Diane Keaton, Design Books, and Toy Blocks

Five New Architecture and Design Books for your Holiday List

‘Tis the season to give architecture — as literature, I mean. Here’s a quick roundup of titles to consider for the design buff on your list.

Actor’s Equity. Stimulating the architectural imagination through playing with basic forms — the toy block approach! –  is the theme of actress Diane Keaton’s

beautiful new book House (Rizzoli, 2012). It’s a lavish and mesmerizing photographic poem to iconic simplicity in home design, with compelling images of barn- and factory-inspired homes. The underlying theme is that simplicity isn’t simple, but metaphoric and resonant, deriving from a finely tuned sense of play. She writes that the architects and designers of the work she shows “implement an idea that I like to call Make Work Play. Inspired by the function of Farms and Factories, they’ve enhanced the power of simplicity while playing in the lively expanse between intention and outcome.”  Among the compelling images are several of her own most recent remodel in Beverly Hills (she has done several). There is her kitchen — boldly belted and hatted in a palette of dark oak and bright Carrara marble — and her dramatic library-foyer with “The Mind Knows What The Eye Sees” in monumental lettering above the bookcases. Also included are barn restorations by Backen Gillam Kroeger Architects and designer Erin Martin, and new houses by such regionally inspired modernists as Rick Joy and Lake/Flato. An essay by cultural writer D. J. Waldie explains how play is a form of improvisation, which can turn the ordinary into architecture.

Esther McCoy. One of the great American architectural writers, Esther McCoy began her career in California in the 1940s as an engineering draftsman at Douglas Aircraft and an architectural draftsman for Rudolph Schindler, then wrote important volumes about modern architecture in California. She was a friend and mentor to a great many (including yours truly) and had a gift for acute observation, captured quickly, as here: “Wright has a growing taste for the full orchestra. Schindler composes for the single voice.” Now she is being rediscovered thanks to two excellent new books. Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader (East of Borneo Books, 2012, edited by Susan Morgan) offers a full range of her

writing, from memoirs of working with Schindler to a moving remembrance of her friend Ray Eames.  Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design (by Kimberli Meyer & Susan Morgan, MAK Center, 2012 ) is the scrapbook/catalog

that accompanied an exhibition of the same title this year at the MAK Center in Los Angeles. Photographs of some of the landmarks she wrote about like the Bradbury Building of 1893 in LA (above) along with images of many mid-century modern houses, a letter about her from FBI files(!), and an interview with her late in her life are some of the gems to be found here.

Art Deco Architect. Ralph Walker was the most visible partner in the fabled New York architecture firm of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century (by Kathryn Holliday, Rizzoli, 2012)  brings back to life an important

though irascible figure, whom Frank Lloyd Wright called “the only other honest architect in America.” Walker gave Manhattan two of its most famous Art Deco skyscrapers but later disagreed vehemently with the modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and the concept of the single slab-in-a-plaza. His Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building of 1926 (shown on the book’s cover) used organic ornament and a stair-step silhouette to give energy and style to an urban monolith. This building was badly damaged in the fall of the World Trade Center and has been lovingly restored. Walker’s Irving Trust skyscraper at 1 Wall Street, of 1931, expressed the idea of the curtain wall in a rippling facade of “ingeniously

devised patterns of brick to suggest fluting and folding.” The book fills a void in our architectural history. This image courtesy The Skyscraper Museum, which has a wealth of information about New York’s high rise history.

Design Dialog. For a fun read pick up Talking Architecture: Interviews With Architects, by Hanno Rauterberg (Prestel paperback edition, 2012).

Rauterberg is an architecture critic in Hamburg, Germany. It’s an unusual list of modern design stars, many from Europe and some, like Philip Johnson have long since died. Two interviews stood out for me: Gunter Behnisch, architect of the Olympic Stadium in Munich and the Assembly Hall in Bonn. Asked about control he says: “I don’t think you can or should control everything. Otherwise in the end, what you get is a kind of usher’s architecture, where everything is predetermined.” The phrase “usher’s architecture” is apt, memorable, and thought provoking. And Baghdad-born Zaha Hadid, known for a dramatic digital-age sculptural approach, is asked if her architecture lives from history. She replies: “Do you mean the calligraphy of the Arabs, which flows freely like my buildings?” And then explains her inspiration in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century: “What I want is to update notions they had then…Do we have to follow the tyranny of right angles, or can we tap into the other 359 degrees?” This is marvelous and brings us quickly into the mind and personality of the architect. I love the idea of all those other angles just waiting to be used!

Building As Play

My elder daughter, knowing my weakness for architectural toys, recently gave me a set of colorful curving blocks, called Elements, from Grimm. They’re way

cool — solid alder wood in “elemental” shapes derived from fire, rock, water, and air (rainbow) as shown in the image of the four sets together, here — and made me look for more types of blocks (see how an obsession takes over!). How about blocks that can work as paving stones — you know, for the plazas and squares

that every good toy city has. I found some in these Versi blocks by Naef — their black and white patterning is perfect, and provides a wide range of possible designs! And they are a nice contrast to Twig blocks from Kidding Around

Toys, which make the most of colorful rectilinear forms — I’d use the cubes with square and round cut-outs for condominium units in the denser neighborhoods of my toy-topia. As Diane Keaton might observe, blocks are just the beginning…

 

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