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Apparitions: Architecture That Has Disappeared From Our Cities
T. John Hughes Images Publishing Group, 2015
Reviewed by Peter Vanderwarker

In a remarkable photomontage, a ghostly pyramid from Memphis, Egypt’s capital during the Old Kingdom, sits next to the Parthenon. The location of these unlikely neighbors is even more strange: The short text identifies the site as Nashville, Tennessee. The Parthenon is a replica that exists today, and the pyramid was built next to it for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

Apparitions is a photography book about buildings, like the pyramid, that have disappeared from American cities. It documents examples from more than 60 cities, using semitransparent black-and-white images of lost structures that hover over color images of the same site today — the specter of the past hovering over present-day America.

In another hilarious image, a hotel tower that looks like an alien spaceship from a 1950s sci-fi movie hovers over a present-day bus stop in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center, as if it is sucking up Sin City. The tower is the ghost of the Landmark Hotel, which opened in 1969 and was once owned by Howard Hughes. (On November 7, 1995, the Landmark was demolished for construction of the new convention center. The implosion was filmed and used in Mars Attacks!, the 1996 sci-fi spoof film by Tim Burton. Sadly, this footnote was not included in the book.)

Some of the photomontages do justice to the idea that our past always haunts us, with the best ones reminding the viewer of pentimento — that wonderful layering that happens when an artist paints over an old canvas with new paint. But the book suffers from technical (and conceptual) issues that make it frustrating for the reader.

“Then and now” images play upon our gauzy notions of a romantic past. The city of the past never looked as good as it did in the old print: It was probably done by a photographer who was interested in taking a “beautiful” image. Conversely, the new view often looks quite random: The photographer could make no aesthetic choices about how to frame his subject, and most often the new city appears far worse than it is.

Not surprisingly, the best of these “then and now” pairs happens when a staunch old building survives from the old image to the new one. This is when you want to stand up and applaud the preservation movement.

Apparitions suffers when old views are rendered as semitransparent Photoshop layers, presumably registered over the new views. So much rich detail is obscured by fresh ink. Scale is also an issue: Old cities were much smaller and more finely grained than new cities, and Apparitions fails to communicate this. Some of the old views are heavily pixelated, a look that happens when a small image is enlarged to fit a much larger canvas. Since the author covered dozens of cities for this book, no single, powerful story or lesson emerges.

Our cities change quickly, and our attitudes toward architecture change, too. When it was first proposed, Harry Cobb’s design for the Hancock tower in Boston was the target of scathing criticism by the Boston Society of Architects. Recently, the tower was given the Twenty-five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects, one of its highest honors. To quote Heraclitus: “No man steps in the same river twice.” The city isn’t the same, nor is the observer.

Peter Vanderwarker is a photographer with an interest in urban history whose prints are in major museum collections. He is the author of four books on Boston architecture and has won Institute Honors from the American Institute of Architects.

Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life
Paul E. Fallon University of Missouri, 2014
Reviewed by Gerard Georges Assoc. AIA

After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Paul E. Fallon resolved to help rebuild the island he had visited the year before. Over the course of 17 trips that spanned three years, he channeled his efforts toward constructing an orphanage in Grand Goâve and, in the process, absorbed lessons about perseverance that he chronicles in this absorbing book.

With a writing style that is captivating and colorful, the Cambridge, Massachusetts– based architect evokes an environment that immediately draws readers in and piques their curiosity to learn more. His story — the quest to design, plan, and build an orphanage with the Gengel family, in honor of their daughter who died in the 2010 earthquake — unfolds panoramically, like a well-directed movie, and is infused with socioeconomic analysis as well as heartfelt moments and humor.

Chapter titles are cleverly reminiscent of a construction schedule (from Chapter one, “Demolition: January 2010” to “Paint: November–December 2012”) and mirror a process familiar to building industry professionals; they also create a logical framework for the detailed saga of reconstruction in a chaotic, unpredictable environment.

