Forget Woody Allen (if you haven’t already), illustrator Christoph Niemann is here to represent the urban neurotic creative. With pictures! Niemann is one of eight subjects of the new Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, which premieres February 10.
Niemann’s episode gives him the screen as his sketchbook to talk about his process, to play with Legos, to explain the very concept of abstraction via an animated “Abstract-O-Meter.” He feels less like a documentary subject than director Morgan Neville’s collaborator (or maybe hijacker), willing himself into and out of situations as a grown-up Harold with a purple crayon.
Abstract brings newfangled technology to the age-old task of explaining what designers do. It’s delightful to see so much money thrown at people who, almost unanimously, think best with a pen and a pad of paper.
On January 18, 1963, architect Minoru Yamasaki appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, his disembodied head floating amidst the neo-Gothic tracery, delicate tenting, and flower-shaped fountains of his own design. The occasion was Yamasaki’s commission to plan the then-$270-million World Trade Center. The commission was made controversial, in the words of the TIME feature, by the contrast between the “dreadful flaws” critics found in the work of the “wiry, 132-lb. Nisei,” and the pleasure his work gave to the public with its “declaration of independence from the machine-made monotony of so much modern architecture.” Yamasaki’s aim was to please the eye, avoiding both the ubiquitous glass box and the Corbusian concrete tower, TIME said, while assuring its readers that the “humble,” “courteous” architect had a core that was “all steel.”
The roots of Yamasaki’s toughness lay both in his stylistic battle for pleasure and delight—traced through details of his trips to India’s Taj Mahal, Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, and Kyoto’s Katsura Palace—and in a lifetime of discrimination. Yamasaki grew up in a wooden tenement less than two miles from the Century 21 Exposition grounds in Seattle; moved to New York after receiving his architecture degree, having seen top Japanese-American graduates passed over for jobs; and sent for his parents after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor to save them from being interned. Yamasaki, his new wife Teruko, his brother, and his parents all shared a three-room apartment in Yorkville for the duration of World War II.
Back in Seattle, Yamasaki’s father had been fired from his 30-year job at a shoe store after the bombing. The architect’s New York employer, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building, took the opposite tack. TIME presents this as a bootstrap narrative for Yamasaki: “You are one of our best men,” the magazine quotes Richmond Shreve, “and I’m going to back you all the way.”
And why you should care.
If non-architects know the Citicorp Center—New York’s youngest landmark when designated at 38—they know it for its flaw. Shortly after its completion in 1978, a student called the office of its engineer, William J. LeMessurier, and asked about the four 24-foot-square, 100-foot-tall “super” columns, unusually positioned at the center of each of the skyscraper’s facades, that help to hold the building up.
In designing the building’s innovative structural system, LeMessurier had correctly calculated the strength of the wind hitting each face of the building straight on, but had failed to reckon with the extra strain of the “quartering” winds which hit the building’s cantilevered corners. In responding to the student’s questions, he realized he had made a mistake—one compounded by the substitution of bolted structural joints for welded ones, which are much stronger. By his calculations, a storm strong enough to topple the building hits the city every 55 years.
A waterfall flows in downtown Portland, Ore., ribbons and rivulets of water cascading over slabs of rough, reddish concrete into pools filled with wading children in the summer. Down a tree-lined path, great planted hills pop from the sidewalk. A stepped basin opens up between buildings, looking like a natural spring bursting through the pavement.
These bold environments, strung across an eight-block section in the city center, were designed by the modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his firm between 1965 and 1970, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. They are celebrated, along with more than two dozen other parks, pools and gardens, in “The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin,” an exhibition in Washington commemorating Mr. Halprin’s centennial that runs through April 16.
For the seventh consecutive year, Curbed’s own Alexandra Lange and the critic Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News cover the ups and downs, triumphs, and tragedies of the year in design.
The Jackie Treehorn Connoisseurship Award: LACMA, for acquiring John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence. We raise a White Russian in salute.
Jacques Cousteau Award for Civic Design: Miami, soon to be America’s first casualty of sea-level rise.
Worst Use of $4 Billion in Public Money: Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus is a very pretty, very expensive shopping mall for well-heeled tourists.
Shut Our Mouths Award: Los Angeles, for opening the Expo line and voting in a tax increase toward further transit expansion. We’ll never make traffic jokes again.
The bus stops in a parking lot next to a trailer, in an industrial area north of Sapporo, one of the snowiest metropolises in the world, capital of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Everyone gets off, including the bus driver. Standing on the asphalt outside the door he looks at me and says, “35.” That’s what he had said to me at the bus station when I queried him with the one word, “Moerenuma?”
Moerenuma Koen is Isamu Noguchi’s last work, a 400-acre public park, completed in 2005, that includes mountains, rivers, beaches, and forests of play equipment. It combines Noguchi’s greatest ambition, in terms of scale, with his smallest, in terms of audience. In any chapter on the artist and designer’s desire to shape space, Moerenuma is the endpoint. And yet, even among modernist friends and Noguchi fans, I couldn’t find anyone I knew who had been there.
Travel stories about the Hokkaido region focus on skiing and real mountains, not tetrahedrons. Design-inclined tourists head south to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, in Takamatsu, which looks lovely and rural. I, however, was looking for the ultimate Noguchi experience.