Posts tagged "Architect's Newspaper"

AN Friday Review: Harry Weese

Inadvertent mid-century modern week on A Bit Late draws to a close with Harry Weese. Read me on Alexander Girard here, Warren Platner here, and alarm bells for Harry Bertoia's bronze screen for Manufacturers Hanover (SOM, 1954) here.

Today on The Architect’s Newspaper site, I review the new book The Architecture of Harry Weese. I was dreaming of a monograph on Weese only a few months ago. Unfortunately, this book was not what I had in mind.

The Architecture of Harry Weese begins instead with an extensive biographical essay on Weese by Bruegmann. The bulk of the text is four-page entries by art historian Kathleen Murphy Skolnik of 30-plus projects designed by Chicago-based Harry Weese & Associates from 1936 to 1984. There are approximately four pages by Bruegmann devoted to interpretation, pages that check all the appropriate boxes: Was Weese an alternative to the Mies school of Chicago modernism? Was he a traditionalist? Was his work special for its materials? Its Scandinavian influence? Its vernacular qualities? Or will his legacy be as the “conscience” of Chicago architecture? (If the last, it is perplexing that the book quotes so little from Weese’s writings and interviews. We get no sense of his voice, which in the 1980s became increasingly shrill. Bruegmann reports he once called Helmut Jahn “Genghis Jahn.” This is a letter I would like to read in full.)

Read the rest here. Up top are Weese’s fabulous River Cottages in Chicago. This was someone who knew how to design a modern townhouse.

Next week: all 2010, all the time.

Smaller Wonder: Brooklyn Children’s Museum

From my archives, an excerpt of a review I wrote for The Architect’s Newspaper on the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, published November 19, 2008. When I wrote this my son was almost too small for the museum, and now he is just right. We went this rainy Saturday, and I initially felt a softening of my opinion toward the building. It is fun to be driving the car and able to say, “Look for the yellow building!” as you head down Brooklyn Avenue.

But, as with 41 Cooper Square (reviewed for Design Observer) most of the architecture is on the outside. Inside, it is another cacophonous barn, filled with small things, low to the ground. Yes, it is for children, but I continue to believe children can respond to atmosphere and larger gestures. My son just bounced from place to place to place (he is 2, after all), and it felt like there was no place to settle. Saddest of all, a temporary exhibition for which kids were supposed to be “toy testers” featured the 1969 Eames film Tops, so surrounded by graphics and overwhelmed by other elements, that even today’s digital-happy kids weren’t looking at the screen.

When you are a design critic and a new parent, your first encounter with much of babyworld leads to many questions. Why does every toy come in three primary colors, rather than a single hue? Why so bulbous? Why does it need to light up/sing “Old McDonald”/moo? My first encounter with the expanded Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which reopened in Crown Heights this September, made me ask almost the same questions—and with the same fear of being a spoilsport.

Rafael Vinoly Architects took a 1977 Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer building which housed the 109-year-old museum (the country’s first expressly designed for kids) on two underground levels, and wrapped it in a two-story yellow-tile shell, almost doubling its size to 104,000 square feet. That shell is a hovering, wavery, L-shaped form that seems intended to evoke many metaphors, and cute nicknames from kids, but all I could come up with was Jell-O. The $49 million new building’s slight exterior curves and its relentless artificial hue, augmented by supporting single-story steel boxes in red and green and brown, are derived from the language of Toys R Us, not the natural world (or even the world of wooden toys).

Which is to say, it looks fun, it looks new, and it looks like it is for kids, so while I might wish for something more subtle (a mysterious aluminium-clad cloud, a sinuous scaly tube), symbolically RVA has more than done its job in repositioning the museum for the current repopulation of Brooklyn by babies. While the color and shape are wildly out of context in a neighborhood of gorgeous townhouses, the museum lies low, its roofline just under the cornices of the houses across the street, just above the rise of historic Brower Park with which it shares the block, and so is a model contemporary interloper…

There’s an ongoing tension in the exhibits, too, between the real and the ersatz. I do not feel qualified to judge children’s exhibits, but on the nature side, kids were asked to plant those fake lettuces, spot a motionless preserved bug, catch a stuffed fish. Only in a few cases were there real, living, moving critters to see or touch. Everywhere you looked there was another little table, a computer monitor, a glass case, without a real sense of progression or even labelling about which activities were appropriate for which age group. To me it felt cacophonous visually, educationally and sonically…

Classrooms and bathrooms are put in sheetrock boxes along the upstairs halls that only take up half its height; above these the steel underside of the roof is exposed, sprayed with lumpy gray fireproofing. Budget restrictions are to be expected on a city- and state-funded project, but the mismatch of architectural ambition on the interior and exterior was deeply disappointing. It felt as if the museum had all this new space, but not enough stuff to fill it, and that the architects had checked out after the lobby.

