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Book Review: Talkin' 'Bout (Not) My Generation: Uplifting Gen X Architects Showcase Pragmatic Optimism
In "New York Dozen: Gen X Architects" by architect Michael J. Crosbie, the framing of each architectural firm is extraordinary.
By Norman Weinstein
July 29, 2011
One of the most questionable ways, to me, of offering a swatch of lively architects in print is to group them by age. As expected in our youth-oriented marketplace, this orientation spawns books with titles like 40 Under 40: Young Architects for the New Millennium and websites and magazines filled with photo portraits of fresh-faced newcomers. Blame my venerable age on this complaint, but shouldn’t architectural surveys proliferate in the age range from 70 on?
Now that this blast of old-fogeyism is through, I can sing some praises for a very useful new book, New York Dozen: Gen X Architects (Images Publishing Group), by architect Michael J. Crosbie. Once you get past the Gen X limitation, and Crosbie’s equally questionable framing of this text as a supposed “answer” to the controversial “New York Five “ (Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, and Charles Gwathmey), there are fine descriptions of exciting projects. These young architects don’t erase or build upon the 1960s-70s designs of the New York Five as much as bypass the heavily theoretical foundations of that older generation in favor of what editor Kristen Richards lucidly pinpoints in her enthusiastic introduction as creative designs emanating “pragmatic optimism.”
This book’s framing of each architectural firm is extraordinary. Each firm gives their architectural values in a dozen words, their architectural philosophy in three-dozen words, the rationale for why they practice in two-dozen words, and an overview of their practice in twenty-dozen words. A better preface for examining their plans and photographs of completed projects couldn’t be imaged. Another strong plus is the inclusion of the designers beyond the Dozen’s own offices who are frequent collaborators – an ideal counterpoint to the typical glossy architectural magazine hosanna for a starchitect working in lofty isolation.
Although these dozen practices are clearly nested in New York and do the majority of their work in its boroughs, two extraordinary masterpieces are situated worlds away from the Big Apple. A spectacular pavilion for the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, designed by Della Valle Bernheimer, daringly uses abstract butterfly patterns cut into steel plates to create an architecture reflecting a butterfly’s metamorphosis. [Editor’s note: partners Andrew Bernheimer and Jared Della Valle now practice separately – but collaboratively – as Bernheimer Architecture headed by Bernheimer, and Alloy LLC, a real estate development and consulting firm headed by Della Valle.] And Dune Terrence, a combination temporary gallery, convention center, and sculpture garden designed by nARCHITECTS, reveals an uncanny ability to plan for a site a stone’s throw away from the great pyramids in Giza, Egypt. It’s refreshing to see U.S. architects of any age possess the sophisticated vision to create a design for the Middle East showing extreme geo-cultural sensitivity, an awareness of Arab vernacular architecture, and the neglected Islamic Modernism of Hassan Fathy.
Every project is infused with sustainable awareness, simply another 21st-century way to express pragmatism. No project looks like it was designed to prove a profound Post-modern theory or to project a blimp-sized ego upon the earth. Even better, these young architects possess a graceful sense of modest scale, a fetchingly colorful and sensual humanism that can be interpreted as the essence of an optimistic architect’s spirit.
Who knows what will become of them? Some of their naiveté about the business side of architecture will surely dissipate. Taryn Christoff and Martin Finio of Christoff:Finio Architecture may rue the day that they wrote “Architecture is less a product than a process,” not because it isn’t true, but because it doesn’t attract clients who struggle to pay only for architectural products. But in a down market, enough good things can’t be said about young architects embodying pragmatic optimism. In fact, that holds for any economic climate. When isn’t architecture the practice of practically designing hope?
The New York Dozen: Arts Corporation; Architecture in Formation; Andre Kikoski Architect; Christoff:Finio Architecture; Della Valle Bernheimer; Leven Betts; Leroy Street Studio; MOS; nARCHITECTS studio; SUMO; WORK Architecture Company (WORKac); WXY Architecture
Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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