussion again, and also when Bill De Blasio, another activist candidate with a short article in his name and a melting-pot background, appears set to move into City Hall.

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