Monday, September 24, 2018

So You Want to Learn About: 'Learning from Las Vegas'

The "So You Want to Learn About" series highlights books focused on a particular theme: think "socially responsible architecture" and "phenomenology," rather than broad themes like "housing" or "theory." Therefore the series aims to be a resource for finding decent reading materials on certain topics, born of a desire to further define noticeable areas of interest in the books I review. And while I haven't reviewed every title, I am familiar with each one; these are not blind recommendations.

Well before the death of Robert Venturi last week at the age of 93, I'd planned a "So You Want to Learn About" post on Learning from Las Vegas, the classic text by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour from 1972. It's only now that I finally got around to finalizing it. Last year I noticed that MIT Press had released a facsimile version of the hard-to-find and extremely expensive first edition; a couple years before that I came across and bought a cheap copy of the first edition; and over the years I'd amassed a few titles that analyze and critique the influential book. I can't think of any other book that has given rise to so many book-length investigations. Therefore Learning from Las Vegas -- and Robert Venturi -- deserves, at the very least, the "So You Want to Learn About" treatment.


Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour
The MIT Press, First Edition, 1972 (Amazon)
The MIT Press, Revised Edition, 1977 (Amazon)
Learning from Las Vegas is one of the five most important books of architecture in the 20th century, up there with Le Corbusier's Towards a New Architecture, Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York, Aldo Rossi's The Architecture of the City, and Venturi's own Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Born from a 1968 Yale architecture studio, the book analyzed the way casinos, hotels and other buildings along the Las Vegas Strip used signage to attract attention and apprise drivers of the contents of the buildings set back behind parking lots. Through this, they argued for the Decorated Shed over the Duck, the former using signage to communicate the contents of a simple building and the latter using form to convey its function. Put simply, the Duck represented Modernism while the Decorated Shed represented something else, what would become Postmodernism in ensuing years. Like Venturi's earlier Complexity and Contradiction, which argued that "Main Street is almost all right," Learning from Las Vegas looked at an extreme example of one (the Strip) rather than at capital-A architecture to determine what architecture should be and what architects should learn from.

Like most architects, I first encountered Learning from Las Vegas in architecture school. Given that this was the early 1990s, I read the revised edition from 1977 in a seminar class on architectural theory, not the original 1972 edition. (My copy is from 1993, the book's twelfth printing.) Not many books can boast of such different editions: the first edition is a hardcover book whose size and expense (it was expensive originally, over the years as a hard-to-find artifact, and in MIT Press's facsimile edition) signal something special, while the revised edition is a much smaller paperback designed to be affordable to students like myself. The revised edition cut a third of the original book by eliminating part 3, a presentation of Venturi and Rauch's buildings and projects, and many of the images that would not work on a smaller page size. Regardless of these cuts and a substantially different page design, the arguments of the text have held up, while the lower price has guaranteed a wider circulation and lasting influence.


I AM A MONUMENT: On Learning from Las Vegas by Aron Vinegar
The MIT Press, 2008 (Amazon | Review)
When I reviewed Aron Vinegar's book for Architect Magazine back in 2009, my familiarity with the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas was very small; I knew it was a hardcover larger than my revised edition from college, but I'd never seen one in person nor glanced at its pages. Vinegar's book gave me the greatest understanding of the differences between the two editions, both in terms of their physical characteristics and the relationship between layout and content. The latter is particularly important, since Venturi and Scott Brown saw the design of the first edition by Muriel Cooper as oppositional to everything they were railing against in their book; put simply, it was a Duck rather than a Decorated Shed. Vinegar doesn't just analyze the layout of the two editions. He strives to reorient how the text is read, but to me his philosophically derived interpretations don't displace the long-held meanings of the classic text by Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour.

Relearning from Las Vegas edited by Aron Vinegar, Michael J. Golec
University of Minnesota Press, 2009 (Amazon | Book Brief)
Aron Vinegar is also present in this collection of essays released the same year as I AM A MONUMENT. His co-editor, Michael J. Golec, contributes an essay on the format and layout of Learning from Las Vegas, so Vinegar hones in on how expression and its inverse, inexpression, are tackled in the book. Other contributors to the academic collection include Karsten Harries, Dell Upton, Ritu Bhatt, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, John McMorrough, Katherine Smith, and Nigel Whiteley, analyzing everything from photorealism and kitsch to Reyner Banham in Los Angeles. The complex, nuanced takes on Learning from Las Vegas and its influences add some depth to any reading of the original.

Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown edited by Hilar Stadler, Martino Stierli
Scheidegger and Spiess, 2008, reprinted in 2015 (Amazon)
Learning from Las Vegas is an image-heavy book, full of sketches, drawings, diagrams, and photographs. All are memorable in their own right (think of the sketch of the Duck and Decorated Shed), but the photographs capture the color of Vegas, a city of night and light. (Las Vegas was, to Reyner Banham, "truly itself" at night.) Just look at the cover of the originals or the cover of Las Vegas Studio, which presents dozens of photographs from the Yale studio's visit to Las Vegas in 1968. These photos are bookended by an introductory essay by Martino Stierli that is based on the original German edition of his book Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror (below) and a conversation between Peter Fischli, Rem Koolhaas, and Hans Ulrich Obrist (in it, Koolhaas calls the photo of Venturi and Scott Brown at bottom "almost hot."). The latter is followed by an essay by Stanislaus von Moos, who has written two monographs on the practice of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. These intellectual voices add their takes and some depth to the images, though the photographs can hold their own as aesthetic images and ethnographic evidence of a particular time and place.

Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film by Martino Stierli
Getty Publications, 2013 (Amazon)
Martino Stierli, now the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, wrote his PhD dissertation on Learning from Las Vegas. Published in German by gta Verlag in 2010, Las Vegas im Rückspiegel was translated into English three years later and published by the Getty. As the subtitle of Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror makes clear, Stierli focuses on how the 1972 book theorizes the city through photography and film. While the photography of the Yale studio in Las Vegas is well known (see Las Vegas Studio), the use of film is less familiar to people. (There are dozens, if not hundreds of photos in Learning from Las Vegas, but there is only one spread with a film strip.) But film was an integral part of both documenting and analyzing the Las Vegas Strip back in 1968. After all, what better way to capture the ever-changing views from a car's windshield as it traverses the Strip than a movie camera? Film is surely not the sole media that Stierli discusses, but it is further evidence of the groundbreaking nature of the original book. In the hands of Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour, and their students, photography and film were the media ideally suited to the reality of the Strip as a very American space that needed to be understood and interpreted.

[Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Las Vegas, 1968 | Image: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.]

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book Briefs #38: Houses

"Book Briefs" are an ongoing series of posts with short first-hand descriptions of some of the numerous books that make their way into my library. These briefs are not full-blown reviews (though some might go on to get that treatment), but they are a way to share more books worthy of attention than find their way into reviews on this blog. This installment features five coffee table books on contemporary single-family houses.

Architects' Houses by Michael Webb | Princeton Architectural Press | 2018 | Amazon
Nearly ten years ago I stumbled upon a used copy of Taschen's huge 100 Houses for 100 Architects, which highlights just what the title says: houses architects designed for themselves. Since then I've had a soft spot for such autobiographical residences, having composed a long feature at World-Architects, "Architects House Themselves." Architects' Houses is the latest addition to this literature, in which Michael Webb presents 31 houses by more than 30 architects (many were designed by husband-and-wife architects). It starts with Norman Foster's little-known house in the South of France and ends with Günther Domenig's relatively famous concrete expressionism in Austria. In between are houses on six continents that are all modern yet highly idiosyncratic; it's hard to imagine most of these houses jumping off the drawing board if the clients weren't the architects themselves. As a bonus, Webb has an essay in the middle of the book with pre-contemporary examples of architects' houses and a directory at the back of the book with information on those open to the public.

Casa Moderna: Latin American Living by Philip Jodidio | Thames & Hudson | 2018 | Amazon
When I included Radical: 50 Latin American Architectures in a Book Brief earlier this year, I commented on how the 50 projects were mainly drawn from architects in three countries. The same can be said of Casa Moderna, which highlights 38 houses in Latin America, with 11 located in Chile, 10 in Mexico, and 8 in Brazil (6 other countries fill out the balance). The book can be seen as arising from the attention directed toward Latin America recently, primarily through the MoMA exhibition in 2015, Latin America in Construction, and Chile's Alejandro Aravena, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2016 and curated the Venice Architecture Biennale the same year (ironically, given his work with housing for poor people, he does not have a house in this book). Jodidio, "the scribe of contemporary architecture," groups the houses into chapters defined by their sites: high ground, cities, the tropics, coasts, and forests. But more than context, what comes across is how Latin American architects are masterful at manipulating modern, rectilinear boxes to create sumptuous spaces that take advantage of their natural surroundings.

