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Books

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on February 3, 2011

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Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes, by Jane Thompson and Alexandra Lange (Chronicle, 2010)

At first glance, Design Research seems intended to remind us of a time, not so long ago, when Modern design didn’t pervade the American retail landscape. When you needed a connection, a dealer of sorts, to hook you up with just that right fix of Scandinavia, inevitably you ended up at one or more of Ben Thompson’s doorsteps.

At second glance, it seems unjust that the Thompson contribution to domestic Modernism is not as recognized as that of the Eames legacy, though perhaps the more limited exposure led to a more interesting curation of types and objects, and Design Research (D/R) was ultimately an experiment in retailing. But D/R aficionados know the story well, the tale of Thompson’s search for appropriate home furnishings and accessories for the residential experiments that he and his partners at The Architects Collaborative were designing at Six Moon Hill and Five Fields.

With a third look, it becomes evident that Thompson was not simply a retailer or only an architect but also both a designer and a curator. His holistic approach to the medium of design broke apart the stagnant categories of material, business models, and merchandising, and defined the concept of a “design” store — Noguchi lamps, Mies tables, Fritz Hanzen chairs all shared equal billing with Maltese and Moroccan rugs and hand-painted horsemen, shattering any idea of designer as genius, while putting a sharp mark on the idea of retailer as tastemaker.

A fourth look indicates that this is not a simple story at all but a deeper tale that resonates through the many voices of the people who were part of the D/R experience. Their recollections — snapshots, remembrances, a collection of connections — are captured with the kinetic energy that pervaded it all. Nonetheless, the retelling is effortless, a giddy and guiltily pleasurable glimpse into another era.

A final look, this one through the striking reflections of the Brattle Street flagship — one of Boston’s most Heroic buildings, one that confidently merged the language of commercial Modernism with the desire for its more casual residential equivalent, retaining the merits of both. The structure of the building (and by extension D/R itself) is both event and stage, both background and star performer, its neon logo a deft marquee, glowing from an interior wall, the building’s only signage.

There is an air of nostalgia that pervades both the design of the book (ably put together by Michael Beirut at Pentagram) and the stories that are contained within it. But it is not the faux-stalgia that is increasingly becoming de rigueur in certain design circles, which yearns for a Modernism unhindered by mass production. D/R offered a vision of life lived to the maximum, where good design led, not to a plethora of mail-order catalogues, but to an anodyne for an increasingly complex world.

 

The Concise Townscape, by Gordon Cullen (Architectural Press (Elsevier), 1961) (most recent reprint, 2009)

Although his name is now rarely invoked, Gordon Cullen was one of the leading voices in the new field of urban design. Through the 1960s and ’70s, there could hardly have been an architect interested in the problems of the city who did not own a copy of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City and Gordon Cullen’s The Concise Townscape. Lynch was known in the design hotbed that was Harvard Square; he taught at MIT. But Cullen was the creature of one of the most influential publications of the era.

In the years following World War II, the newly elected Labour Party launched programs central to the rebuilding of British society. In a very literal sense, architects were in the vanguard of this national effort, and it was in the pages of The Architectural Review, where Cullen was an assistant editor, that new thinking in planning, design, and building for the new society were presented and discussed. AR took the position of synthesizing the cool, continental prescriptions of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and the home-grown progressive traditions of Raymond Unwin and Thomas Sharp, which were more consonant with the vernacular socialism of the Arts and Crafts movement of the previous century.

The Concise Townscape was first published in 1961, based on a series of drawings and articles Cullen had produced for AR. Having collaborated with Ian Nairn on Outrage and Counter Attack, two AR tracts published in the mid-’50s on the ravages of “subtopia” and the banality of modernity, Cullen in Townscape builds on the theme of restoring the principles of the picturesque, the creation of an urban “set” within which the drama of humanity can unfold. His seminal concept in this argument is his coining of the term “serial vision,” the revelation of urban space as experienced by a pedestrian in motion, represented in narrative storyboard.

Cullen’s drawings are exquisite, some tight and highly stylized, others much looser. As a design primer fortified by case studies from Cornish fishing villages and Italian set pieces, the text, drawings, and photographs serve to remind us of the basic elements of design vocabulary and syntax — wall, floor, closure, change of level — that in combination constitute a “townscape.” As an argument for humanistic urban design, however, the work is remarkably devoid of humans. Compared with Michael Sorkin’s 2009 Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a “serial vision” of the walk to work (without illustration), Cullen’s formulation as counterpoint to Modernism today seems limited and lifeless.

In this respect, Cullen’s philosophy reflects a too-common weakness in the profession that the intervening 50 years have been unable to correct: an esoteric introspection consumed with a fetishism of form that fails to address for whom, by whom, and for what buildings and towns are built in the first place.

 

Streets for People: A Primer for Americans, by Bernard Rudofsky (Doubleday, 1969; Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982)

Bernard Rudofsky’s 1969 Streets for People paints a bleak picture of American cities. In it, Rudofsky asserts that this is largely due to a strong anti-urbanist streak in American history and development. His forecast for American cities is grim: “There is no reason for thinking the next forty years will be different in spirit from the past forty years…”

What leaps out to the American urbanist of 2010 is how much has in fact changed in our attitudes toward cities in the last 40 years.

Rudofsky’s compendium of wonderful cityscapes is illustrated with terrific photos and compelling descriptions. His heartfelt respect for pedestrians and delight in great urban environments is inspiring. Many of the (mostly European) cities he loves and discusses had not yet been overrun by cars in the 1960s. (Many of them have since gone through periods of car culture.) However, Rudofsky’s utter disdain for American cities and culture is so pervasive that it is difficult to listen to the good advice he has to offer.

Reading Streets for People is like swallowing a pill for what turns out to be the wrong diagnosis. Rudofsky focuses on New York, the American city he most loves to hate, selecting evidence to support his premise that the city is headed for chaos. Rudofsky’s context was a time when New York’s crime rate was growing steadily (a trend that continued until the early 1990s). Today, we see a city where crime rates are lower than ever recorded, and we can view New York through the lens of almost 20 years of steady improvement in the quality of life. Indeed, New York has become a national model, actively and aggressively improving the pedestrian environment and reclaiming street space from cars and returning it to walkers and bicyclists.

Offputtingly, many of Rudofsky’s comments seem designed to make any city-loving reader immediately buy a ticket elsewhere: “Many Americans regard ugly cities as an asset”; “American city dwellers live by the law of the asphalt jungle”; “For Americans, the viewing of undisguised brutality fills the same need that Romans felt for watching gladiatorial combat. There is no danger that this source of emotional excitement will run dry; the crime rate is rising steadily.”

Rudofsky selectively documents American anti-urbanist sentiment and leaves little room for optimism. Happily, his prediction was wrong. The last 40 years have seen great changes in the way Americans think about, build, and live in cities. Although our cities have far to go to truly achieve “streets for people,” many American cities are now paying attention to pedestrians and striving for walkable neighborhoods.

Read Rudofsky to admire his wonderful photos and descriptions of atmospheric and charming urban environments, but take heart that his assessment of our inability to learn from the past and think beyond the automobile was overly glum.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alexandra Lange, Alexandra Lange. Alexandra Lange said: ArchitectureBoston: More thoughts on Ben (Thompson) by ou_grimley http://t.co/06oFRHE […]


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