Category Archives: Career Case Studies

things we can learn from the careers of other architects

Career Case Study #7: Serge Chermayeff

The life and career of Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) were vastly differemt from those of Ivan Leonidov (1902-1959), subject of the previous Career Case Study. They were also much longer.

Chermayeff made a series of good career moves, the first of which was being born into a rich Jewish family in 1900. True, it was in Chechnya in the then Russian Empire but he soon corrected that at age ten by going to England to be educated at Harrow, along the way losing the “i” off Sergei – most likely en-route in France. At seventeen and accepted into Cambridge, the Russian Revolution happened and his family had its fortune confiscated. Miffed, he threw his suitcase of useless cash out the window, and became … a ballroom dancer. All we’re told of the next five years is that he spent them in Argentina learning the tango and that he came back an instant hero.

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In 1928 when Leonidov was being propelled to architectural superstardom on the back of his Lenin Institute of Librarianship, Chermayeff was one of London’s best known young interior designers and a British citizen.

Here’s a side cabinet by Chermayeff, 1930.

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A 1996 Chicago Tribune obituary placed the early 1930’s Chermayeff in a series of architectural firms and on the faculty of the European Mediterranean Academy in Cavaliere, France. [Chermayeff’s parents were now in Paris, living off a big bag of jewelery they left Russia with.] He got around. Spin-off product design from his interior design work was lucrative, and architectural work followed. Here’s a radio he designed, moulded from the then new wonder synthetic plastic, Bakelite (polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride).

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Chermayeff’s career defied the usual progression. He begn with being famous and then moved into product design, then architecture, and finally academia. We often read about people “starting a practice” and it’s made to sound simple but it shows he had 1) promises of at least two jobs, 2) confidence those jobs would happen and 3) some buffer startup capital. Here’s Shann House, one of his first, completed 1933 the same year as the radio.

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http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent/property-53295644.html

Eric Mendelsohn joined him in partnership 1933–1936. [Mendelsohn became a British citizen in 1938 and three years later emigrated to the US to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. For the record, Marcel Breuer arrived in Great Britain in 1930, leaving in 1937 to teach at Harvard.] Shrubbs Wood was completed 1934 in the Mendelsohn years.

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By ArtDecoSociety – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45178931

There was also the De La Warr Paviliion which Chermayeff and Mendelsohn won the RIBA-run competition for. It was begun and completed [!] in 1935. William Curtis implies Mendelsohn was the brains behind its planning.

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Not that it matters as photographs focus on the lovely staircase

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even though there’s much more to it.

There was also Cohen House (1935-1936). [More photos and a history here.]

In 1972 it had a glass conservatory added by a certain Norman Foster.

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The house in the distance is Levy House, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry and completed 1936. [Gropius had arrived in the UK in 1934, worked with Fry two years until 1936 when he accepted a job offer from Harvard’s department of architecture, initially teaching but 1938-1952 as chairman.] Chermayeff completed Gilbey House in 1938 in the short time between Mendelsohn’s leaving and his own Brexit in 1940. 

The building as seen from the main approach down Oval Road. The projecting bay marks the main entrance and provides an Architectural stop

Bentley Wood was the house Chermayeff designed for him and his family. Completed in 1938, it is said to be Britain’s first modern house – if one forgets the 1933 Shann House, 1934 Shrubbs House, 1935 Cohen House …

Frank Lloyd Wright came to have a look. Life was good. No-one’s owning up to having designed this extension.

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I doubt Chermayeff would’ve cared, for Bentley Wood proved to be the demise of Chermayeff’s career in England, as the costs of the house made him bankrupt shortly after moving in, forcing him to leave England for America. It’s probably not as simple as that. November 1938 was Kristallnacht and September 1939 the German invasion of Poland. It’s easy to imagine a few spooked clients pulling out of deals, creating cashflow problems. If Chermayeff’s practice was still a partnership, he’d have had to sell his personal assets to honour his debts, including any home loan he may have taken out. Bankruptcy would be a likely result if he couldn’t but trustees would normally prevent a bona-fide bankrupt leaving the country for any length of time. Conclusion: there probably was some sort of financial unpleasantness and, as it was before, Chermayeff’s decision was to change countries.   

Over in America, good friends Walter and Ise looked after the kids while Serge found work teaching at the then California School of Fine Arts 1941-1942. He was simultaneously an associate architect and employee of San Fransiscan residential architect Clarence W. W. Mayhew and co-authored Mayhew’s house. 

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Chermayeff’s California sojourn wasn’t to last long. In 1942 he took up an offer to head the new art department at Brooklyn College, Columbia University. It can’t have suited for Chermayeff applied himself to architectural problems, publishing his Park Type Apartments Study (that we saw earlier in March’s 1+1/2 Floor Apartment post) in 1943, neatly solving a problem from two decades earlier even though there’s nothing in Chermayeff’s history to indicate he had any time for The Constructivists and their concerns with spatial and resource efficiency. [Adding some more width to the corridor level enables the kitchen and dining areas to stay together on that level as a functional unit. The lower apartments have no division between dining and living and the upper apartments have the dining area overlooking the living area in an equally sensible arrangement.]

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Chermayeff bought a cabin in Wellfleet from Jack Philips who, more than anyone else, is responsible for Cape Cod becoming an enclave of emigré modernist architects. Here’s the family there in 1944.

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In 1946 Walter Gropius recommended Chermayeff to serve as president of the Institute of Design in Chicago. In 1952, Chermayeff taught briefly at MIT and designed himself a new house and studio in Wellfleet.

Life was good again. 

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In 1952 Gropius recommended him to head the department of architecture at Harvard. Twenty years earlier, Chermayeff had had no education beyond high school and was yet to design a house. This shows that teaching architecture is something you can just pick up and become good at, like with English and ballroom dancing. 

You could hate him, or dislike him, but you had to respect the man for how he approached the subject. He did not compromise. [His] values were too high. As a result, he could be quite brutal,” said one former student. Chermayeff’s sons were also his students at Harvard, which must have been awkward for everyone. We don’t know why Chermayeff left Harvard but he always seemed to land on his feet. He jointed the architecture faculty at Yale in 1962 and stayed nine years until retiring in 1970. 

From then until he died in 1996, the Chermayeff narrative shifts to his sons and, in turn, to his grandson but you can read about those elsewhere.

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As a career case study, what can we learn from Serge Chermayeff?

Obviously, a belief in one’s own worth is a good thing for any parent to instil in a child. A sense of entitlement doesn’t hurt either. A need for the limelight and adulation doesn’t go astray in fields of showbiz or architecture. And a nose for survival – whether to avoid war or to follow the market – is a good thing and if it means changing countries then so be it. Parents with a big bag of jewelry to sell, aristocratic genes and the connections that go with them are plusses.

Chermayeff did nothing more – and no less – than take advantage of the opportunities that came his way. It’s usually only after architects die that we get to hear about opportunities bestowed and opportunities taken, favours done and favours owed, and the familial duties and friendship obligations that motivated them. We know a lot about Chermayeff’s life for it was bigger than his career. We don’t get to say that about too many architects.

• • •

 

Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov

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Ivan Illich Leonidov
9 February, 1902 – 6 November 1959

Ivan Leonidov’s star shone brilliantly at the very beginning of his career, perhaps too brilliantly. His misfortune was to have been born in 1902. If he’d been born in 1952 we’d remember him today as one of those infernal starchitects and, if early photographs are anything to go by, one emitting the intense earnestness of an Ara­ve­na rather than the easy affability of an Ingels.