House Equanimity - Masterpiece Series by Joseph N. Biondo | Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers | 2018 | Amazon
Many moons ago, publisher Oscar Riera Ojeda edited a "Single Building Series" with book-length case studies on such houses as Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Ledge House and and Vincent James's Type/Variant House. The appeal of delving deeply into the design of houses through sketches, drawings, models, construction photos and finished photography continues decades later, assuming this new book devoted to Joseph N. Biondo's Equanimity House is not alone. Biondo, a partner at Spillman Farmer Architects, built a house for himself and his family not far from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where SFA is located and has realized a number of projects, including the ArtsQuest Center. As in that project, also designed by Biondo, the architect's own house (which could easily be in Webb's book above) is a deceptively simple box with a heart of concrete. Rooted in the area's history as well as its suburban site, the two-story (plus basement) modern house appears to float above the sloped landscape, an effect accentuated by the blue fiber-cement panels across the top floor. Although the concrete is exposed on the interior, the living spaces are far from cold, with selective wood surfaces and wood window frames signaling the influence of Louis I. Kahn.

Hudson Modern: Residential Landscapes by David Sokol | The Monacelli Press | 2018 | Amazon
When considering the country residences of New York City residents, the Hamptons and other parts of Long Island usually get all the attention. But what about the Hudson River Valley, an area removed from the ocean and beaches but full of natural beauty? It's an area that journalist David Sokol hones in on, presenting seventeen houses that are broken up by three conversations with clients and architects. The book's subtitle, "Residential Landscapes," points to the book's main theme: how do the houses relate to and sit upon their properties? Considering that most of these houses, even the most diminutive ones, are on multi-acre sites, it's a fitting tactic for telling the stories of the houses, their designers, and often their residents (not surprisingly, sometimes architect and owner are one). The theme extends to the book design (by over,under), which includes one-page site plans drawn on color backgrounds that are coded to each house.

The Iconic House: Architectural Masterworks Since 1900 by Dominic Bradbury with photographs by Richard Powers | Thames & Hudson | 2018 | Amazon
Of the handful of books presented in this Book Brief, The Iconic House packs the most into its pages. As a "compact and updated edition" of the 2009 book of the same name, The Iconic House presents 83 houses completed from 1900 to 2012. (Best I can tell, there are only three houses added from the nine years between editions.) Twenty of the 83 houses are sidebars accompanying the 20-page introduction, but the rest are given either two, four or six pages with photographs, floor plans and text so small the words are just barely legible. The plans, drawn and labeled consistently if not all at the same scale (they're as big as they can be on the page below the photos), are most helpful – and they are a bit of a surprise given the small real estate for the roughly 9-inch square book (the 2009 original was a couple inches bigger in both directions). It's great to have 63 icons of modern residential architecture, all with floor plans and all in one place.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Today's archidose #1016

Here are some photos of the Fjordenhus (2018) in Vejle, Denmark, by Sebastian Behmann with Studio Olafur Eliasson. (Photographs by Ken Lee.)

The Fjordenhus, Vejle, Denmark
The Fjordenhus, Vejle, Denmark
The Fjordenhus, Vejle, Denmark
The Fjordenhus, Vejle, Denmark

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Robert Irwin at Pratt

Head on over to World-Architects to read my take on Robert Irwin: Site Determined, now in display at Pratt Institute School of Architecture in Brooklyn.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: Michigan Modern

Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy by Brian D. Conway with photographs by James Haefner
Visual Profile Books, 2018
Hardcover, 300 pages

[Eero Saarinen's General Motors Technical Center (1956) graces the cover.]

When thinking "modern architecture" what places come to mind? In the United States, at least, it's probably the Chicago Loop's commercial architecture, or Southern California's residential architecture, or even Columbus, Indiana's surprising density of modern architecture of all types. But Michigan? Most likely that doesn't bubble to the top. Yet even a cursory glance at this lovely coffee table book of 34 buildings in Michigan from the late 1920s to earlier this decade reveals that is a huge oversight. The state -- or at least concentrated portions of its southern half -- is crammed with some amazing modern architecture.

[Frank Lloyd Wright's Dorothy Turkel House (1957) is one of the book's many highlights.]