Fallon draws parallels that infuse the book with a reflective soul. He describes feeling transfixed as he observes Haitian women sweeping dirt in a “quiet, futile dance” and likens their quest for order with his graduate school all-nighters, building models and debating architecture’s truths with other students. “Because architecture is an art burdened by pesky realities of construction and function, not every endeavor will succeed.” This, in turn, effectively describes the collision of the American “can do” work ethic — creative, organized, formulaic — with the potentially chaotic yet resourceful Haitian’s mantra — “Do what I can with what I can get.”

As the book draws to a close, yet another wonderful passage describes how many of the characters, with their varying perspectives and personalities, can band together for a common purpose and achieve something special. Fallon has asked to address local congregants during a prayer service: “Every person in this church is a person with strong beliefs. We hold many beliefs in common. We believe in man’s ability to improve his lot here on earth. We believe that when we work together we can create something greater than when we labor alone. We believe in constructing our buildings strong.”

This memoir, itself solidly crafted, deftly captures the many facets of working in a resource-limited setting, which can provide an intimate understanding of the relationship between design and construction. Fallon successfully weaves together the flavors, attitudes, and cultural nuances of living in and working in Haiti.

Although it’s framed primarily around architecture and construction, Architecture by Moonlight is about so much more: examining the motivations behind engaging in humanitarian endeavors, dispelling preconceptions, and discovering richness in the human spirit.

Gerard Georges Assoc. AIA, who was born in Haiti, is a project manager at Shepley Bulfinch in Boston. He is currently working on several rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

Breaking Ground: Henry B. Hoover, New England Modern Architect
Lucretia Hoover Giese and Henry B. Hoover, Jr. Friends of Modern Architecture/Lincoln in association with University Press of New England, 2015
Reviewed by Lucy M. Maulsby

The recent focus on midcentury Modernism in New England, evident in the publication of recent books and exhibitions, has brought critical attention and new points of view to the ways in which architectural Modernism and the personalities associated with its dissemination shaped the region, a landscape that continues to be most often associated in the American imagination with an idealized colonial past.

Breaking Ground offers a significant contribution to this body of work through an analysis of the Lincoln, Massachusetts–based architect Henry B. Hoover, who received his master’s degree from Harvard University in 1926 and explored his own brand of Modernism in the postwar period. The monograph, written by Hoover’s children, traces his professional life from his student years at the University of Washington to the establishment of a vibrant practice through examples of his work, the majority of which are single-family homes in towns west of Boston.

The authors are concerned with the ways Hoover used modern forms, materials, and building technologies to create structures carefully attuned to the environment and their sites. The resulting narrative gives only passing attention to the activities of figures associated with the interwar European avantgarde (especially Walter Gropius, who moved to Lincoln and built his own house there in 1938) that have dominated much of the literature. Breaking Ground thus argues for a re-evaluation of the Modernist tradition in New England, one that considers the ways in which local practitioners, shaped by very different cultural, political, and economic forces, helped define a modern residential architecture in the region.

One of the strengths of the book is the authors’ attention to the ways in which larger shifts within the region spurred Hoover’s practice, which was expanded to create a partnership with Walter Lee Hill in 1955. Among these was the substantial federal and state investment in highway infrastructure around Boston (including Route 2 in 1955 and Route 128 in 1959). These changes, alongside the rapid expansion of the economy in the postwar years, encouraged substantial residential development. Professionals, businessmen, and academics with connections to mit and Harvard were drawn to Hoover’s comfortable light-filled homes placed within rustic settings in towns, especially Weston, Lexington, and Lincoln, that were now easily reached by high-speed roads.

Like many other architects working in a Modern idiom in this period, Hoover made vernacular themes a focus of his architectural practice. His approach was undoubtedly informed by his experiences in the office of landscape architect Fletcher Steele but was also a consequence of the still-rural character of the properties in the communities where he was most active. In Hoover’s early prewar buildings, low, often single-story, flat-roofed houses take advantage of the contours of the land and exploit significant views. These themes persist throughout his long career but are enriched by more complex geometries, solutions devised to meet the needs of a variety of different sites (including those with- out dramatic topographical features), and the incorporation of a diverse range of local materials.

The publication of this volume represents an opportunity to begin to clarify the many approaches to Modern design found in New England in the postwar period as well as a means to consider Hoover’s particular contribution to the reshaping of that landscape.

Lucy M. Maulsby is an associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture.