“I try only to write about places that I’ve actually experienced … thinking about my own body moving through it as a small and vulnerable person in the city. How it feels, how it works for the regular person, what kind of barriers there are, and just being hyper aware of how design is shaping the experience at a lot of different scales. That’s another kind of training – you train your eye in school, and then your body living in the city and experiencing a lot of different places.”
Read my whole interview with Julia Gamolina for Madame Architect here.
Is it perfect timing or merely perverse to release a documentary promoting the design philosophy “Less, but better” during the holiday season? The opening moments of Gary Hustwit’s “Rams,” about Dieter Rams, is more likely to have you revising your gift list than tossing it out. As the camera pauses on the details of the eighty-six-year-old design legend’s single-story home, built in 1971 in Kronberg, Germany, you may find yourself wondering if you, too, need to buy a wall-mounted stereo (the Audio 2/3, designed by Rams for Braun, in 1962-1963) or a boxy leather swivel chair (the 620 armchair, designed by Rams for Vitsoe, in 1962), or to take up the art of bonsai, which Rams practices in his compact, Japanese-inspired garden.
After this montage, the sound of birds chirping is replaced by the sound of typing, and we see Rams seated in front of the rare object in his home that’s not of his own design: the red Valentine typewriter, designed by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King for Olivetti, in 1968. (Rams doesn’t own a computer.) If you listen to Rams—speaking his native German, with subtitles—rather than just look at the elements of his edited world, you will appreciate how his aesthetic and his ethic align. “Less, but better,” the title of his 1995 book, is, Rams says, “not a constraint, it is an advantage which allows us more space for our real life.”
In 1945, the year of his first collection for Herman Miller, George Nelson and Henry Wright published the seminal book Tomorrow’s House. “As soon as wartime restrictions end, the demand for housing will burst into a great building boom,” wrote the editors of LIFE, which printed a preview of the book. “This happened after the last war. But people did not know what they needed in a house. As a result they got homes which were outmoded before they were built.”
Nelson and Wright wrote with urgency: The window between the end of the war and the production of what would eventually balloon into 13 million new houses was short, and it was up to them to save America from its traditional self. Despite the title, their book was not a catalogue of technological advancement—when they write of climate control and solar heating, their suggestions include attic fans and concrete floors to store daytime warmth.
Tomorrow, to them, was social. Tomorrow, we would acknowledge that modern women work. Tomorrow, we would grant that kids need somewhere to play. Tomorrow, we would think about storage. Tomorrow, we would embrace how we use our homes today, rather than buying the ‘dream house’.
When the Ford Foundation’s 12 stories of mahogany-colored granite, Cor-Ten steel, and transparent glass opened on 42nd Street in 1967, urban observers saw it as a gift.
Designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates with Dan Kiley as landscape architect, the building—comprising offices for the foundation’s several hundred employees, all wrapping a vertical indoor botanical garden—could have been two and a half times larger as of right.
The Ford Foundation didn’t have to open its garden atrium to the public, either. What was considered so benevolent five decades ago, however, doesn’t seem like gift enough in 2018. Good design, quality materials. Public-facing design, quality materials: these remain elements that we praise but, as critics of the time noted, they should be the minimum. For a philanthropic organization like the Ford Foundation, the challenge was to apply those 21st-century values to a monument of the 20th century.
On July 30, 1942, then–New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was uptown in Harlem, playing with toys.
“Harlem Gets First Toyery,” announced a Paramount newsreel heralding the opening of the neighborhood’s first toy-lending library, a storefront on West 135th Street stocked with 1,000 playthings and sponsored by a branch of the Domestic Relations Court.
Ida Cash, a city probation officer, had conceived of the “toyery” in the late 1920s upon “contrasting the barren homes she found with the happy lot of her own children.” Philanthropic New York women decided to support the project, likewise concerned that children were being arrested for stealing toys.
By the 1930s, the Heckscher Foundation for Children ran two toyeries where children could play with toys, check them out, and make crafts. Others followed suit. A consensus had formed that, as with playgrounds and book libraries, funds should be set aside for playing with toys. Monkey bars worked their bodies, reading worked their minds, but there was something else, something both physical and mental, that happened when they worked their fingers. Imagination. Socialization. Freedom.
When Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection building opened in 1987 critics called it “just perfect.” Johnston Marklee’s Drawing Institute improves on perfection
Is it an insult to say my favorite part of the museum is the trees?
Not in the case of the Menil Collection campus in Houston. The opening of the institution’s latest building—the Menil Drawing Institute, on November 3—was also the occasion for replacing a diseased tree with a 25-year-old live oak, which arrived wrapped like a sculpture and necessitated closing a street.
This particular tree was on an open lawn opposite the Menil Collection building, the two-story Renzo Piano-designed pavilion that opened in 1987 and launched Piano’s career as architect of silvery rectangles with complicated roofs, as later seen in Basel and Chicago and Dallas and New York and Los Angeles. The first is the best—and was for many, including me, a revelation of how a museum could be.