Michigan Modern is the joint creation of Brian D. Conway, of Michigan's State Historic Preservation Office, and photographer James Haefner. The duo has documented each project with, respectively, descriptions on the history and design of the buildings and photographs of both exteriors and interiors. Conway's descriptions are heavy on history, both of the personalities behind the buildings and the situations of each project. In turn, Haefner's photos do a lot of the work in conveying the character and quality of each building, complementing Conway's few words on the designs. Although there are some gaps between the two contributions (e.g. Conway describes how Alden B. Dow designed the Ashmun House around the client's piano, but that seemingly important feature is missing from the photos), the two work together very well to capture the state' homegrown modernism. (My only other quibble with the book, my main one actually, is the difficulty in reading Conway's descriptions, given the thin, narrow sans-serif font set in a small type size.)

[William Kessler's W. Hawkins Ferry House (1964) is just one building in the book little known to people outside of Michigan -- until now.]

Before the 34 building presentations by Conway and Haefner, Alan Hess's essay "Fertile Ground: Michigan's Modernist Revolution" puts the state's modern architecture into a larger national and international context. He touches on the importance of the automobile industry and highlights the architects who worked in Michigan last century: Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki mainly, but also lesser-known architects Alden Dow and William Kessler, among others. For me, two of the book's biggest highlights are buildings by architects who happened to emigrate to Michigan from Europe: Oskar Stonorov's UAW Family Education Center (1970, now UAW Black Lake Conference Center) near the UP, and Gunnar Birkerts' Allan and Alene Smith Law Library Addition (1981) in Ann Arbor.

Considering these two buildings alongside two of the three 21st-century buildings in the book, both designed by architects outside of Michigan (a house by California's Anderson Anderson Architecture and a museum by London's Zaha Hadid Architects) points to the openness of the state but also hints at the transient nature of architects who have worked and were educated in Michigan. Kevin Roche, for instance, worked for Eero Saarinen and led the architect's successor firm but ended up moving to the East Coast. And I imagine that most architects who train at the Cranbrook Academy of Art venture outside the state to set up their practices. While these thoughts point to an interesting situation for Michigan's architectural profession this century, Michigan Modern persuasively argues for the importance of the state's modern architecture alongside Chicago, Los Angeles, and other epicenters of Modernism in America.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Behemoth of the Moment

It's been six years since Phaidon released one of their gargantuan architectural atlases, meaning the publisher was overdue for yet another one. In 2004 they released the first, the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture; four years later came the Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture; and in 2012 they released 20th Century World Architecture. Another atlas should have come out in 2016 to stick with the every-four-years time span. Instead, we get Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, which comes out next month.

[Images via Phaidon]

As boasted by Phaidon:
This is the only book to thoroughly document the world's finest examples of Brutalist architecture. More than 850 buildings - existing and demolished, classic and contemporary - are organized geographically into nine continental regions.

878 Buildings, 798 Architects, 102 Countries, 9 World Regions, 1 Style BRUTALISM

These spreads give a sense of what's inside the atlas – lots of photographs and a little bit of text – but the video below best gives a sense of the book's size.

So how does Phaidon define "brutalist" and therefore determine what buildings are included? I haven't seen the book so I can't say for sure. But the architects listed on Phaidon's website, both from the 20th century (Marcel Breuer, Lina Bo Bardi, Le Corbusier, Carlo Scarpa, Ernö Goldfinger, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Oscar Niemeyer, Paul Rudolph) and 21st century (Peter Zumthor, Alvaro Siza, Coop Himmelb(l)au, David Chipperfield, Diller and Scofidio, Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, SANAA, OMA, Renzo Piano, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid), signal that the publisher has a very flexible definition of the "style," and therefore the pricey book should appeal to just about all fans of modern and contemporary architecture.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Today's archidose #1015

Here are some photos of Serpentine Pavilion 2018 by Frida Escobedo, on display in London's Kensington Gardens until October 7, 2018. (Photographs by Laurence Mackman, who has many more photos of the pavilion in his Flickr set.)


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Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Lower Manhattan Skyline, with & without the Twin Towers

On Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Skyscraper Museum is hosting a conversation between photographers Camilo Jose Vergara and Richard Berenholtz: The Lower Manhattan Skyline, with & without the Twin Towers.

Details from the Skyscraper Museum:
Photographers Camilo Jose Vergara and Richard Berenholtz reflect on their decades of focus on New York’s changing skyline, in images and conversation.