Leodinov first appears as a blip on our architectural radar in 1921 when he was admitted to the VKhUTEMAS but he soon transferred from painting to architecture and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin. Vesnin himself was to soon start making waves, first of all with stage design in 1923 for G.K. Chesterton’s play The Man Who Was Thursday,

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but more architecturally famously for winning the 1923 competition for the Palace of Labour and articulating for the first time the tenets of this new thing called Constructivism.

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For Leonidov, being in the Vesnin brothers’ studio at the VKhUTEMAS in 1925 must have been like being in Rem Koolhaas’ class at the Architectural Association in 1976. He was 23.

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Leonidov is said to have had a hand in Aleksandr Vesnin’s 1923 design for the Izvestia Printworks and perhaps he did.

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He certainly began to shine from 1925 with a series of competition wins.

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These projects are documented in Aleksandrov, P. A. and S. O. Khan-Magomedov’s 1965 book but nowhere else.

To his credit as an educator, Aleksandr Vesnin spotted talent and encouraged it but it was Leonidov’s graduation project for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship that set the course of his future. It was exhibited at the first exhibition of Contemporary Architecture (organised by OSA) in Moscow in 1927. Images of it were reproduced in publications around the world.

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Lenin died in 1924 so we don’t know what he would have thought of it. I can’t think of any student project, anywhere, ever, that has made a comparable splash. Even today, Leonidov’s Lenin Institute of Librarianship is used to illustrate Constructivism for modern audiences – not because it actually did so even then, but because it fits our image of what an expressive and visionary architecture of any time should be.

Then, as now, the element invariably singled out for praise for its architectural expressiveness was the glass-domed auditorium that appears to be held down by cables to prevent it floating away. It’s sometimes noted how this perfectly encapsulated the dream expressed by poets and dreamers of the time, for The People to have infinite mobility, freed from the land.

• • •

It is no surprise then that the glass auditorium also satisfies the four necessary and sufficient conditions for an iconic building.

  1. VISUAL DIFFERENCE: It looks unlike anything else in sight. This can only be a fair assumption, unless the building were to be located in a field of hot-air balloons.
  2. CONCEPTUAL DIFFERENCE: It is like no other known building known. The standard novelty factor.
  3. CONCEPTUAL SIMILARITY: It is evocative of some unifying quality. This is that shared poetic sensibility of the time and place.
  4. CONCEPTUAL NEGATION: It does not seem to be a building (or at least not the building it is). This is the hot-air balloon analogy.

The combination of the glass dome and the cables that run over it press all four of these buttons at once, but the fourth most strongly. In passing, a building does not need cables thrown over it to stop it floating away – gravity alone is sufficient. Even if the cables were intended as stabilising guy lines like those on Vesnin’s Palace of Labour, attaching them around the dome’s equator would’ve been more effective and also avoid transferring forces through the glass dome. So no, it’s definitely and purely expressionistic and, as such, Leonidov and his expressionistic architectural proposition would have been more at home amongst Ladovsky’s ASNOVA expressionists – bizarrely known as ‘Rationalists’ – than Ginzberg’s OSA Constructivists with whom he now found himself not only associated with but unwilling poster boy for. William Curtis is not the only historian to believe Leonidov synthesised the two approaches but to say that is to consider them both conceptually equivalent styles to begin with.

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No written or visual evidence remains of Leonidov’s thoughts or output over 1921-1926 so there isn’t much basis for Curtis saying Leonidov admired Corbusier other than his desire for it to be true. I’d wanted to write at least one post not mentioning Corbusier but this isn’t going to be it for, (much to the increasing exasperation of the Savoyes,) LC travelled frequently to Moscow over the period 1928-1930 as (1) Tsentrosoyuz was on site, (2) he’d passed the first round of judging for the Palace of The Soviets competition, and (3) he was anticipating being asked to redesign Moscow. Until Corbuski fell rapidly out of love with the Soviet Union for not awarding him the Palace of the Soviets, he and Moisei Ginzburg were frequent communicators. It’s quite likely Leonidov had an opportunity to say ‘pleased to meet you’. People were pencilling people in. 

1928: The VKhUTEMAS was reformed as VKhUTEIN and Leonidov became one of those people who gets a place tutoring at the institution from which they’ve just graduated. Here he is photographed with Mosei Ginzburg’s studio in 1930. He’s the one not fully in the frame.

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During this time, like everyone else, Leonidov produced proposals for every competition going.

1929: Here he is at the first OSA conference, separated from Mosei Ginzburg’s necktie by Aleksandr Vesnin, somebody we don’t know, and Viktor Vesnin’s impressive moustache.

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1930: Despite Leonidov’s project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine,

1930 was never going to be a good year. Differences between the various architectural groups went political and his proposal for the Palace of Culture of the Proletarksy District competition allowed detractors to brand him a ‘dreamer on paper’ and to make noises about the harm done by having such people teach. Leonidov was now 28.

He was openly accused of sabotage by Arkady Mordvinov in an article titled Leonidovism and its Misdeeds. 1930 was not a good year to be called a saboteur, let alone by the spokesperson of rival architectural group VOPRA then in political ascendance. Ginzburg stepped in to defuse the row, admitting some of Leonidov’s weaknesses but praising his strengths in an article in the OSA journal, Contemporary Architecture.

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It was to be one of the magazine’s final articles before folding in 1930, the same year VKhUTEIN closed and Leonidov was out of a job along with Ginzberg, the Vesnins and everyone else.

1931-3: Leonidov found work at the state town-planning bureau GIPROGOR and, with a team of former students, worked on planning and competition proposals. No trace remains. One design for a club for Pravda workers was to go ahead, but then it didn’t.

1934: Leonidov’s next high point was his proposal for the competition for Narkomtiazhprom (People’s Commisariat for Heavy Industry) in Red Square. Later the same year he joined Moisei Ginzburg who was heading the architectural bureau there. Viktor Vesnin was there too.

Once again, with this project, the visual effect of the dominant tower derives from external bracing countering non-existent internal forces. Note that stumpy fourth tower on the left.

Lenin had never been keen on the idea of the proletariat freely moving about the country and in 1934 Stalin was even less so. Peasants had their place and it was best they stay there. Fanciful schemes and poetry about soaring and glass balloons were all very well, but the reality for everyone was a system of domestic passports and increasingly harsh restrictions placed on internal travel.

To mollify this loss of freedom, aviators were elevated into popular heroes soaring above the world, seeing everything, freed from petty earthbound concerns. This is an early example of the representation of something being valued more than the thing itself. 

  • In 1927, Leonidov’s restrained balloon imagery had encapsulated something people had wanted to exist and believed, however misguidedly, that could exist some day.
  • By 1934, Leonidov had learned how to keep his head above water if not quite swim. His imagery is still hugely original and seductive, but it now toes the party line in that NOBODY IS GOING ANYWHERE but they can still look up at people who are and have their hearts refreshed and spirits lifted vicariously.

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1935: Moisei Ginzburg maintained his links with the Commissariat of Heavy Industry bu left Moscow for The Crimea, taking Leonidov with him. There, amongst other things, Ginzburg was responsible for urban planning and for this sanitorium.

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Leonidov’s only built work is this staircase he designed for the sanitorium and which was built 1937-38.

The staircase running down to the sea at the Voroshilov Sanatorium in Sochi (and, incidentally, photographed by Hannes Meyer in 1930) were a precedent.

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1940: This was the year Leonidov started work at the Studio for Monumental Art at the Academy of Architecture of the USSR but he was drafted (at age 38) the next year only to be discharged in 1943 after being wounded. He rejoined the Academy and produced studies for the postwar reconstruction of Stalingrad, Kiev, and Moscow but left when they found no support. This is unsurprising, considering the then head of the Academy of Architecture was Arkady Mordvinov – the same Arkady Mordvinov who’d called him a saboteur and coined the term Leonidovism a decade earlier.

