BetteBack June 15, 1995: How Architects Have Changed the World; Browsing Through the Works of the 20th-Century Masters

The Washington Post
June 15, 1995 | Nancy L. Ross


Modern House” By John Welsh (Phaidon/Chronicle Books, 240 pp., $70)

This valuable anthology of 29 contemporary residences in 11 countries created in the past decade by internationally known architects ranges from the serene, concrete cube style of Tadao Ando in Tokyo to the wild, wavy lines of polychrome wooden pods in Bart Prince’s house in Corona del Mar, Calif. Frank Gehry is represented by his box-like guest house in Minnesota, while Swiss architect Mario Botta’s round brick Casa Bianda resembles, in the author’s words, “a cake with a few slices cut out.”

Author John Welsh rejects the popular categorization of 20th- century contemporary architecture by its successive incarnations — modern, post-modern, decon-structive, et cetera — and instead stresses its continuity. All the present-day country villas pictured are linked to the old masters such as Le Corbusier, Luis Barragan, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. However, Welsh says the genealogy of urban residences — affected by zoning, neighbors and set streets — is “so confused as to be almost impossible to define.”

Nevertheless, he identifies contemporary architects who revert to Le Corbusier’s Paris dwellings and Pierre Chareau’s Glass House to create privacy, light and views in town. Each project rates several pages with floor plans, interior and exterior images. “Renzo Piano Building Workshop” By Peter Buchanan (Phaidon/Chronicle, 240 pp., $75)

Renzo Piano, a 58-year-old Genoan architect, is widely known for his first big project, the 1973 high-tech Pompidou Centre in Paris that he and his partner Richard Rogers designed. Having since rejected high-tech for “natural” architecture, Piano has expanded his sites from Berlin to Houston, from Japan to New Caledonia.

In the second of a series devoted to Piano’s work, British critic Peter Buchanan covers Piano’s 1987-1990 commissions, including the $12.4 billion Kansai International Airport on an artificial island off Osaka, the yet-to-come Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and the Tjibaou Cultural Center on the Pacific island of New Caledonia. Each project is copiously documented and illustrated.

While noting that Piano has no particular style, Buchanan summarizes current themes in his works: a reliance on organic dimensions, local traditions and materials such as wood and stone; an affinity for sea sites and exhibit spaces in commercial buildings; and an increasing use of structural shells with complex curves, formed by sophisti- cated computer graphics, to emulate nature. “The Los Angeles House: Decoration and Design in America’s 20th- Century City” By Tim Street-Porter (Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 252 pp., $60)

This is a nostalgic retrospective about “the quintessential 20th- century city,” in the words of author Tim Street-Porter. Ostensibly a history of residential design from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, this book might have been titled “Movieland Mansions.” The British- born photographer and writer acknowledges that the “kaleidoscopic succession of vistas, vegetation and houses . . . {and} bewildering range of styles and fantasies, pretensions and idealistic visions” he presents have been inspired by the movies. The author owns the Villa Vallombrosa, built in 1929 in a section of Los Angeles that was once home to Valentino and Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and Maurice Chevalier. Greta Garbo dined in the courtyard.

Sometimes, in the examples he has chosen it’s impossible to tell where the movie set leaves off and private life picks up, as in the {since destroyed} Sortilegium, a kind of 1950s Angkor Wat in Malibu featuring trellises from “Kismet” or the interior of Dolores Del Rio’s house, which looks like a backdrop for dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Today’s stars live more casually, as illustrated by Bette Midler’s 1920s Mediterranean villa boldly painted in Swedish stencils and folk art. Madonna’s Castillo del Lago was given rich antique furnishings by her brother, decorator Christopher Ciccone.

Also shown are the houses of actress Diane Keaton (1926 exterior by Wright; contemporary interior), actor Dennis Hopper (studio with much glass), conductor Zubin Mehta (Provencal style) and rock guitarist/composer Andy Summers, formerly of “The Police” (polychrome Moroccan modern).

As for the multitude of museum-size mansions built for latter-day Hollywood moguls, the author says they are “invariably overscale, badly detailed and poorly proportioned. They have proliferated like a disease . . . .” “Interior Design” By John F. Pile (Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 584 pp. $60)

In the second edition of his encyclopedic tome for beginning professional and amateur designers, the author discusses trends, including the possibility of virtual reality in buildings. “Costly and elaborate suites of offices . . . . could become no more than an empty loft space furnished with simulator units, each able to provide the illusion of a designed environment of whatever aesthetic qualities are desired.”

Far-fetched? John Pile, a professor of design at Pratt Institute and a practicing interior designer, notes how CD-ROMs can be superior to live performances.

“Is it necessary to build, furnish, equip, light, heat, air condition, clean, service and maintain a building if the same experiences it generates can be created synthetically?” He suggests this will soon concern designers.

For now, his exhaustive textbook on history, aesthetics, materials, legal and technical subjects can still be of use. It includes 129 well-known designers, though few of the 748 illustrations are in color.

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