PRINT December 2002

Philip Nobel


1 Sam Mockbee Let us now praise famous men. It can be hard for an architect to do something high-minded—build for the rural poor, say—and not come off as a missionary or a Birkenstock kook. Sam Mockbee was neither. He didn’t play the game of shock (you know who you are), but neither did he condescend with the traditional forms it is always said “people” crave. Still, his low- or no-cost buildings in Hale County, Alabama, could rival any avant production (and didn’t look out of place at this year’s Whitney Biennial). One, a community center for Mason’s Bend, has a fish-scale wall of overlapping Chevy Caprice windshields; it cost less to build than ten square feet of SoHo Prada. Mockbee died on December 30, 2001. He was fifty-seven.

2 Jared Della Valle and Andy Bernheimer If measured by opening night crowds and cameras, “A New World Trade Center” at the Max Protetch gallery in Chelsea was easily the biggest event of the New York architectural year. But if ranked by density of ideas, it was among the most slight. Protetch’s all-media blitz could not hide the fact that there was next to nothing of interest in the show, only predictable, occasionally callous toss-offs. One exception was the study submitted by Della Valle and Bernheimer. This young team compiled a list of eighty Ground Zero power brokers, made eighty plastic blocks variously sized to reflect that power, and presented the set in an open case, ready for purposeful play. Hope for thought in a graveyard of form.

3 MVRDV, Thonik Studio The little building that MVRDV completed this year for the graphic design firm Thonik is a triumph of Dutch thrift. Faced with no budget and a drab Amsterdam courtyard, they made a dumb box: four sides, a flat roof, windows punched through concrete walls. Then they painted it orange. Bright orange. All of it. So smart.

4 John Johansen, Nanoarchitecture: A New Species of Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002) After studying with Walter Gropius at Harvard (and marrying his daughter), John Johansen went on to design slick houses, some university brutalism, and a fragmented, before-its-time theater in Oklahoma City. Now, at age eighty-six, the architect has published the musings of his dotage: a collection of disarming, unpretentious projects—Froth of Bubbles, Air Quilt, etc.—that are shaped as much by the plastic jugs and other refuse he’s used to model them as they are by his enthusiasm for science.

5 William Massie (P.S. 1’s “Warm Up” series) For years now the taste for blobs, driven by the possibilities and prejudices of new software, has outstripped the enduring facts of building. So plans that appear all droopy in the magazines often get cleaned up at the site. With his environment for the annual summer performance series at P.S. 1—long screens of white PVC pipe on steel brackets and low foam pools finished with truck-bed sealant in garish colors—Massie put on a clinic in the effective application of doable construction to fashionable form. To make it work, a pipe was bent and its curve sampled to train a modeling program; the erratic frame was laid out and laser cut into thousands of interlocking one-off elements; the pools hid within them secret raster topographies, computer sketched and robot milled. Geekery notwithstanding, people still got naked at the parties.

6 Kool Museums? When a group of journalists visited Rem Koolhaas’s Rotterdam office last June, he covered the presentation models of his Whitney Museum expansion with black trash bags. But he forgot about the sketch models on the floor. The new wing is a menacing concrete cobra that spirals up to overhang the old Breuer building. Poor Marcel. Meanwhile, Rem was more than happy to reveal a sophomoric conceit he’s developing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: The collection would be displayed in stacked shipping containers. Forklifts would fetch the art. Bag, please.

7 Rector Street Bridge This pedestrian crossing by New York’s SHOP Architects reconnects Battery Park City to the rest of the world. It is everything one could hope for in quickie construction near Ground Zero: modest, inspiring, respectful, and frankly ephemeral.

8 Brent C. Brolin, The Designer’s Eye (Norton, 2002) This is not a pretty book. But it bravely tries to catalogue those little things that can make a building great (or not). Brent C. Brolin has compiled black-and-white thumbnail views of architectural details and then subjected each to a simple retouching. How would the Pompidou look without its cross bracing? Or the Chrysler Building without its spire? The before-and-after pairs argue convincingly that there is a fixed logic to the perceived effects of form. It’s not all relative.

9 Minority Report Forget for a moment the mommy issues that are such an insipid feature of Spielberg’s films. Forget the Hollywood ending. Forget, too, the errant Indiana Jones jokiness that found its way into this otherwise dark work of near-futurism. These weaknesses could not destroy what was conjured by the art direction, which gave us flying cars and merry-go-rounds, tomorrow’s megastructures and yesterday’s townhouses. Not since Blade Runner has there been a future with such a believable residue of the past.

10 Outsider Architects A new species of designer has joined the toilers, stars, artisans, old pros, and dilettantes who make up the menagerie of American architecture. Who were those brazen thousands who emerged this year to throw their hats and napkin sketches into the big ring at Ground Zero? To a one their proposals were preposterous—but no more so than the designs we’ve seen to date from pedigreed firms, corporate and cutting edge. Taken together, the countless resuscitated Twins, memorial redwoods, and world’s tallest ziggurats carted out by our new folk architects will be a useful control as this grand experiment in public creativity proceeds. Thank you, amateurs. And welcome.

Brooklyn-based architecture and design critic Philip Nobel is a contributing editor of Metropolis magazine and has written for the New York Times, The Nation, and Architectural Digest.