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1950s: The last twenty years of Leodinov’s life were occupied by drafts for a work collectively known as City of The Sun.

In these artworks, for they are artworks not architecture, buildings feature in various landscapes that more often than not feature a sun. They were explorations, but into what and for what purpose is anyone’s guess. They occupied most of Leonidov’s time when there were no exhibitions that needed designing and are mostly thought of in the following manner.

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To evaluate Leonidov’s drawings by their colour, line style, media and compositions as if they were art is to suggest that in 1923 he might have been better continuing in the faculty of painting rather than changing to architecture. Painting, graphics, three-dimensionality and buildings as subjects were all constants in Leonidov’s life but the importance of the buildings lessened towards the end. This is understandable. Architecture had treated him so badly.

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A happier ending is to consider Leonidov as the world’s first modern architecture student, living a full life of successive fantasy projects. If the teaching gig had continued along with the occasional commission we’d think of Leonidov today not as some luckless visionary but as the forerunner of today’s research-driven practice.

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Leonidov lived his final years here, in Moisei Ginzburg’s 1928 RSZKT Commune building in Moscow.

 

• • •

Some say Leonidov would have been another Corbusier if his working life hadn’t spanned three of the grimmest decades in Soviet history. I’m not so sure. Adjectives such as outspoken, strong-willed, flamboyant, intellectual and ambitious have never been used to describe him. He had no instinct for self-preservation, no talent for self promotion and no appetite for fame. Even before it began to get nasty, he was unequipped to navigate the world in which he found himself. Moisei Ginzburg recognised this and not only defended him in 1930 but kept him under his wing whether in Moscow (1927-1930) or Crimea (1934-1937).

• • •

Leonidov’s most celebrated projects all relied on elevators that, at the time, existed only in the United States. It is one of those sad jokes his only extant project is a staircase.

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‘Here he not only demonstrated his desire and capacity to build, but realized many of the fundamental elements of his professional vocabulary for the first time. A familiarity with this only extant example of Leonidov’s built work enables us, albeit to a limited degree, to evaluate the notions of space-time and three dimensional composition underlying his work at this period’ 

People can say what they like about time and space and three-dimensional composition (for how could a staircase not be?) but despite not leading anywhere like the staircase at Sochi, it looks like it does its job quite well, beginning monumental and grand at the top, having various rest spots and diversions and choices along the way and, trailing off into the forest at the bottom. In their rush to celebrate Leonidov’s genius, people choose to overlook how this staircase might have excelled at its job of pleasantly yet firmly exercising the lungs of tubercular patients. Leonidov would have been hugely aware this was his first built project so we should at least credit him for making it fit for purpose. We do him a disservice by seeing this staircase only in terms of his supposed artistic preoccupations. We do ourselves no favours either. If we can’t even identify something that can be learned from, it’s unlikely we’ll learn anything.

• • •

Leonidov and his Lenin Institute proposal in particular are still celebrated today. They align with contemporary cults of the architect as artist, and agendas that value expressionism over everything else.

Leonidov is a legend. He is the artist-poet-dreamer we like to believe in because it continues to fulfil or otherwise substitute for something lacking in our own lives and realities. The thing about legendary visionaries is that we like them to remain so. We don’t want to know about the job that got built or the pains they may have taken to make it worth building. We only want to know the bits that feed the myth. Leonidov is a huge resource for myth-makers. That his projects exist only as images only increases their value. The fact he left no body of writings, theory or manifestos means half the work’s already done. His drawings can be shaped into anything one wants to make of them.

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• • •

The cult of the aviator soaring above the world and its mere mortals was the Stalinist take on the Roman invention of bread and circuses, albeit with less of the bread and less of the theatrics. We have no right to sneer. Our modern world is exactly the same with its manufactured cults of celebrity achievement thrust in our faces to distract us from the shortcomings of reality. More worrying is our unabated need for them.

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• • •

Further reading: 

Career Case Study #5: Richard Leplastrier

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1939: Born in Melbourne, Australia
1963: Graduated from Sydney University
1964–1966: Worked in the Sydney office of Jørn Utzon.

In 1963, Utzon set up office in Sydney for one reason only, so Leplastrier did something related to the Sydney Opera House. As a 25 year-old graduate, it probably wasn’t any decision-making but the atmosphere at the time must have been electric given the controversy the building generated. The RIBA website says “[Leplastrier] had an extraordinary apprenticeship with Jørn Utzon, with whom he worked at the time of the Sydney Opera House and they became good friends.” If the third image below is actually from 1964 it shows construction beginning for the geometry rationalised by ARUP.

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Utzon’s design concept for the Sydney Opera House was of something heavy and seemingly floating

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but Utzon brought with him to Australia other, more useful, ideas that had their root in Japan. Here’s his 1953 Middelboe House.

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If one were to have had long conversations with Jørn Utzon between 1964 and 1966, it would have been great to learn what Utzon knew about the selection the assembly of materials. We don’t know if Leplastrier learned anything from the design or construction of the Sydney Opera House itself. The Sydney Opera House was to open in 1973 but Utzon left the project in 1966 –as did Leplastrier who went to Kyoto University where Tomoya Masuda was teaching.

Masuda was more traditionalist than Metabolist despite his Matsumura Oil Company Offices of 1967.

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No degree is mentioned so I’m guessing it was one of those informal arrangements that existed at the time in Japanese universities. And in companies too, for between Kyoto University and 1966 and 1970, Leplastrier also spent time in the Tokyo office of Kenzo Tange.

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Tange’s office were at the time responsible for the upcoming Expo ’70 masterplan and already had a reputation for large masterplanning projects around the world.

1970: Leplastrier returned to Australia and started his own practice. We hear no more of Tange.

1974-76: Palm Garden House, Northern Beaches, Sydney

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1981-84 1989-90: Belligen House and Studio, New South Wales
1988-91: Rainforest House, Mapleton, Queensland

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1988-92: Tom Uren House, Balmain, Sydney
1994: Lovett Bay House, Sydney

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1996: Cloudy Bay Retreat, Bruny Island, Tasmania

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1997: Watson’s Bay House, Sydney

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1997-8, 2000: Blue Mountains House and Studio, Leura, New South Wales
2002 Design Centre Tasmania, Launceston (with David Travalia)

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2004–2006: Public Toilets, George’s Head (part of the George’s Head Lookout project)

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You can find out more about the projects here, at the Offical Website of Architecture Foundation Australia and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses which Leplastrier also teaches. The Architecture Foundation Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses are a two-week residential summer program for 32 participants. FAQ here.

Richard Leplastrier is a key figure in Australian architecture and architectural education. His architecture is sensitive to place and to culture and he uses his studio as a teaching room as well as a place to make architecture. 

Richard is always spoken about in relation to Glenn Murcutt and his reputation is possibly diminished by this.

It does not help that he shies away from publicity and has little interest in having his projects published. Yet he is the key philosophical influence behind much of the best work we see from Australia today. He provides the backbone of thinking and belief. 

These are some things I’ve read.

  • His buildings are sensitive to issues of culture and place.
  • Oriental philosophy tempers his outlook on life and, in particular, his understanding of the meaning and role of shelter.
  • His buildings interpret and explore the notion of the primal shed through simple, minimal constructions in which alcoves, sleeping niches, work desks, and dining spaces are worked and reworked, taking on the minimal, multi-functional character of a ship’s interior.
  • His buildings offer intriguing and insightful interpretations of natural ventilation, solar shading, and the tectonic accommodation of the changing weather and seasons.”

I find more to admire in the following.