In conjunction with the museum's new exhibition SKYLINE, two noted photographers of the New York will discuss their work over several decades of documenting the evolving identity of lower Manhattan. Berenholtz and Vergara will each show a selection of sequences that capture the lower Manhattan skyline from the same position over time and in many temporal conditions, recording in images that are authentic, poetic, and, ultimately, poignant. Join us on the evening of September 11 to remember the Twin Towers and pay tribute to what was lost and to the resilience of the city.

Camilo Jose Vergara has photographed the urban scene in New York, Detroit, and other American cities for more than forty years. In 2002, he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and in 2013, he became the first photographer to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. He is author of numerous books, including Detroit is No Dry Bones; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery; The New American Ghetto; and Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto.

Richard Berenholtz has been a commercial photographer since 1984. His panoramas of New York City have been published widely and have been shown internationally, including as the photographs for the NYC 2012 Olympic bid book and to represent New York City at the 2006 Venice Biennale. Richard’s photography features prominently in The Skyscraper Museum’s current exhibition, SKYLINE. He is the author of numerous books of New York photography.

A limited number of seats are available and priority is given to Members and Corporate Member firms and their employees. All guests MUST RSVP to to assure admittance to the event.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Book Review: TEN Arquitectos/Enrique Norten

TEN Arquitectos/Enrique Norten: Lines of Investigation by Enrique Norten
Princeton Architectural Press, 2017
Hardcover, 320 pages

Although the when and where are hazy, the first time I learned about the architecture of Enrique Norten it was definitely Televisa Edificio de Servicios, which won the first Mies van der Rohe Award for Latin American Architecture back in 1998. It is a relatively early work for the Mexican architect, and although the curved form of the award-winning building is echoed in other projects (e.g. Escuela Nacional de Teatro, also in Mexico City), the buildings of Enrique Norten and TEN Arquitectos are a diverse bunch, sharing a strong understanding of tectonics and a formal bravado that are appropriate to every given site.

My appreciation of Norten's work was carried through to last decade, when I was writing my Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture and when Norten had expanded his firm to NYC. The book has a handful of his firm's buildings, including One York, a piggyback residential addition on Sixth Avenue; 580 Carroll Street, a low-scale apartment building in Park Slope, Brooklyn; Hotel Americano, one of the early neighbors to the then-new High Line park; and Mercedes House, a huge, undulating apartment building on Manhattan's West Side that was still under construction when my book came out in late 2011.

Another Norten project that was in the early stages at that time was the Visual and Performing Arts Library, located next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His ambitious, competition-winning project filled the tip of the narrow triangular site but left the wide end open for a public plaza – a fitting gesture for a public institution. Unfortunately, the project never happened and the large yet oddly shaped lot languished empty for years. Fortunately, Norten ended up designing what would fill the lot: 300 Ashland, a narrow, wall-like apartment building atop a base with cultural facilities, Brooklyn's second Apple Store, and a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Intact is the plaza he first designed for the site.

300 Ashland, aka BAM South, is one of eighteen projects in the new monograph on TEN Arquitectos/Enrique Norten. The eighteen projects are split into three groups of six, though I can't find any logic to their partitioning. Projects from both sides of the US-Mexico border permeate all groups, as do projects that are both built and in progress. Not surprisingly, the book focuses on newer projects, such as BAM, Mercedes House, and the replacement branch NYPL Library across from MoMA on West 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. But the projects aren't ordered chronologically.

Generally, the projects are treated very cursorily, with very short descriptions and the usual photos/renderings alongside the occasional drawing. Between the three project groupings are two dialogues: one with Elizabeth Diller and Thom Mayne, and one with Enrique Krauze. These dialogues, as well as an essay by Alejandro Hernández Gálvez at the beginning of the book and one by Barry Bergdoll at the back of the book, appear to be the reason for the three groups of six. These four pieces of writing (presented, like the whole book, in English and Spanish) are therefore very important, encapsulating the "lines of investigation" of the book's subtitle. The essays lend some intellectual weight to Norten's architecture, while the dialogues offer some insight into his thinking, which may depart from that of Diller and Mayne but has produced some equally exciting architecture over the last 20 to 25 years.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Toward a Concrete Utopia

Head on over to World-Architects to read my piece on Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, which is on display at MoMA until January 13, 2019, and is highly recommended.

Toward a Concrete Utopia