Review: The Price of Fitting In

In the November 4 edition of The Architect’s Newspaper I review the new exhibit at the Center for Architecture, Context/Contrast: New Architecture in Historic Districts, 1967-2009. The short review isn’t online, so I posted my text below. That’s Smith-Miller + Hawkinson's 322 Hicks (about 4 blocks from my house) above.

The title of the AIANY’s new exhibition on architecture in historic districts, “Context/Contrast,” suggests opposition between two approaches to preservation. So does the wall quote from Brooklyn Heights preservation advocate Otis Pratt Pearsall, “I do not subscribe to the idea that any building that is not offensive is appropriate.” This exhibition is intended to showcase the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission since 1965, and “to ask how the Commission’s charge of ensuring ‘appropriate’ new architecture…has allowed neighborhoods to evolve without endangering the[ir] essential character.” But to travel through time in New York’s first historic district, Brooklyn Heights, along with four others, is to travel through the changing fashions in preservation, from high contrast to contextual invisibility, tweaking tradition to adopting only its base material. There are an incredibly motley assortment of responses to that charge, as the Commission, architecture, and the definition of ‘appropriateness’ have all changed over time.

To be able to survey the field, and to try to decide for yourself which approach works where, is a terrific opportunity. I only wish that this exhibition had embraced its inherently controversial nature, instead of trying to smooth it over. The projects presented are all described as successes (with a few rough drafts shown to be failures), but there’s no sense of self-analysis, or irony. That’s not the way of the AIA NYC or of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, both exhibit sponsors, but the subject of preservation in the twenty-first century has so many ironies waiting to be explored that aren’t. Tucked into the stairwell, for example, is a placard telling the tale of Marcel Breuer’s proposed tower over Grand Central and the 1978 Supreme Court decision that saved the station. It fails to mention either the destruction of the original Penn Station in 1963, or (more fun) all the architects who have failed to build towers over Breuer’s own Whitney.

“Context/Contrast” is divided into five sections, each one focused on a different district. Brooklyn Heights and the Upper East Side start the show on the Center for Architecture’s first floor. South Street Seaport, Douglaston and Soho are sequestered downstairs. A shelf running along the wall above waist height holds photographs, renderings and plans. Blow-up images of each neighborhood paper the walls, nicely setting the scene. The handsome design is by Moorhead & Moorhead (exhibition) and PS New York (graphics). Starting with the oldies allows the show to put on a happy, noncontroversial face: no failures are shown here and the architects’ approach, by and large, is rigorously contextual. When you look at the image of Platt Byard Dovell’s 47 East 91st Street (the building Woody Allen weighed in against) it is hard to tell what could be new. There are contemporary articles of the projects (some negative) in binders for your perusal, but they aren’t integrated or obvious.

You won’t have a problem spotting the new in the Soho section. Jean Nouvel and Aldo Rossi, these are architects of contrast worth arguing about. Next to Soho is a sort of grab-bag wall of other projects of interest under the rubric “The Architecture of Appropriateness” and these too include way more contemporary reinterpretations than most of the work more prominently featured, as if curator Rachel Carley realized too late things were looking traditional. In the Soho section former Landmarks Commissioner and current Polshek partner Richard Olcott asks, “Which strategy do you think is most appropriate for designing in historic districts: mimicry, contrast or interpretation?” While “Context/Contrast” is an excellent survey, I wish it more explicitly took up his question, and opened the Commission’s decisions to discussion, rather than affirming their wisdom.

Home Range

I write about three contemporary houses by up-and-coming New York firms for The Architect’s Newspaper this week, one by Christoff:Finio in the West Village, one by Morris Sato Studio on Shelter Island, and one by OBRA Architects in Southampton. This was my favorite moment: OBRA’s lattice pool house, a.k.a. the “freckle machine.”

Waiting on the Dream

I contributed a piece on the (lack of) development in Midtown West a.k.a. Hudson Yards to The Architect’s Newspaper's annual Developers Issue. Other writers tackled Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Jersey City. An excerpt:

The city may call it Midtown West, but the corner of 8th Avenue and 41st Street certainly doesn’t feel like Midtown. The monochromatic New York Times tower has nothing in common with the lights of 42nd Street, and the new Eleven Times Square, with its relatively rectilinear offices atop layers of scrolling screens, has nothing in common with the Port Authority, which has spawned a brand-name, low-price hotel district just to its south, where McSam and the Lam Group have squeezed shiny buildings onto narrow tenement lots. And that’s only one clash of cultures between the titans in this so-called neighborhood.

Pre-Blog Work

Links to writing published before I began this blog in June 2009.

My New York Magazine archive (back to 1998!).

My New York Times archive.

My Metropolis archive.

My Architect’s Newspaper archive (most pieces not available online).

My Design Observer archive (back to 2009!).

Commentary on the visual world by Alexandra Lange. Can include design, architecture, parks, movies, TV, books, kids.

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