Ephemera: reviews of lectures, exhibitions, and events of note

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


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A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—July 15–October 18, 2009

The American Arts and Crafts movement, once scorned as a nostalgic stepchild of European Romanticism, is now firmly enshrined in the architectural pantheon. Back in the 1960s, a friend rescued a signed Gustav Stickley table from a trash pile on a New York City street. That oak table would be a perfect companion piece to the furniture of California architects Greene & Greene recently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene designed 180 houses in the early 20th century, primarily in Pasadena. Their houses were gesamtkunstwerks in the manner of William Morris, H.H. Richardson, and Frank Lloyd Wright: the architects designed everything — the house, the landscape, all the furnishings, and anything else that complemented the cozy wood-joinery aesthetic.

Their masterpiece was the 1908 Gamble house (contemporary with Wright’s famed Robie house in Chicago), and lamps, chairs, and stained glass from this and several other key Greene & Greene works were handsomely displayed at the MFA. It may be impossible to extrapolate architectural space into a museum setting, but the exhibition included instructive sketches, drawings, and floor plans that offered insight into the Greenes’ design process. Unique to the show’s Boston stopover were some of the same influential Japanese ceramics that the Greenes, as MIT architecture students, saw at the old MFA.

The most curious artifact is the citation from the American Institute of Architects, from which the show’s New and Native title is taken. In 1952, decades after their pioneering work, the AIA patronizingly honored the Greenes for “emerging values in modern living in the western states,” noting that they had made “the name of California synonymous with simpler, freer, and more abundant living.” Some legacies are more enduring than others.

View online:

Ada Louise Huxtable, Robert Campbell FAIA BSA

Conversations on Architecture, Boston Public Library—July 2, 2009


Ada Louise Huxtable by Bruce W. Stark; Robert Campbell FAIA by Peter Vanderwarker.

They just don’t make bully pulpits like they used to. The explosion of digital media has meant more choices and more voices — perhaps too many pulpits and certainly too many bullies — and a corresponding loss of authority. What a pleasure, then, to listen to Ada Louise Huxtable, who took advantage of a singular moment in media history to create the profession of architectural criticism from one of the nation’s bulliest of pulpits, The New York Times. As her interlocutor, Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell FAIA, noted in this special BSA “Conversations” event, Huxtable started at the Times in 1963 — when the books Silent Spring, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Feminine Mystique were launching their own revolutions. Her achievement was marked by a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 — the first awarded for criticism of any kind.

Today she is the architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of a new anthology of essays, On Architecture. Her international authority remains unparalleled but was well matched in this lively discussion between two old friends, which left only one question: Will the blogosphere produce a new Huxtable?

Cities for Families: Designing Boston for Every Generation

Common Boston Weekend Forum—June 18, 2009

Eighteen extra hours with your children each week: that’s what Boston offers urban families. Paired with the highest cultural-asset-to-child ratio of any city worldwide, it’s a pretty persuasive argument for raising a family here.

These estimates, provided by Susan Silberberg-Smith of MIT and Lou Casagrande, past president of the Boston Children’s Museum, could seed some great marketing and promote the concept of livable cities for families, the focus of Common Boston’s 2009 forum.

Still, families choose to leave.

Living blissfully free of car and home maintenance with access to everything from museums to neighborhood babysitting swaps only works if you can easily reach them. Forum moderator Tom Keane, a Boston resident and the new executive director of the Boston Society of Architects, reported an hour-long morning ritual of driving his child to school.

Casagrande described Boston’s cultural assets as an “archipelago”: relatively isolated, connected only by congested and not particularly cyclist- or pedestrian-friendly streets, they don’t quite live up to their potential.

Landscape architects brought a different sensibility to the discussion. Shauna Gillies-Smith of Ground sees the spaces between buildings as opportunities for the exchange of ideas — places that could be designed to foster the safety that comes with what Jane Jacobs famously called “eyes on the street.” Jill Desimini of StoSS sees potential for grassroots planning, citing the bottom-up development of Amsterdam’s playgrounds.

Madeleine Steczynski, executive director of the East Boston after-school music program Zumix, highlighted ways that cities present a diversity of role models for children to emulate, unlike her own suburban upbringing. Zumix is one example, introducing young people to the music industry with everything from a recording studio to a radio station.

Suburban aspirations have deep roots in American history and culture. But there’s no doubt that a century of marketing acre-lot living has also shaped contemporary preferences, as demonstrated by often-amusing historical advertisements that Silberberg-Smith presented. If marketing has so influenced our current situation, perhaps it can help build a better future. We have a tradition of healthy urbanism to draw on as well.

Part of Common Boston’s annual neighborhood festival, the forum encourages dialogue between Boston’s neighborhoods and those who design for them. Tours, presentations, a design-build challenge, a neighborhood photography project, and Pecha Kucha rounded out the weekend. For more information, visit

Caption: Top, The Gamble House, Pasadena, California, by Greene & Greene. Photo © Alexander Vertikoff. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Printed with permission of The Gamble House.

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