Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: Three Mies Books

Last Is More: Mies, IBM, and the Transformation of Chicago by Robert Sharoff, photographs by William Zbaren
Images Publishing, 2014
Hardcover, 160 pages

Mies by Detlef Mertins
Phaidon, 2014
Hardcover, 560 pages

Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst
University of Chicago Press, 2013
Hardcover, 512 pages

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) is one of the triumvirate of 20th century architects (the other being Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright) who continue to be the subject of books long after their passing. They are the most influential architects of the modern age, with each afforded the occasional reassessment due to exhibitions, preservation battles and other contemporary happenings (Le Corbusier's recent labeling as a "militant fascist" is an example on the negative spectrum of this). Even with so many books devoted to them, each architect has been misunderstood over time, but none more than Mies, who is often blamed for every mediocre glass box that litters cities in the United States and beyond. Such blame is unfair, so it's good to have books, like these three, that effectively argue for the lasting qualities of his (then) unique approach to architecture.

Unique approaches can be found in these books: Sharoff and Zbaren (authors of the "American City" series that includes St. Louis Architecture) have created a case-study of the IBM Building, considered Mies's last commission, and his work in Chicago, while doubling as a coffee table book with its large format and generously sized photographs; Detlef Mertins, whose book was published three years after his 2011 death, has crafted a thorough historical monograph that is given the Phaidon touch, meaning it was made big and illustrated profusely; Franz Schulze has updated his equally thorough biography with Chicago architect Edward Windhorst to address new information and positions on the architect since its initial 1985 publication (the two MoMA/Whitney shows, Mies in Berlin/Mies in America, in particular), and to incorporate newly released information, such as transcripts from the trial with Edith Farnsworth.

That Mies is a continuously appealing subject for writers and architects is due not just to the buildings he created. It also arises from his personal life, a two-act, made-for-TV story (not as dramatic as Wright, but close) that started in Germany and saw him leave his family and war-torn Europe for the United States, where he changed the course of modern architecture. This appeal arises from the influence he had and continues to have on architecture, not just in terms of mundane glass boxes, but through the school he set up (Armour Institute of Technology, now Illinois Institute of Technology or IIT) and in the beautiful modern buildings created by architects who embraced his artistic approach to architecture and attention to details. The three books – Mies van der Rohe, Mies, Last Is More – break down respectively along these three subject lines: Mies's life, his buildings, and his influence.

Of the three books, I'd recommend Schulze and Windhorst's Mies van der Rohe to those with little familiarity of Mies and those who know his buildings but not his story. It has the greatest proportion of depth to readability. It is a smooth narrative that occasionally veers off course when discussing Mies's buildings – the "critical" approach is laudable, but many of the buildings get bogged down in dry descriptions that could be aided by more illustrations on more than one occasion. But when the authors tell the story of Mies's life, which of course encompasses his architecture, not just the personal parts outside of it (the relationships, the health problems, and so forth), and discuss the details of Mies's buildings (many carefully illustrated) the book is excellent, explaining not only the what but also the how and why of his buildings.

Schulze and Windhorst delve into detail on the most important Mies buildings (ignoring or just briefly mentioning ones carried out primarily by his associates, such as 2400 Lakeview), which is a trait that is shared by Detlef Mertins in his historical monograph. He also tells the story of Mies's buildings chronologically, going into depth on nearly 20 projects, both built and unbuilt, but when he discusses them his historical skills shine, aided by numerous photographs and drawings. Given the length and size of the book, it's not one to be read from front to back like Mies van der Rohe (it can be, but it's not for the faint of heart); instead one can delve into any of the five sections or the chapter project histories as desired. With Mertins' depth of scholarship and dense but readable style of writing, each chapter functions like a case study in its own right. Beyond the particulars of the significant projects, though, Mertins does an excellent job of elucidating the ideas behind Mies's buildings, the philosophical positions that led to his architecture of order and clarity.

Just as Mertins' book is separated into five sections, so is Last Is More by journalist Robert Sharoff and photographer William Zbaren. But the similarities end pretty much there, as the duo presents Mies in a much easier to digest manner, starting with a quick history of the architect in twenty pages. The IBM Building – now home partly to the Langham Hotel, which prompted the creation of this book – is the subject of the second chapter. The first chapter and the subsequent ones – on buildings in Chicago inspired by Mies, on early Chicago landmarks, and on the Langham itself – serve to situate the IBM Building in a larger, albeit still local, context. It's a unique approach that benefits greatly from Zbaren's great photos, which give the book a visual consistency, even when it is presenting Wright or Sullivan, rather than Mies. While the quick history and compact chapters might leave some wanting more information on the larger-than-life Mies, they need look no further than the other two books reviewed here.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Today's archidose #831

Here are some photos of the Can Framis Museum (2009) in Barcelona, Spain, by BAAS Arquitectura, photographed by Maciek Lulko.

