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Monday, February 04, 2008

Book Review: Diane Lewis: Inside-Out

Diane Lewis: Inside-Out. Architecture New York City by Diane Lewis

Diane Lewis is described by Richard Meier -- whose office Lewis worked in for a few years -- in the preface to this monograph on her work as "a sort of living embodiment" of The Cooper Union, the New York City institution she graduated from in the mid-70s and has taught at for the last 25+ years. A school known for its tuition-free status more than anything, graduates from the architecture program exhibit certain traits, including a solid grasp of tectonics, strong conceptual bases for projects, excellent delineation skills, and an embrace of the poetic and the influence of that which lies outside/beyond the confines of architecture. These traits stem primarily from John Hejduk, dean of The School of Architecture from 1972 until his death in 2000. Hejduk built little but influenced many with his drawings, words, and strong passion for education.
Looking at the projects presented in this monograph of Lewis's work from 1984-2006 -- projects ranging from residential and gallery interiors to unbuilt designs for museums, plazas, and even New York City, where most of these, as the book's title suggests, are located -- this influence is evident but not prescriptive enough to limit the personal character of her designs. A map of plans at the beginning of the book gives the reader an all-in-one look at her projects over 23 years. One notes certain things: the consistent level of quality of the plans, the underlying grids that speak of continuity of surface and space, and the circles/curves that exist as exclamation points in each plan's otherwise orthogonal composition. What is not apparent is the relationship between her designs and the context, both physical and historical. Where this relationship does come across is the photographs of the completed buildings and models of unbuilt projects. In each case it's clear that dealing with this context is very important to Lewis, her designs adding a new layer of modernist architecture to the historical layers that exist.
Lewis's project (unfortunately unbuilt) for the Kunsthalle on East Fifth Street near The Cooper Union is easily one of her strongest project and one that illustrates her designs skills and view of history. The former Beethoven Hall, a masonry shell dramatically open to the sky when Lewis encountered it, would have received a 27,000sf (2,500sm) mixed-use arts complex within its walls, weaving old and new together in a manner that would have yielded a rich symbiosis. Lewis saw the project as a means for artists to experience the authentic character and places of the Lower East Side, though as the area became NoHo and the residential market boomed, the building instead became apartments, a far-less creative use of the historically-rich shell.
These and other projects show a New York City that is and that could have been. As Daniel Sherer describes in his closing essay, Lewis combines the "purity of the modernist utopian" with "a complex enchainment of memories" to create a subtle, yet singular and unique architecture.

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