Monthly Archive for August, 2010

At Home with Bob & Denise

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Over the weekend I had the very good fortune to spend an afternoon with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at their home in suburban Philadelphia. I thought they might live in a house of their own design—and in a sense they do—but when I pulled up at the given address I found myself looking at something unusual and of an older vintage—almost Prairie School. It turned out to be an authentic Art Nouveau mansion, built in 1907, one of very few in the United States. They’ve called it home since the early 1970s; they found it driving through the area after visiting Bob’s mother at the famous house he designed for her, which is just a few minutes away.

A tour would come later, but for the moment we headed out to lunch, the three of us, to an unprepossessing nearby cafe, where student types were drinking their coffee and brunching. Bob and Denise, though a good four decades older than anyone else in the joint, were clearly regulars, and greeted as such by the staff. (Their order: a crepe with spinach and chevre.) We chatted a bit, and then walked back to the house, Denise providing a running commentary on their Mt. Airy neighborhood—I believe she called it a “dilapidated utopia”—its residents, and its architecture of handsome local schist. Bob ambled along a few steps behind in a seersucker blazer, armed against the light drizzle with a folding Princeton umbrella. We looked like a cartoon from 1953, or maybe characters from a Kingsley Amis novel.

Back to the house. The interior is a happy agglomeration of books and images and furniture, all stacked and piled according to a system knowable only to the proprietors. Denise likes to call herself architecture’s “Grandmother”—she looks the part, certainly—by which she means guardian of the field’s “institutional memory,” in particular the legacy of the work she and Bob have done together—together!—over the years. I think aunt and uncle might be a better analogy. They’ve always existed at something of a remove from architecture’s inner-family circle.

Period forms and vernacular images pushed up against each other and amplified in a humane, generous, and optimistic manner—that’s a rather simplified description of the Venturi & Scott Brown design philosophy. I’m not sure it always works in practice. But their own home is a wonderful representation of their ideas and aesthetic. I’m pretty sure there’s no better place to spend a few hours talking architecture on a rainy Sunday.

A few images follow, and apologies for their blurry quality.

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The salon, or living room.

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The walls, painted with a familiar floral pattern.

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Work, in miniature.

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Bob travelled Europe to find this vase.

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Inspirational figures circle the dining room.

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Happened in Vegas. Stays in Philly.

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American Gothic.

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Probably the only place in America where a McD’s sign can be used without causing immediate intellectual repulsion.

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Mother’s House, just a few minutes away. It was not originally green, but shortly after its completion Bob was told “You can’t paint a house green.” So guess what.

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Lou Kahn’s Esherick House is about 200 feet (and an architectural revolution) away.

PS: Bob has this image hanging above his desk at the office.

Eero Saarinen at 100

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Eero Saarinen, who died prematurely in 1961, would have been 100 years old today. (I hadn’t noticed; a friend pointed it out on Twitter.) So much ink has been spilled about Saarinen in recent years, including by me, and his best work seems so fresh, that it’s hard to believe he’s been gone for nearly half a century. The “Style for the Job” man, so often disparaged by critics in his own time, now has a comfortable place in the pantheon of American architects. I’m glad that the work we did at Princeton Architectural Press, publishing a book on the TWA Terminal and then a monograph on his work, helped to open the floodgates of a new era of Saarinen scholarship.

I have the privilege of spending a great deal of time at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony. In the late 1930s, the BSO wanted a concert hall for their new property in Lenox, Mass., and commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design it. But they didn’t have the budget, and he told them, eventually, that all they could afford was a shed. Eero worked on that design. It’s a utilitarian structure, a simple wedge open at the sides, not especially well detailed (not detailed at all). It is sited beautifully, however, and, like so much of Eero’s work, it gets the job done. There’s no better place to spend two hours. The orchestral accompaniment doesn’t hurt.

The End of the Worldport as We Know It

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A couple of weeks ago we learned that I.M. Pei’s JFK Terminal 6 was slated for replacement. Today comes news that the Delta (originally Pan Am) Worldport, aka Terminal 3, is to meet the wrecking ball. Insult to injury: it’s not even for a new building, but to make extra room on the tarmac for planes taxiing to and from an expanded neighbor. As an unrepentant nostalgist and bona fide historian of JFK architecture, I’m going to be sorry to see the old concrete frisbee go. I’ve always enjoyed the circuitous up, down, and around path you have to take when you drive up to it—this may not be ideal functionally (or what the original architects had in mind)—but it’s a nice metaphor for beginning a journey. As my lunchmate Alexandra Lange writes over on her own blog, the Port Authority needs to come up with a plan for its iconic buildings, especially TWA. There should be a way to balance the exigencies of contemporary business with some kind of rational preservation.

Philip Johnson’s “Lost” Archive

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Yes, there’s an archive of Johnson material for sale. Was it unknown? The Times seems to think so, but just about anyone who knows anything about Johnson was aware of it, and that it was in the possession of Raj Ahuja, a former partner who had won it in a judicial settlement with John Burgee, another partner. (This is a long story not to be recounted here, but suffice to say it made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, so was hardly a secret.) It should, in any event, prove enlightening on the years of Johnson’s association with Burgee, when his practice developed into a commercial juggernaut. Like Bob Stern, I hope it all stays together, and in a public collection.

For the record, the drawing above is an early version of the Boston Public Library addition. The project was in the office for nearly a decade. Here, the division of the facade into thirds has already been established. The massing, however, evolved from this fairly Miesian conception into the more monumental, Kahn-like structure we know today. It’s also a fair representation of Johnson’s typical drafting style.

Lou Kahn’s Trenton Bath Houses: The Best Buildings in New Jersey?

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A few days ago I took a trip out to Lou Kahn’s Bath Houses in Trenton, now under restoration. Like much of Kahn’s work, the bath houses have a monumentality to them, though they are small in scale, really just four rooms set around an open court, with pyramidal roofs floating above. You can get the measure of them in about fifteen minutes, if that long. Are these (let’s be honest) minor buildings the best works of architecture in all of New Jersey? Silly question, sure, but it’s the New Yorker’s birthright to treat Jersey with condescension, so I got to discussing this with a friend and we couldn’t come up with anything better. Yes, there’s some great vernacular stuff, lovely Victoriana, a couple of Wrights, various infrastructural, industrial, and religious works of splendor, not a few exemplars of collegiate gothic and corporate modernism, etcetera—but as for capital-a architecture? If you can think of something better, let me know.

A few more pictures of Trenton’s Taj Mahal of concrete block:

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