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Monday, September 16, 2013

Book Review: Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II

Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II: From Le Corbusier to Rem Koolhaas by Martin Filler
New York Review of Books, 2013
Hardcover, 348 pages

This sequel to NYRB architecture critic Martin Filler's 2007 book, Makers of Modern Architecture, pulls together another 19 essays written from 2008-2013 on the most influential architects of the last 100 years. Three architects make return appearances from the first volume—Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Renzo Piano—reflecting how Filler's pieces are often sparked by contemporary events, be they exhibitions, recently completed buildings, or (not surprising, given his host publication) newly published books. He discusses a number of Renzo Piano's museums on the occasion of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum's completion at LACMA and the publication of two books on that and other Piano-designed museums. In other cases the spark is a biography written by a son (Edward Durell Stone), the completion of a controversial museum (the Barnes Foundation and Tod Williams & Billie Tsien, as well as the Acropolis Museum and Bernard Tschumi), and a Pritzker Prize (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa), to name just a few. Importantly, this tactic allows Filler to be a critic rather than a biographer and to hone in on a specific structure or strand within an architect's oeuvre.

Filler is a critic sympathetic to his subject. This does not mean that he shies away from pointing out what buildings he likes or dislikes of this or that architect, but he tends to stay on the positive side of things, leaving his most negative jabs for other architects within a particular article. Filler loves Michael Arad's National September 11 Memorial, for example, but detests the towers and transportation terminal rising around it as part of the WTC plan. Coming back to Renzo Piano, the critic rails against his transformation of the Morgan Library and Museum in the essay on McKim, Mead, and White (included for their "proto-modern partnership") but conveniently omits it from the piece on the Italian architect and his museums. While this sympathy (or positive spin, whatever one wants to call it) is fairly consistent, it is not overriding. In a few instances Filler paints what is ultimately a negative impression of a building, even as he points out the qualities of it. Such is the case particularly with Tschumi's museum in Athens ("better than it looks") and Rem Koolhaas's bullying CCTV tower (bullying in its destruction of the traditional buildings and streetscape that preceded it).

Another way in which Filler the critic differs from a biographer (even as he paints semi-biographical essays) can be found in the loose structure of the essays. These are not linear portraits; rather, Filler moves around at will, often veering into tangents that are related but not necessarily of or by the architect at hand. Sometimes it is necessary, as in the case of the history of the Barnes Foundation, but in most cases it serves to give some context and strengthen an argument. To use an example in one of my favorite essays, on the Norwegian-American office Snohetta, Filler goes into some detail on International Style modernism in Scandinavia and spendthrift institutions in Spain: these help us see how Snohetta exists as an ├╝ber-collaborative firm and how they (and Norway) were able to pull off the pricey Oslo Opera House. The numerous offshoots that Filler takes the reader on make his essays accessible to a wide audience, but they can also be seen as the best and most valuable parts of his writing; they are the expositions that make his critical assertions more understandable and believable.

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