Can Framis Museum

Can Framis Museum

Can Framis Museum

Can Framis Museum

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Storefront's TRANS Auction

From April 7 to April 21, Paddle8 is hosting an online benefit auction for the Storefront for Art and Architecture that leads up to the Storefront's Spring Benefit, honoring artist Do Ho Suh and architect Thom Mayne, at 432 Park Avenue on April 21. Below are 10 highlights from the nearly 70 works that "TRANScend boundaries." Online Bidding Ends Apr 21 at 12:00pm EST.

[David Adjaye - Smithsonian Sketch]

[Erieta Attali - Glass-wood House (designed by Kengo Kuma), New Canaan USA]

[Denise Scott Brown - MGM Film Studio, Los Angeles, 1967]

[Robert Herman - The Apple Store, New York, 2014]

[Bjarke Ingels - W57]

[Andrew Kovacs - AXONOMETRICS, 2015]

[Thom Mayne with Morphosis Architects - 6th Street Fragment: Large Heavy Metal, 1988]

[Christina McPhee - Transsynaptic Model, 2015]

[Do-Ho Suh - Rubbing/Loving Project: Door Closure, Corridor, 348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011, USA, 2015]

[Rafael Viñoly - 432 Park Ave: Sketch with Wind, 2011]

Book Review: Urban Literacy

Urban Literacy: Reading and Writing Architecture by Klaske Havik
nai010 Publishers, 2014
Paperback, 256 pages

Well known architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa supplies the foreword to this book by Klaske Havik, a professor at Delft University of Technology and contributing editor of OASE. The choice is not surprising, since I've read interviews with Pallasmaa where he recommends that architecture students read fiction instead of books on architecture. Within fiction are found "truths" about how individuals interact with their surroundings, exhibiting the fusion between internal states and the settings of stories. For Havik, fiction is key to creating a new approach for architecture – a literary approach – that takes advantages of the descriptions of places and spaces in novels toward improving the design of the same. It's a provocative thesis that is explained through a triad of interrelated concepts: description, transcription, and prescription.

Actually, the rule of three is taken to the extreme in the book, as it is a means of structuring the book into three sections reflecting the three concepts, each broken down into three chapters that look at the concepts in literature, theory, and practice. This approach is born from a "reading" of the triple bridge Tromostovje in Ljubljana, which Havik describes in the beginning of the book as something that acts as unity but encompasses different directions. This metaphor is applied stringently to the book, but it is extremely helpful in elucidating Havik's thesis of using reading and writing in architecture via description, transcription and prescription, and in applying language to something more inherently visual.

[Triple bridge Tromostovje in Ljubljana | Image source]

Gaining "urban literacy" comes across in each section in the chapters on literature, architectural and other theory, and the analysis of individual architects – Steven Holl for description, Bernard Tschumi for transcription, and Rem Koolhaas for prescription. These architects are fairly obvious choices – Tschumi's "Manhattan Transcripts" is a highlight of architectural investigations carried out through transcription, for example – but they exist within an overlapping gradient, where the architects' work reaches into the other areas, which themselves overlap. In other words, there is no one descriptive approach to urban literacy, for example, even though Havik's analysis of phenomenology in that section is a highlight of the book. Therefore a literary approach to design – incorporating narrative or fiction in the practical methods Havik describes at the back of the book, for example – would become just one part of an architect's arsenal, ideally elevating considerations of experience from the scale of the door handle to sections of a city.

The book started as a dissertation and reads as such at times – dense at times, sure, but too much of "this section will analyze..." and the like – meaning the book could be a bit shorter without losing any of the author's message or meaning. It also uses many familiar sources (Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, Henri Lefebvre, Juhani Pallasmaa, Georges Perec, etc.), all gathered in the lengthy bibliography (but no index, unfortunately) that thankfully balances the familiar sources with more obscure sources from The Netherlands, many from her work with the OASE journal.

The weakest section is the one at the end, where Havik explains ways of applying the literary method to education, research, and design practice. It is weak because the incorporation of narrative and fiction into design is marginal and fairly new (some examples include Beyond, edited by Pedro Gadanho, and Fairy Tales), so while the theory around it can be convincing the means of making the bridge to something physical exhibits the difficulties an infant would have in, say, walking. It should only be a matter of time that willing architects and designers incorporate the method into their work, so the value in Havik's book can be found in convincing them to take a chance on it now.

Spring 2015 Architectural Walking Tours

It's warm again – finally! – so here is a list of the four architectural walking tours I'm doing with the 92Y in April and May. The first one is this Saturday. Click on the links below to purchase tickets.

Saturday, April 18, 11am - 1:30pm
Columbus Circle and Lincoln Square
Look at and go inside some recent buildings in the West 50s and 60s, from the Hearst Tower and the transformed Lincoln Center to the Apple Store.
Picture Window

Saturday, April 25, 11am - 2:30pm
Brooklyn G Train Tour
Hop on and off the G train from Carroll Gardens to Clinton Hill and Williamsburg, taking in townhouses, campus facilities and other buildings along the way.