  • He constantly asks himself “How little do we need?” and designs his buildings accordingly. I read somewhere that Leplastrier also lives accordingly. This too is virtuous but I don’t need to know that. I can appreciate the buildings just as well without a cult of personality being erected around them. 
  • He is renowned and recognized for only using resources close by in an endeavor to minimize the impact on the environment as much as possible. This is good.
  • His building can be easily disassembled, thereby fulfilling the touch-the-ground-lightly dictum. This too is good on the surface but in a previous post I questioned why a useful building should need to be disassembled. There aren’t getting any fewer people in the world and that land is unlikely to revert to primordial landscape.
  • Leplastrier seems to have little or no taste for marketing and publicity. This is both good and bad. I applaud his distaste for the whole nasty business. Some might say that teaching is a form of publicity and it’s true, some architects so teach as a means of marketing and publicity. Some of those hold teaching positions more for the imagined prestige rather than any pedagogic drive. Some teach to smooth out the cashflow and there are some who teach because they feel they have something to teach. In a canny inversion of the basic business contract, some architects ask people to pay to do their work under the guise of education.

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Whatever Leplastrier’s reasons for teaching, coming into contact with thirty-two people for two weeks once or twice a year doesn’t seem much. I can’t help feeling that if one really has ideas and attitudes of real use to the world, then one has a duty to broadcast them generally and globally in the hope others in non-specific places might find those ideas or approaches of benefit.

• • •

The more I try to find out about Lepastrier the more I sense journalism rushing to fill a vacuum.

The Cult of Craft

It’s a shame to see Leplastrier’s buildings celebrated so much for their cult of craft that owes so much to the Japanese. I see it in things such as the circular window openings at the Lovett’s Bay house, the staircase and its “stone” landing in the Watson’s Bay house, and the curved RSJ above the entrance at the design centre in Tasmania, or its fancy screen timber work, lovely though it is. Only the Japanese can use simplicity as ornament signifying a cultural refinement – theirs. This is not a very useful trait for architecture. I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from trying to replicate the sublime ordinariness Leplastrier generates in his buildings rather than focussing on how personal or cultural, idiosyncratic or overthought certain details may be.

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The Japanese system of constructing buildings continues to be worthy of learning from but what we don’t remember is that Utzon’s houses predate Tange’s and Shinohara’s.

It wasn’t just Utzon. His Danish contemporaries also took ordinary pieces of timber and infill panels, arranged them with the economy and clarity of Japanese construction but without the cult of culture, and made it into what’s now remembered as the Golden Age of Danish Architecture. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe] They had a good thing going for a while. I wonder if those Danish architects had any awareness they were making Golden Danish Architecture?

The Cult of Culture

To firmly link attitudes and ideas and buildings to a specific country is to place them squarely in the world as national cultural artefacts, discouraging them from being perceived in terms of value as prototypes for wider application worldwide.

“There is a growing movement in Australian architecture that stems from a recognition of the uniqueness of this land. A recognition of the indigenous culture’s management of this continent for tens of thousands of years, and that this embodied knowledge forms a powerful cultural base for our future development. A recognition also, that it was this very land that formed their society in the first place, and that this land has primacy in forging of our character.”

This is all true. What never gets mentioned is that the indigenous culture lived for millennia without concepts of money or the possession of property. Needless to say, they managed to also do without an architecture poetically articulating the possession of money and property. I don’t think this circle can be squared.

The Cult of Personality

oz

• • •

I would like to see someone apply the worthy attitudes and sublime ordinariness of Leplastrier’s buildings to suburban housing or an urban apartment building, something, anything, that doesn’t rely upon the celebration of land for its aesthetic worth. 

Until that time, I have to remain open to the notion that we as Australians are merely approving cultural artefacts that project to the world an impossibly idealised image of ourselves vis-á-vis architecture and our country.

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Career Case Study #4: Sir Roy Grounds

This is Sir Roy Grounds, “one of Australia’s leading architects of the modern movement”.

roy groundsRoy Grounds (1905 – 1981)

For someone born in Australia and who’s spent a large amount of their life learning about buildings, I’ve never known his name until recently. His Wikipedia entry seems to say all there seems to be to say and, for that matter, all we seem to need to know. It’s odd then, that he was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1968, made a life member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1969 and the same year made Sir Roy Grounds by Queen Elizabeth in 1969. It’s fair to assume he was knighted for his services to architecture but strange there’s no memory of what those services might have been.

It’s not the case with his contemporaries Robyn Boyd and Harry Seidler – two names I do remember. Robyn Boyd was born into the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists and painters. His first job was a studio for his cousin, the painter Arthur Boyd. Robyn Boyd developed a low-slung regional style with lots of timber. Although this was sometimes derided as the “nuts and berries” school, this high-fibre architecture appealed to Australians in general and university tutors in particular.

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sketch design for the Baker House – Barcelona Pavilion meets gumnut babies

Boyd completed about 200 mostly small scale projects but is better known for being a prolific writer, commentator, content provider and The Voice of Australian Architecture. His 1960 book The Australian Ugliness was widely praised and admired for railing against suburban sprawl but, going by what’s happened in the 65 years since, was totally useless IF its true object was actually to change things for the better. If. We shouldn’t assume courting media controversy was something invented with the internet.

McClune House, Robyn Boyd

Harry Seidler was born in Austria in 1923. After attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, being Marcel Breuer‘s first assistant, doing vacation work for Alvaar Aalto, doing a stint at Oscar Niemeyer’s studio and being taught art by Joseph Albers, he and his parents rocked up in Australia in 1948. Seidler was 25. His parents immediately asked him to design their new house in their new country. I’d love to know more about these parents of his. The preliminaries over, Seidler’s career proper began.

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Although only ten when the Bauhaus closed shop, Seidler positioned himself as the first architect to fully express its principles in Australia. In short, he became The Other Voice of Australian Architecture. He wore bow ties, spoke in quotes, seemed to live forever, and was Australia’s Gropius.

As part of a double act though, he was the Le Corbusier to Boyd’s Frank Lloyd Wright and all Australian architectural debate whether in magazines, schools or office, could be framed in terms of one or the other. The media history of Australian architecture, Australian architecture and Australian architects had no need for Roy Grounds and his or any other third way.

Roy Grounds

1905: Born in Melbourne
–1932: His work at a a firm called Blackett, Forster and Craig led him to receive an award that let him work in the UK and the US for two years.
1934: Returned to form a partnership with Geoffrey Mewton that is said to have introduced the international style to Melbourne.
1936: Partnership dissolved (why, we don’t know) and Grounds returns to the UK.
1939–1942: Sole practitioner between 1939 and 1942 and designed a series of houses and flats including Moonbria (1940–41) which established his reputation.
1953: Formed a successful and influential practice with Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd who were also well established at the time.
1962: Grounds left the practice “acrimoniously” Wikipedia tells us.

It’s not much to go on. Let’s take a look at the buildings. First is Moonbria. It has its own website these days.

MoonbriaIt’s a building with 21 apartments arranged around a courtyard and a circular stair feature.

Circles were to feature largely Grounds’ work. Here’s a 1953 house.

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Grounds designed the Roy Grounds House for himself and his family in 1953.

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The main house is at the front of the site and there are three ‘investment houses’ at the rear. (In the late 20th century, many single detached dwelling were to be demolished and replaced by triple-houses occupying a greater percentage of the site and contributing to the ongoing deforestation of Australia.)

Roy Grounds House planThe main design feature is the circular internal courtyard within a square plan. The house was widely publicized and praised at the time, winning the Victorian Architecture Medal in 1954.

Ground’s first major public building was the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra (1959).

3815768067_f76a3b8b41_oThis building has a special place in my heart for it was probably the first building I remember thinking was pretty cool. (I might have been about eight.) By the time I came to know Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Olympic stadiums I’d become more aware of this thing called architecture.

I’d never seen Shine Dome mentioned anywhere outside of Australia. It’s from 1959, it’s  completion coinciding with the conception of the Sydney Opera House. It’s a dinosaur – no, more of a fossil. It’s the missing link between Googie and Post-Modernism some 20 years earlier than claimed – and, ultimately, the iconic building. It satisfies all the criteria.

  1. It looks different from anything seen around it.
  2. It looks different from anything known to exist at the time, including Eero Saarinen’s 1955 Kresge Auditorium and Pier Luigi Nervi’s 1957 Palazzetto dello Sporto. 
  3. It looks like something not a building – a bit like it landed from the future.

When these three conditions are satisfied, the result is a building that merely looks alien, not iconic. Yet, it’s this alien-ness about it that satisfies the fourth condition for an iconic building – 4. It has an association of place – or at least it does if you know that Canberra is Australia’s diplomatic capital. This is no enigmatic signifier. It is the Martian Embassy.

WOBLTD06-500x500Anyway. There’s a lot of circles happening. Grounds did a lot with circles. And rectangles. Here’s his 1959–1968 National Gallery of Victoria. Grounds was appointed the sole architect for this building, usually considered his masterwork. This seems to have been the reason for  aforementioned acrimonious split.

EPUB000157The National Gallery is the high-lighted box of his own house with some Martian Embassy entrances. It has three square courtyards. The spire in the model was to be later redesigned by Grounds to become The Arts Centre.

There’s nothing wrong with reusing motifs. Many architects do. It’s no secret, but neither is it common knowledge that Fallingwater is Wright’s first Usonian House, the 1940 Pew House, pimped.

pewhouse_perspectivecolor2In the same vein, SANAA have repeatedly used thin roofs on many slender columns, the only wonder coming from the absence of visible cross-bracing. It works for them.

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•••

History is a curious thing. Just as the Futurists always get to fill the gap in history because the 1920s was a slow decade for architectural history, things tend to get simplified when there’s too much happening. Boyd and Seidler were all that was needed. We’ll never know if the acrimonious split with Grounds hurt Boyd’s career but it certainly didn’t hurt his reputation. The Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture is an Australian architectural prize presented by the Australian Institute of Architects since 1981.

One thing many of the misfit architects featured in this blog have in common with Sir Roy Grounds is a lack of interest in media, marketing and self-promotion.

However, Grounds is a Career Case Study #4 and not Architecture Misfit #19 because he seems to have fitted in rather well. He didn’t go against any grain. He did a few things well and had a few ideas typical of the time and place. He was well-connected enough to obtain decent commissions. Media-wise, all he really had to do was impress his peers and not offend the public and he seems to have done this.

Boyd and Seidler reached a little bit further into the mass-media landscape of general circulation newspapers and magazines – which was all the media landscape there was. There, they were easily pigeonhole-able as Aussie-Regionalist vs. Euro-Modernist. Roy Grounds was neither. Compared to these two, his branding was vague.

Nor did Grounds appear to offer an agenda for Australian architecture at a time when it seemed to be wanting one. Together, this is what Boyd and Seidler did as a pair of media constructs, each defined in terms of what they weren’t as much as for what they were. It worked better with two and it did work co-dependent synergy until Glenn Murcutt came along and became both of them.

•••

Further reading

further reading

Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small

We’ll skip the early bits.

  • Undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon.
  • Stints with John Lautner in Los Angeles, Smith & Williams in Pasadena, Anshen & Allen in San Francisco and Charles Blessing at Detroit City Planning.

  • 1969-72 Assistant Professor at California State Polytechnic University

With Small’s CV, project dates span actual positions but the following project encompasses his time at California State Polytechnic.

  • 1965-77 Biomorphic Biosphere

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“Biomorphic” is still a media and student preoccupation that’s no closer to being realised now than it was then. With higher resolution graphics and less gender objectification, Small’s Biomorphic Biosphere proposal wouldn’t seem that out of place in 2015.  The project was contemporaneous with Metabolism and its alleged preoccupation with megastructures organised as if  by the principles of Nature (i.e. like a tree). Instead, Small’s artificial structures are places for Nature to take place. In retrospect, this was not a good career move. With all the architectural distractions of Post Modernism, people didn’t have much time left to contemplate Nature but, when they did, they liked it to fit into an architectural scheme, not an engineering one.

BIBLIOTECA_ITEMS_741_THE_PYRAMID_LE_PERTHUS_FRANCE_RICARDO_BOFILL_TALLER_ARQUITECTURA_3_W_1280

Previously, I’d imagined a group of students and faculty dissatisfied with how and what they were being taught and going off and starting their own architecture school and, in the language of the times, doing their own thing. In a sense this is true, [but how did this work in practice? Did kids tell their parents they’re switching university and they must pay fees again?] Shelley Kappe, wife of SCI-ARC founder recollects something different.

During the summer of 1971, however, when Kappe was not on [California State Polytechnic] campus, the Dean of the School of Environmental Design, allowed more students to be admitted into the Architecture program than Kappe desired, upsetting the balance between Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning. Ray Kappe had a meeting with the Dean about the divisiveness this was creating among the three departments, as well as the misinformation the Dean had been giving him. Kappe very strongly stated his disapproval of the Dean’s actions, after which the Dean asked for his resignation

It doesn’t matter – it’s all history now. Nevertheless, the detachment did result in a new institution with a new curriculum designed around cooler preoccupations such as ecology, lightweight structures, social awareness, and political awareness. Remember these names.

New-School_-Founding-Students1-300x243

Ray Kappe, Thom Mayne, Bernard Zimmerman, Glen Small, Bill Simonian, James Stafford, Ahde Lahti, and Gary Neville

It’s easy to imagine them all listening to Janis Joplin, Chicago, Rolling Stones, a bit of Led Zeppelin, Santana, Chicago, some Velvet Underground perhaps, and some Beatles and Carole King as a guilty pleasure. Students had to actually building things because computers were still the size of a small planet and, besides, nobody knew what use they could ever be to architecture.

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Small taught at SCI-ARC until 1990 when, according to his side of the story, the baddie who ousted him was Thom Mayne. If true, such a freethinking and radical institution was not beyond some good old-fashioned academic skullduggery.

Flash forward … The funny thing was, my daughter was interviewing Thom Mayne while making her film about me, he mentioned this thing, that I frightened them, that, I had the charisma and attracted the students with my ideas.. Basically, he said, I had that power with students and that was threatening to them (directors) and their ideas and what they wanted to do with SCI-ARC. So, they sure weren’t going to nurture my game there. And they didn’t want anybody there to tell them that stylistic stuff wasn’t too meaningful. No they didn’t want anybody saying that. They had to get me out.

Still, 18 years isn’t a bad innings. Alumni include Greg Lynn, Shigeru Ban, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss … A website showcasing alumni achievements has a high proportion of large houses for wealthy people in LA. As you’d expect, they look like nice places to be but sustain entrenched architectural and media values rather than changing any.

04.-Rustic-Canyon-Chu+Gooding-Architects_photo-©-www.nilstimm.com_-1024x678

Confession. Part of my problem with SCI-ARC was that I thought the “SCI” bit stood for science. Now I know it only stands for Southern Californian Institute Of, houses like the above make sense. It’s just southern Californians building for southern Californians. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. There’s nothing particularly scientific about these projects.

ESTmGallery_01 1_2213_0839-skinscape-web

To be fair, there is some building of solar stuff but that’s nothing special these days. I have trouble reconciling this next image with the two above.

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Anyway, over its 40-plus years, SCI-ARC overcame funding, salaries, accreditation and the other trivia of running an academic institution.

SCI-ARC-40th-750x499

Despite their differences, Glenn Small did attend Sci-Arc’s recent 40th anniversary bash at LA’s Disney Centre. I can’t find a photo of him with Thom Mayne. Here’s Small standing with Dean Nota.

