Or, what I did on my summer vacation.
Ever since architect Christopher Bascom Rawlins finished Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction (Metropolis Books/Gordon de Vries Studio, 2013) he has been wondering what to do with the wealth of material he accumulated tracing the career of Gifford, the designer of more than 60 houses on Fire Island, as well as contemporaries like Harry Bates, Earl Combs, Arthur Erickson and Andrew Geller. He has channeled some of his energy into walking tours of the Pines, home of the greatest concentration of modern architecture on the island. I was lucky enough to attend one on Saturday, Instagramming along the way. Rawlins is using the tours to raise funds for Pines Modern, an under-construction website that will allow visitors to lead their own tours, calling up archival photographs and drawings at the touch of an app while standing on Ocean, Snapper, or Tarpon Walk. Rawlins hopes the site will raise awareness of the mid-century masterpieces among the neo-modern McMansions in the Pines, and make sure more Giffords aren’t resurfaced beyond recognition.
I don’t mean the Bilbao effect, where a single extraordinary building designed by an out-of-town architect suddenly makes a city present to the wider world. Imagine the opposite of that, where a city’s existing landmarks and infrastructure, built over preceding decades (sometimes by the Frank Gehrys of their day) are maintained, upgraded, restored, and repurposed for the 21st century. Where the grain elevators captured in their grace and precision by Charles Sheeler, once thought of locally as eyesores, become havens for extreme sports and small-batch beer. Where a psychiatric hospital, once an experiment in humane treatment, reopens as a hotel, a farm-to-table restaurant situated on the ruins of the hospital’s therapeutic conservatory. Where renewal can be visualized by asking What Would Olmsted Do? It’s too soon to declare the recovery complete, but all of these things are currently happening in Buffalo, New York.
Architecture serves as both a safety net and growth engine in Buffalo, which, thanks to a booming turn-of-the-last-century economy has one of the best collections of late-19th and 20th century architecture and urban fabric in the country. Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, H.H. Richardson, and the Saarinens (both father and son) all did superlative work here before the second World War, as did native son Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the midcentury. In the terrazzo hallways at Bunshaft’s wing of the Albright-Knox Museum, you can see paintings smaller than those seen at the new Whitney—a Kline, a Ruscha, a Rothko—though of equal quality. As the woman at the front desk tells visitors, museum benefactor Seymour Knox liked to buy work “while the paint was still wet.”
You know about Alexander Girard’s interiors for the Miller House, which I shared in this post. But did you also know he designed office interiors for two of J. Irwin Miller’s businesses, Irwin Management and Cummins Inc., as well as accessories for Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church? He did, fitting his flamboyant modernist decoration inside a pair of Victorian storefronts on Columbus, Indiana’s main street. In the essay on Girard I will be writing for the Vitra Design Museum I will analyze these projects in more depth, but in the meantime I wanted to share a few of the striking details of these projects that remain intact. The offices were designed and constructed between 1960 and 1972, so you have to imagine these discussed in the context of corporate modern interiors at the Seagram Building, CBS and the Ford Foundation. Those of you who know Girard’s textile designs will recognize the checkerboard floor as closely related to his Checker upholstery fabric, reissued by Maharam, and the striped rug as part of the family of his tonal Mexicottons.
My first sighting of a selfie stick in the wild was on the Brooklyn Bridge. Three European tourists gathered themselves together, with one tourist acting as a pivot point, angling the rod so that their three heads would be framed by one of the bridge’s distinctive pointed stone arches. In most ways, the Brooklyn Bridge is the best New York City icon on which to selfie with a stick. The Statue of Liberty is usually too far away; the spire of the Empire State Building, from the observation deck, too near. Central Park is very nice but, ultimately, grass is grass. The bridge has natural lighting, built-in framing, and instant recognition. Being yelled at by a biker as you infringe on her lane for a photo could be seen as a New York hazing ritual.
The Brooklyn Bridge belongs to all of us, as an icon, as infrastructure, as a backdrop for snapshots and proposals and commutes. Which is why it needs protection. Not from being torn down or allowed to rot, like less photogenic and accessible contemporaries, but protection from love—the obsessive kind of love that wants to glom on to its glamor and give little in return. Right now, a series of buildings and proposals are chipping away at the experience of the bridge, blocking sidelong glances down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and scrubbing from view the masts and cable stays that suggests an earlier New York. It’s time for the bridge to get a Special Scenic View district of its own, a two-way district that preserves sight lines both to and from its mighty span.
Let Thomas Heatherwick tell you a bedtime story. “Can a bus be better and use 40 percent less fuel?” “Can you make a park out of the desert?” “Can a building express on the outside what goes on inside?” If you are Heatherwick, the multi-disciplinary, 40-something, British designer who is co-creating Google’s new headquarters with that other multi-disciplinary 40-something, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, the answer to all of these questions is YES. And why not? When you are writing the questions and the answers, it’s easy to succeed every time.
In the exhibition Provocations – which just opened at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, after stops in Dallas and Los Angeles – and his revised and expanded monograph Making, Heatherwick posits the design process as a fairytale, in which no matter how many twists and turns the path takes (he would use the tech jargon “iterate”) you know it will come out happily ever after in the end.
For more information on this, one of the loveliest and most colorful modern American homes, I’m going to link to the Design Observer post I wrote on the occasion of the opening of the J. Irwin and Xenia Miller House to the public in 2011.
For many American architects, their first commission is a house. Even if they go on to fame and fortune and skyscrapers, what people think of first, when they hear the name, is that house. Eero Saarinen grew up in two houses designed by his father Eliel, first Hvittrask (1901-03) in Finland, then the Saarinen House (1928-30) at Cranbrook. The Saarinen House became, like the Cranbrook and Kingswood school buildings, a family project. Mother Loja Saarinen created fabrics and rugs and collaborated on the garden. Eero designed furniture for his parents’ bedroom. Sister Pipsan designed motifs for the family’s bedroom doors. Eero himself has never been identified with a house. But that might be about to change.
On May 10, the J. Irwin and Xenia Miller House in Columbus, IN opens to the public for the first time since it was completed in 1958 (Video here). Designed by Saarinen and Kevin Roche, with interiors by Alexander Girard and gardens by Daniel Urban Kiley, the Miller House has been largely out of sight to the design world since its single publication in House & Garden in 1959. Xenia Miller lived there until her death in 2008, so what will be on display is the house as lived in and impeccably maintained by the Millers and their caretakers, a father and his son. Curators at the Indianapolis Museum of Art have cleaned, repaired and replaced, but dedicated themselves to working with what the Millers had left there, rather than trying to return it to 1958. Adding the Miller House to the list of iconic American modern houses suggests some new ideas about Saarinen and his collaborators, but also about for whom modern houses are designed. That Saarinen’s first homes were family affairs turns out not to be just a footnote.