Saturday, May 16, 11am - 1:30pm
Columbia University
Look at recent additions to the campuses of Columbia University and Barnard College in Morningside Heights, take a sneak peek at Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville and head up to Inwood to see Columbia’s new athletics complex. (And maybe see DS+R's Columbia University Medical Center building under construction, the photo below.)

Saturday, May 30, 11am - 1:30pm
The High Line and Its Environs
Trek the High Line taking in the park and the surrounding buildings and step off to get a closer look at select buildings. (It goes the opposite direction of my time-lapse walk below.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Today's archidose #830

Here are some photos of the Karlsruhe 2015 Pavilion by Jürgen Mayer H., set to open on June 17 in Karlsruhe's Palace Garden. Photographs here are by Frank Dinger, who has many more photos of the KA300 Pavilion (it is part of the celebrations around Karlsruhe's 300th anniversary) in his Flickr set on the project.

Jürgen Mayer H. Karlsruhe300 pavilion construction

Jürgen Mayer H. Karlsruhe300 pavilion construction

Jürgen Mayer H. Karlsruhe300 pavilion construction

Jürgen Mayer H. Karlsruhe300 pavilion construction

Jürgen Mayer H. Karlsruhe300 pavilion construction

Jürgen Mayer H. Karlsruhe300 pavilion construction

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Depends Legends

It was hard not to laugh at the "Depends Legends" commercial on last night's Saturday Night Live, a highlight of an otherwise mediocre episode. In trying to overcome the stigma in talking about grown-up diapers, the fake commercial recalls the "Oops! I Crapped my Pants" ad from a 1998 SNL episode.

But why feature "Depends Legends" here, on an architecture blog? Because in the middle of the 90-second piece – whose description is "There's no shame in wearing diapers when you're wearing Depend Legends, the diaper with classic movie stars' faces on it" – is the "Masterpieces of Art and Architecture" line featuring Fallingwater. Although incorrectly labeled as "Falling Water" with two words instead of one, it's obvious to see why the building worked its way between Clark Gable, the women of Law & Order, and other screen stars.

[Screenshot from "Depends Legends" commercial | source]

Watch the full commercial:

Friday, April 10, 2015

Tadashi Saito's Rammed Earth Architecture

I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure Japan doesn't have much of a tradition with earth architecture, especially rammed earth construction. Earth Architecture, an excellent resource on the subject, has only eight posts categorized "Japan." Of those only one post is on rammed earth architecture (Loco Architects' now-hard-to-track-down Experimental House), while the rest are on earthenware, adobe bricks and even "shiny mud balls."

Given the above, I was amazed to discover a couple rammed earth buildings designed by Tadashi Saito and his firm atelier NAVE, which I came across at Japan-Architects. Descriptions at Japan-Architects and on the architect's own web page are all in Japanese, but I was able to cobble together the fact that Saito experimented with rammed earth for the 2013 Art Setouchi festival, creating the Zenkonyu x Tamping Earth building. The description at Art Setouchi says:
The Shiwaku islands were once famed for their skilled shipwrights, many of whom also branched out into shrine and house building in the 18th century. Today, however, these skills are almost forgotten. This crew of contemporary Shiwaku carpenters seeks to revive the island’s legacy through various projects.
Zenkonyu x Tamping Earth, 2013:

[Photographs: Toshihiro Misaki]

One year later Saito took the learning from Art Setouchi and applied it to a single-story house in Japan's Kagawa Prefecture. The house is part wood, part earth, the latter used for its excellent thermal insulation performance but on a smaller scale than the predecessor. Nevertheless, like the Setouchi installation, the house's rammed earth walls are battered, making it appear fairly massive.

Hanchiku House, 2014:

[Photographs: atelier NAVE]

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Today's archidose #829

Here are some of my photos of the exhibition Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece: Geometry, Construction and Site, on view at CCNY's SSA Atrium Gallery until May 8, 2015.

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

Sagrada Família—Gaudí's Unfinished Masterpiece

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Social Media for Landscape Architects

Social Media for Landscape Architects is an event taking place on Monday, April 13 from 6pm to 8pm at RAB Lighting, 535 W 24th St, 6th floor. Details are below.

[RSVP for the free event at]
Social Media for Landscape Architects

The ASLA has identified Social Media as one of the most effective means of promoting the Landscape Architecture profession and increasing awareness of what we do. The use of social media has exploded in recent years and, as it continues to evolve, it provides an ever-expanding set of tools for designers to showcase their work. Aimed at both firm principals and emerging professionals, this panel will provide an in-depth discussion on how the most popular social media can help raise the profile of Landscape Architecture and the visibility of individual designers and firms.


Jennifer Nitzky, RLA, ASLA, ISA, ASLA-NY President, past Communications Chair

J.R. Taylor, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

Tami Hausman, PhD, President, Hausman LLC, PR Specialist

James Victore, Designer, Author and Educator

Moderator: Gareth Mahon RLA, ASLA Robin Key Landscape Architecture