SCI+Arc+40th+Anniversary+Celebration+VXzJ3J_aNiol

Small’s take on the event is interesting reading.

  • 1977-1980 THE GREEN MACHINE

The Green Machine is low-income housing. It dates from Small’s time at SCI-ARC. Interview excerpts are from SCI-ARC alumnus Orhan Ayyüce interview over on Archinect.
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“A fusion of Airstream trailers and nature to form a new human ecology. The trailers cost approximately $5K each at the time the proposal was made (the current price for used Airstreams is not radically different than this).

It’s just possible these days to get a 1965 model for $7,500.

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Small My Father

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I like The Green Machine. It’s representative of Small’s interest in structures that allow access to air and light for people as well as for Nature (a.k.a. plants) to happen. It’s sort of Metabolism meets Walden. The project had a sorry history of funding troubles brought on by a certain Ronald Reagan who had just become Governor of California. Low-income housing was not on the political agenda.

But 1997-1980 is that dodgy period once again. The Green Machine probably got left behind by history for not being ironic enough or iconic enough. With Post Modernism, things had to mean other things in order to be taken seriously and what The Green Machine meant was not good. An Airstream was no longer a cheap living capsule but a statement of mobility, of freedom, of living The American Dream in American Nature.

b6912c20bea5c1f40d519ec00668c45c4bc1730b

Seen through Post-Modern eyes, The Green Machine is thus too good for low-income people. For people on higher incomes it was insufficiently aspirational because anyone could just buy an airstream and do the Walden thing anyway..

  • 1990 House on Mulholland Drive, LA. 

1990 was also to be Small’s last year at SCI-ARC. The Mulholland Drive house took five years to build and wasn’t completed under Small’s supervision because of a falling out between the architect and his clients. In 2009 it was available for rent at US$27K a month.

Mulholland

  • 1983 TURF TOWN

I have a lot of respect for this project and the reasoning behind it. I’ll let Small describe it in his own words excerpted from his blog, underlinings mine.

THE SITE, THE OLYMPIC PARK AREA WAS AN AREA OF LOS ANGELES THAT WAS A TYPICAL GRID IRON STREET PATTERN THAT IS FOUND THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES. IT WAS SELECTED FOR ITS LACK OF CHARACTER AND UNIMPORTANT CONTEXTUAL BUILDINGS ON THE SITE. ALSO IT OFFERED A CHANCE TO BE IMPLEMENTED IN OTHER PARTS OF THE CITY AND OTHER CITIES.

MY CONCEPT WAS TO CREATE A SOLAR ZONING ENVELOPE FOR HIGH DENSITY DEVELOPMENT THAT INCLUDED ECOLOGICAL AND MOVEMENT SYSTEMS. ALL HERE AND NOW STUFF THAT COULD BE BUILT.

TURF-TOWN-2

LOS ANGELES DOWNTOWN IS LAID OUT ON A SPANISH GRID. THAT MEANS THAT ONE CORNER OF A BLOCK DIAGONALLY FACES SOUTH. THE THINKING BEING THAT ALL SIDES OF A BLOCK WOULD GET SOME SUN EVERY DAY MOST OF THE YEAR, BUT THE SOUTH CORNER WOULD GET THE MOST. THEREFORE I MADE THE SOUTH CORNER THE HIGHEST. WORKING OUT TO OVER 20 STORIES AND BOTH SIDES TAPERED DOWN TO 3 STORIES. I THEN DREW A DIAGONAL LINE IN PLAN TO THE TWO LOW CORNERS. THE CONTROLLING HEIGHT OF THE SOUTH CORNER WAS A 28 DEGREE SLOPE TO THREE STORIES. THE RESULTING SOLAR ENVELOPE LOOKED LIKE A THREE SIDED PYRAMID.

TURF-TOWN-3

WITH THIS CONFIGURATION THERE WERE NO SEVERE SHADOWS CAST ON ADJOINING PROPERTIES AND THE SLOPING ROOF OF 28 OR LESS DEGREES RECEIVED SUN ALL YEAR AROUND. THE STREET FACADES WERE VERTICAL AND HAD CRASS COMMERCIAL SIGNAGE. A HEIGHT LIMIT OF 30 FEET WAS ALLOWED ON ALL SIDES OF THE BLOCK. THE ROOF WAS TO BE PLANTED GREEN AND HAVE PUBLIC ACESS OF WALKWAYS.

• • •

There’s a movie – which I’d love to see but I can’t get Netflix here.

mftg_flier_LA2

“Hilarious and heart-wrenching…”My Father, The Genius” has the raw emotional power missing from “A Beautiful Mind”.— Scott Foundas, Variety

“My Father, The Genius” comes up with no definite answers, just richly lifelike ambiguities: that Glen Small has an admirable professional integrity, that he’s not the most well-adjusted person, that he’s a dreamer scarred by reality.” — Paul Sherman, Boston Herald

“…blithe, brilliant, and intimate…a real-life “The Royal Tenenbaums” in which dad comes off as insufferable but nonetheless charming and sympathetic, an uncompromising idealist whose failure to “play the game” exiled him to the margins … Small’s father, Glen, a visionary architect, could make a strong case for the distinction of this title…”
— Peter Keough, The Boston Phoenix

Here’s a review from LA Times. There’s also My Father The Genius II, charting Small’s further adventures in Nicaragua where he currently lives with his “tropical” wife, feverishly blogging with the caps lock on.

• • •

Well my daughter made that movie My Father the Genius and people are aware of that and potential clients watch that movie and they pull back and I figure basically they get frightened of me and think I might be assertive and have ideas and I am going to take their money and they can’t push me around. Like I envy Frank (Gehry) that his clients come to him and say ”˜just do whatever you want Frank because you are the greatest.’ They are not doing that to me. I really think if you know about coffee, if you know about wine, if you know about shi-shi food, if you know about golf and tennis maybe some knowledge of jazz and some knowledge of classical, with that you can literally build any building you want. Because its nothing about the building, its more about making someone comfortable. They go about that stuff all night and that makes them connected you know. They feel that… And I find that stuff nauseating, so I am broke.

• • •

http://www.glenhowardsmallarchitect.com
http://www.smallatlarge.com
http://www.sciarc.edu
http://viewbook.sciarc.edu/#home
40th anniversary party on VIMEO
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Career Case Study #2: Norman Jaffe

It’s hard to get a handle on 1970s architecture. SOM were on a roll as their John Hancock Centre in Chicago had completed in 1969.

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Osaka’s Expo ’70 showed off a multiplicity of styles and approaches that, with the exception of inflatable structures, correctly predicted the riot of the following ten years. There were megastructures, the neo-historic, the nationalistic, metabolistic, the crassly symbolic, ducks galore and some tensile supported sheds decorated redwhite’n’blue. That’ll be Great Britain lower left then.

Expo '70, Osaka, Japan

Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan

The Nakagin Capsule Tower – Tokyo, 1972.

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Over in the US, the New York Five were doing their respective things. Here’s Richard Meier’s Douglas House. 1973.

©AIA

©AIA

The World Trade Centre opened the same year.

World_Trade_Center,_New_York_City_-_aerial_view_(March_2001)

Essentially a creature of the fifties, The Sydney Opera House opened October 1973.

440px-Sydney_Opera_House_Sails

Aldo Rossi was big in Europe in the seventies and Japan in the eighties.

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The Pompidou Centre opened 1977

440px-Pompidou_centerclosely followed by The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts 1978.

Sainsbury_Centre_for_Visual_Arts

Mies even der Rohe didn’t live to the 70’s but here’s his Kluczynski_Federal_Building designed 1960 but completed 1974 minus his vaunted sense of proportion.

