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Books

Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston
Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley
The Monacelli Press, 2015
Reviewed by Victoria Solan

Ever since Howard Roark picked up a pencil, heroism has had a troubled relationship with Modern architecture. It’s not at all clear whether “heroic” is the right adjective for the women and men whose impact on the built environment is necessarily collaborative and often anonymous. But “interesting,” “creative,” even “sculptural” don’t leap off the page of a Kickstarter campaign, so heroic is what we’ll settle for at the moment.

Leveraging funding from crowd-sourced pledges, as well as grants from the Graham Foundation and private underwriters, Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley have done a splendid job of drawing together photographs, drawings, and analysis of Boston designers’ experiments in concrete expression. Heroic, which began as a 2009 exhibition at pinkcomma gallery (located within the trio’s over,under studio), is now a comprehensive survey of some of the most important yet still not widely appreciated regional building projects of the 1960s and ’ 70s. The book is a model for anyone interested in studying how international trends in architecture become intertwined with the local events and politics of a particular region.

Pasnik, Kubo, and Grimley are right to focus on the narrow period when excitement about the formal and sculptural potential of a single building material — in this case, concrete — became so identified with nearly utopian visions about the power of government. Insightful essays by Lizabeth Cohen, Joan Ockman, Keith Morgan, and Douglass Shand-Tucci contextualize the places from which the architecture formerly known as Brutalism or Neo-Brutalism emerged.

Cohen’s contribution, “Building Government Center,” provides excellent insight into the role of politicians in shaping the physical environment of downtown Boston. Ockman nimbly demonstrates how theatrical experiments such as Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center (1962–71) could seem like an exciting release from the “exhaustion” of the International Style. The late 1960s was a period when it seemed possible that a building like Madison Park High School (Marcel Breuer & Associates, 1967–77) might serve as the stage for a renewed, integrated, and international city.

That the integrated city never came to pass does not mean its monuments should be ignored, argue the authors. Indeed, the frequently maligned structures of the period offer an important, if incomplete, lesson in how we categorize architectural achievements. Are these buildings valuable for their formal qualities and material experimentation, or do they still stand as a usable model for civic life? Pasnik, Kubo, and Grimley provide ample visual and written evidence for readers to make their own decisions.

Gorgeous reprints of photographs by Pasnik, Ezra Stoller, and others provide the strongest argument for reconsidering the architectural achievements of the period. True to the tradition of Modernist architectural photography, the book’s many images are almost all taken in bright sunlight and then printed in high-contrast reproduction. With such artful lighting and cropping, even the façade of Kallman and McKinnell’s Government Center Garage (1962–71) seems playful. The New England Aquarium (Cambridge Seven Associates, 1962–69) also benefits from flattering portraits, which show off the joyous forms of the building in bright color. None of the buildings is shown in the rain, and one has to look hard to find snow at the edges of a few photographs.

As the authors of Heroic point out, the architecture of this period was a product of optimism about both the local climate and the price of energy. It would be rising energy prices and poor maintenance, as much as dissatisfaction with the scale and material of the heroic era, that would spell the downfall for concrete construction in much of the Boston area. Heroic is a terrific anthology of a vital moment in the history of architecture.

Victoria Solan, an architectural historian, writer, and editor, is researching a book on 20th-century design and holds a PhD from Yale University.

What Is Landscape?
John R. Stilgoe
MIT Press, 2016
Reviewed by Susannah C. Drake AIA FASLA

As I ride the train from Boston to New York City on a beautiful early spring weekend, it’s easy to recognize the wisdom of John R. