Critical Condition

Critical Condition

Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II
Martin Filler
The New York Review of Books, $30

This is the second anthology of essays about the lives and careers of distinguished architects who have practiced in the last 150 years by architectural historian and critic Martin Filler for The New York Review of Books (NYRB). The earlier collection, published by NYRB in 2007, established the form and purpose that Volume II follows. This book deals with a different set of makers, but included once again are Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Renzo Piano.

Filler deftly places his subjects in the aesthetic, theoretical, historic, and political life of their time, as well as in his. He pays attention to significant architectural events—the celebrated opening of a new and noteworthy building, a collection of new books with an architectural and urban theme, a well-staged exhibition of the work of emerging talents, the death of a master at the age of 105. Volume II opens with Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White who practiced during the half century between the Civil War and World War I. Among the others are Oscar Niemeyer, Edward Durrell Stone, Eero Saarinen, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Rem Koolhaas. The last essays are devoted to architects relatively new to the scene.

The New York–based husband-and-wife team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the Barnes Foundation Gallery in Philadelphia (2004–2012). This commission came to them by means of an international design competition that solicited portfolios from about 30 firms. There were six finalists: Tadao Ando; Thom Mayne of Morphosis; Rafael Moneo; Diller, Scofidio + Renfro; Kengo Kuma; and the winners—Williams and Tsien. Filler notes that this pair belong to the second generation of high profile pioneering couples that were preceded by Alison and Peter Simpson in Great Britain and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the U.S. His description of the Barnes favors its every aspect while revealing his own mastery of the art of critical praise. He writes, “It must now be included among the tiny handful of intimately scaled museums in which great art and equally great architecture and landscape coalesce into that rare experience wherein these three complimentary mediums enhance the best qualities of one another to maximum benefit. Such institutions include, for example, Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art of 1958–1966 outside Copenhagen, Louis Khan’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, and Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center of 1999–2003 in Dallas.”

Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are the principals of the Tokyo-based firm SANAA. Sejima was a protégé of Toyo Ito, winner of the 2013 Pritzker Prize, and worked with him before she founded the partnership with Nishizawa who in addition has a separate practice of his own. They are best known in the United States for two exceptional museum commissions: the Glass Pavilion (2002–2006) at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and the New Museum (2003–2007) on New York City’s Bowery. Given that they are pioneers in the new generation of Minimalists, Filler takes care to distinguish them from those gone before. The Minimalist master Mies, early and late, whenever he could, built with costly materials, meticulously joined, finished, and detailed. He did so, Filler believes, to compensate for the restrictions of the style itself.

The two small museums consist for the most part of simple, rectangular, flat-roofed forms. The walls have no tilts; surfaces do not undulate, and are without multi-faceted geometric patterns. Most interiors are painted white. The one-story Glass Pavilion is partially enclosed by stretches of mullion-free clear glass. The street facade of the seven-story New Museum is veneered with an outer skin of perforated light grey metal. Filler notes “the remarkable breadth of expression [SANAA] is able to wrest from the restricted Minimalist palette.”

In 1979 Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio established their office in New York City. In 2004 they made Charles Renfro a full partner. In the early years of their association the two were best known as theoreticians and educators in the recondite world of their Cooper Union colleague John Hejduk. They designed exhibitions, miscellaneous installations, and objects, but built little. In 1999 they were awarded a McArthur Foundation grant. This was followed by one of the first significant structures they actually made happen, the Blur Building (2000–2002) on Lake Neuchatel for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02. What Filler calls an “aqueous caprice,” it consisted of a wraparound cloud of mist more than 300 feet wide, nearly 200 feet deep, and 66 feet high. Water, pumped up from the lake, became a fine spray from 31,500 high-precision, high-pressure water jets attached to a lightweight metal framework placed upon an ovoid platform at some distance from land. The so-called pavilion was big enough to hold as many as four hundred visitors at one time. They crossed from the shore by way of two separate long gangways and were given waterproof ponchos upon arrival. This immense free-form blob of seemingly weightless water made possible by computer technology but never before or since used in such a manner, was the hit of the fair. Filler writes that the making of such a place “has fascinated visionaries for centuries, especially writers in Islamic Spain, who during the Middle Ages fantasized about fountains with liquid domes that one could enter. That evanescent dream was finally brought to dazzling life in this triumph of the architectural imagination.”

New York City’s High Line renovation began in 2004 after a successful five-year public fight to save the defunct early 20th-century railroad cargo viaduct by giving it a viable new use. Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, and landscape architects Field Operations with the Dutch plant specialist Piet Oudolf, designed the linear park that sits atop it. Filler writes, “Seldom in modern city planning has a single work of urban design brought together and synthesized so many current concerns, including historic preservation, adaptive reuse of obsolete infrastructure, green urbanism, and private sector funding and stewardship of public amenities.”

The firm’s architectural and urban transformation of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (2003–2012) is extensively described and interpreted by Filler. Surprisingly he ends the Diller, Scofidio + Renfro essay by noting, “There was well-founded dismay among their admirers when in 2013 they accepted the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial commission to replace Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s former American Folk Art Museum building (1987–2001) contrary to a long-standing ethical tradition among high-style architects not to abet the destruction of living colleagues’ work.” It makes a good story, yet the possible existence or effectiveness of such high-minded rectitude anywhere in today’s world of architecture will seem unlikely to readers of a book so revelatory as Filler’s about the hard-nosed realities of successful practice.

When Israeli-American Michael Arad won the competition to design the National September 11 Memorial (2003–2011) at Ground Zero, he was an obscure 34-year-old working as an architect for neighborhood police stations in the design department of the New York City Housing Authority. The Memorial was completed when he was 42. Maya Lin was a leading and appropriate member of the jury that selected his preliminary design from a field of 5,201 entries. She herself was 21 and a student of architecture at Yale when she won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981–1982). It was completed when she was 23.

Filler concludes: “The nature of architectural practice has changed enormously in recent decades, yet it remains as much as it always has been in its wild unpredictability. The fates that befall even the most inspired master builders can be so capricious and cruel that one cannot predict whether Arad’s youthful masterwork will be seen in due course as his lift-off point or apogee. But just as the test of time has already proved the validity of Maya Lin’s insights into the wellsprings of mourning in the modern age, Michael Arad’s profound variations and expansions on her themes have in turn ratified him as one of the signal place-makers of our time.”