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Corporate buildings – or rather, corporate clients – were big. Here’s Roche-Dinkeloo‘s 1974 The Pyramids for the College Life Insurance Company of America Headquarters in Indianapolis.

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In 1977 some guy called Frank Gehry did something weird to his house.

gehry house

  • Historians will remember the 1970s for Post-Modernism – mainly due to the never-ending efforts of Charles Jencks but, truth is, the seventies were everything and nothing. Big corporate architecture ruled and, though SOM were on trend, it would have been difficult to imagine the architecture of two, or even one, decade into the future. We, however, know what happened. Post-modernism overheated and made itself unpopular with clients with serious money – it’s flippancy appealing only to Disney.
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  • Post-modern Classicism was the hasty adaption more suited to corporate and municipal images of themselves.
    .
    portland-bldg
  • Simultaneously, High-tech was claiming to be a style for the future rather than the past. In the 1960’s prefabrication had been thought a bit iffy and downmarketish but High-Tech overcame this by prefabricating everything only once, thus making itself reassuringly expensive.
  • Nobody knew that the Sydney Opera House was an “iconic” building.

In all, it was a difficult decade in which to be an architect.

RULE #1: Choose your decade well. 

Norman Jaffe (1932–1993) did just that. Reimagining Wright is never a bad way to start a career. In the seventies at least, it combined a client-winning respect for the ‘old masters’ with a don’t-scare-the-horses progressiveness.

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Wright was still well remembered and missed. The old boy had never been lacking in media-savvy but, as the century wore on, his media handling became increasingly out-of-touch.

Gropius, for example, had done the “smug architect in front of visionary design” thing way back in ’22.

walter-gropius

What the decade needed was someone to update Wright and with a bit of flair. Norman Jaffe was probably that man.

Man with an Image: two-page spread from Men's Bazaar, 1967.

In all likelihood, Jaffe picked up a bit of media nous during the short time he worked in the office of Philip Johnson before starting his own Manhattan practice. Johnson later remembered Jaffe as “too talented to stay with him long“, inadvertently slighting those who did.

Hamptons

Jaffe had begun visiting Long Island in the 1960s, and in 1973 he moved to Bridgehampton where he opened an architectural practice. He became the most prolific architect in the Hamptons at that time, designing more than 50 local houses, from small summer homes to large estates. 

The sentence

in 1973 he moved to Bridgehampton where he opened an architectural practice

doesn’t reveal much. People just don’t go places and open architectural practices. Between the 1960’s and 1973, Jaffe probably networked like hell, stashed away a bit of cash and, like any other architect starting out, as soon as he had one job on the go and the next one lined up, he made the move. The story goes that Jaffe didn’t want his young son to grow up in Manhattan and there’s probably some truth in that too since I hear that 1970s New York wasn’t such a great place. Although, to be fair, there’ll always be those who say New York lost its soul as soon as walking through Central Park after dark no longer meant certain death. In any case,

RULE #2: Choose your catchment area strategically. 

The Schulman House of 1968 was Jaffe’s first major project in The Hamptons.

schulman

Now the Hamptons isn’t a bad place to choose to open an architectural practice and get a reputation as a local architect. The summer there is pleasant, the pace no doubt relaxed, but more importantly it’s both remote from yet convenient to Manhattan and thus home-away-from-home for the rich and/or celebrated. It’s well moneyed.

celeb-map

By 1979 it was reported that Jaffe had become so popular and well known that he was able to choose what jobs he would take and was turning down nine out of 10 prospective clients attending his offices. There’s a full list of works here, on the site of the practice continued by aforementioned son Miles.

http://www.normanjaffe.com/projects.html

Jaffe also made Wright’s way with clients his own. Whether this reads as “uncompromising visionary” or “diva” depends on how many enemies one has. Jaffe made a few, notably actor Alan Alda whom you may remember from M*A*S*H (1972–1983), and his wife.

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Five hundred letters regarding requested change orders were produced in court that had to judge upon matters such as whether the sound of a toilet flushing upstairs could be heard in the kitchen below. First world problems yes, but then The Hamptons is about as First World as it gets. [About this time, over in Palm Springs, John Lautner was having problems with a house for celebrity client Bob Hope and his wife.]

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The Hope House was recently put on the market for US$50 mil. but, as of January 2014 there were still no takers at US$34 mil. 

RULE #3: Don’t sue celebrities. 

With the success of these early works came bigger commissions and even more spectacular projects. It was no longer the avant-garde who wanted Jaffe houses, it was those who wanted to be avant-garde. By the 1980’s much of the work became ostentatious (or as noted by Paul Goldberger in his book Houses of the Hamptons, ‘vulgar and bombastic’). Many of these projects were an exercise in ego, as much the client’s as the architect’s.

Hmm. I guessing this house might be one of them. “Priceupped”!? =(<<

meadow lane

Paul Goldberger wrote in Houses of the Hamptons, “He couldn’t reconcile anymore the millions of dollars spent on single-family dwellings used on weekends” but I don’t see why that should have been a problem for a neo-Wrightian.

Many architects do work of questionable quality for clients with too much money. In the seventies we used to call this “selling out”. These days we call it “success”.

RULE #4: Hold your nose.

The word ‘romantic’ is often used to describe Jaffe and his work. There’s a book, “The Romantic Modernist”.

rm

‘Romantic’ in its architectural sense, is an adjective often applied to architects lacking a theory or rational explanation for why their buildings are the way they are. This went against the flow of 1970s. Intellectual, or pretending to be it, was in vogue. Post Modernism was intellectual. The NY5 were intellectual. Confession: In 1979, I thought Eisenman’s House X was the coolest thing – not that I could get my head around the plans or Eisenman’s concept – or at least the name – of “deep structure” appropriated from Chomsky.

house+x+axon+model+2

With romantics, a roof might be flat because the architect feels a flat roof best “mediates” between the land and the sky. A roof might also be pitched for the same reason but the point is that architect knows best. It’s hard to know whether this attitude owes more to Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Roark or, for all we know, Mike Brady (1969-1974).

MikesOffice2

Meier’s 1970s output might have looked a bit samey but Jaffe designed tens of houses for much the same people with much the same brief and on much the same sites in the same place. It’s easy to imagine that inspiration gets put under serious strain. How many ways can a roof mediate between the sky and whatever? If one doesn’t explore some kind of intellectual agenda then it becomes very difficult to be differently and convincingly romantic every time. The intellectual route may be bullshit but it is self-perpetuating, endless bullshit.

Ultimately, the New York Five and Venturi had more staying power. Eisenman, Gwathmey and, spectacularly, Graves, one by one gave up the white stuff and went with the flow. Meier kept going, presumably because he’d already consolidated a base of clients who liked to know what they’ll be getting. Here’s one of Meier’s recents.

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From 1975 until he died in 2000 (cancer), the fifth New York Fiver, Hejduk, was more of an educator.

 RULE #5: Don’t swim against the current.

Jaffe drowned on August 19, 1993. The more I read about Jaffe the more I’m moved by the degree of personal interest and public speculation his death evoked. Neighbour and friend Tony Leichter said “He was an overconfident but poor swimmer.” There was speculation of suicide.

Other friends noted Jaffe’s late-life and sudden interest in Buddhism, Indian studies, the Cabala, whole-grain pancakes, miso soup, tofu, vegetarian hot dogs and lemon and mint tea and tried to find some sense out of that. I’m not so sure. It seems like Jaffe discovered the seventies in the nineties.

Media post-mortems speculated about whether Jaffe had been truly fulfilled. Charles Gwathmey is quoted as saying “I don’t think Norman thought he’d fulfilled either his potential or his subconscious aspirations, which I think is a terrible thing to confront in oneself. He was always conflicted about whether he was going to take the heavy jump and try to be a world-renowned architect as opposed to hanging out on the East End. Sometimes he liked the fact that he was regarded as the premier architect in a certain location. Other times he felt it that wasn’t enough.”

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Nobody ever said of the man sometimes known as Le Corbusier that he was an overconfident but poor swimmer even though there’s no evidence LC died of a heart attack. Jaffe’s death was a very human one and it evoked some very human responses.

The world in 1993 already seems like a far nicer place. I know I know. Blame it on the internet! Take a look at our current crop of architects who have come of a certain age. And take a look at us. Do we wonder if Rem Koolhaas is personally fulfilled from what he does? Do we speculate whether Zaha Hadid is happy with her life? Do we lay awake wondering if Frank Gehry feels respect or contempt for his clients? No. We don’t. We don’t care who any of these people are or what they think or feel. The personas we see are media constructs and what we think we know is no more than what we’re told in order to keep their respective brands alive and relevant in our minds.

Brand founders are rarely in the office. Their inevitable deaths and subsequently permanent absence doesn’t mean the death of the brand. I predict posthumous buildings will be big this century.

Career Case Study #1: Frederick Kiesler

There aren’t that many misfits. Last century, we had Irving Gill, Hannes Meyer, Eileen Gray, Superstudio, and The Futurists. The first three are true misfits with Hannes Meyer being Architectural Misfit #1. Superstudio and The Futurists are more like accidental misfits in that they had a useful idea or two.

I think that’s basically going to be it. From now on, there will only be accidental misfits, or conditionally a misfit pending further information. There will also people who are probably just a bit odd, like Frederick Kiesler who is the subject of this post.

Frederick Kiesler was always on the sidelines of people and events that are remembered although, to be fair, in 1920s Vienna it was probably impossible to be an artist and not to know Adolf Loos or not to be a member of De Stijl. Kiesler was always on location but not really in the frame – much like this Irving Penn portrait of Willem de Kooning.

Or here. In the back row we have, left to right, Max Ernst’s son Jimmy, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian. In the middle row we have Max Ernst, Amedee Ozenfant, Andre Breton, Fernand Leger, Berenice Abbott , and in the front row we have Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann. That’s one wiki-rich photograph!

Apart from Peggy Guggenheim who is an “American art collector, bohemian, philanthropist and socialite” (don’t you just love America!?) everyone in this photograph is an artist. Obviously, the photo was taken in if–you–can–make–it–there–you–can–make–it–anywhere New York. There’s no way a bunch of artists would have a normal photo taken … but notice how it’s only our man in the front who doesn’t seem to know which direction he should be looking?

LESSON #1: PAY ATTENTION TO THE CAMERA! 

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Frederick Kiesler is mostly remembered for one coffee table and one house. This is the coffee table.

http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=2154

“In 1935/36, Kiesler designs his famous Biomorphic Aluminum Nesting Table. A table that expresses some of Kiesler’s architectural ideas at a new scale; a scale shift that enriches Kiesler’s ideas on the correlations of our environment (big and small) and its relationship to the body.” (go here if you like reading stuff like this)

This is the house. It’s called Endless House, from 1958-1959 (ish).

“Kiesler dissolved the rigid hierarchy of the privileged corners and created a continuous surface that has no beginning and no end. An organic surface that he argues fits more comfortable as the environment for the urgent and eternal need of the human body. Kiesler said that “the ‘Endless House’ is called ‘Endless’ because all ends meet, and meet continuously.” Oh dear. 

(same place)

photo: artnet, amongst others

The image above is probably the one I saw reproduced in the Sunday paper of my home province. As a kid, I remember liking the idea but finding the plan didn’t really convey what it might be like inside. I wasn’t the only one, it turned out.

“A main criticism of Kiesler is the discordance between the ambitious and unique potential of his models and the very static architectural drawings. His sketches work well to maintain the visions he discusses, but as soon as he begins to make “rigid” the un-rigid lines and surfaces he loses sight of what he is after. The models show flowing transitions through spaces, with internal stairs, interiority and exteriority, and continuous surfaces. (ArchDaily) … Bathing pools would replace conventional bath tubs and would be found scattered throughout the house.”

So removed was this house from the reality of my family’s house that, apart from the plumbing, at the time I didn’t fully consider the implications of the scattered bathing pools. Perhaps Kiesler’s somewhat “European” attitudes towards family nakedness, did nothing to improve public reaction to his design, in much the same way as people disapproved of The McNulty House circa the same time and place.

“nice to see some dimension lines!! heights?? where is the section???”

LESSON #2: KEEP IT REAL!  

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It’s always about the curves but no-one, least of all Keisler himself, has had much to say about why it needs to be supported on columns. I suspect he was just trying to show how modern he was back then in the only way they knew how. What really worried me even then was how pseudo-classic the columns were. I imagine he was just trying to make us think it was sculpture – which shows how sweet simple the world once was. A decade later, we’d praise him for being Post Modern and four decades later damn him for it!

LESSON #3: DON’T MESS WITH HISTORY
– IT WILL COME BACK TO BITE YOU.  

* * *

The ideas contained in the Endless House are said to have had their first expression in the Space House for a store window display for the Modernage Furniture Company in New York in 1933. The Endless House appeared in 1959.

LESSON #4: DON’T TAKE TOO LONG TO BE AHEAD OF YOUR TIME!

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This next point is not entirely unrelated to the last one.

During the period of 1937 to 1943, Kiesler was a member of the faculty in the Department of Architecture at Columbia University, where the program was geared towards teaching more pragmatic and commercially oriented architecture. This was very different from the areas of design he grounded his ideas in; theoretical concepts and ideas concerning the relationship among space, people, objects and concepts, known as “correalism” or “continuity.”

(Ouch!)

LESSON #5: HAVE ALTERNATE MEANS OF SUPPORT!

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The ArchDaily link has some good information but some of it only leads to more questions.

An exhibit on the “Endless House” was featured at The Museum of Modern Art from 1958-1959. This featured models and photographs of the modeling process, as well as the unorthodox architectural drawings that he called “polydimensional,” often compared to Surrealist atomatic drawings. The MOMA commissioned Kiesler to create a full scale prototype of his Endless House for the museum garden, where it would stay for two years. Unfortunately this was never completed, so the study models, drawings and photographs were the only items presented.

The MOMA garden in 1949 with a house where Kiesler’s Endless House was to not have been in 1960.

Normally, architects are keen to sell out as soon as possible but nobody can accuse Kiesler of this since the process of designing the Endless House was … err, rather lengthy. Kiesler died in 1965 so, unless it turns out he was really sick or something …

LESSON #6: IF MOMA OFFERS YOU EXHIBITION SPACE
FOR TWO YEARS, JUST DELIVER THE WORK, OK?   

* * *

LESSON #7: DON’T TRY TOO HARD TO BE A MISFIT.

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FURTHER READING 1: Here’s a taster of a fun article for Friday afternoon.

“What are you my colleague architects and engineers doing? How do you use your super power given to you by the universe? Why do you remain routine draftsmen, cocktail sippers, coffee gulpers and making routine love? Wake up, there’s a new world to be created within our world.”

FURTHER READING 2: A fellow blogger, blogging about the Endless House.  This bit caught my eye.

There are many contemporary architects like Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos from UNStudioAsymptote, researcher and writer Dieter Bogner and engineers like Cecil Balmond that have studied Kiesler’s work and especially the Endless House as an example to change the face of architecture.

I don’t doubt that these people have mentioned Kiesler’s name. It’s just that Kiesler is a prime candidate for use and abuse as a theoretical or inspirational namecheck in someone else’s promotional material. He may or may not have been misguided, but he never associated himself with other people’s work in order to justify his own and I respect him for that.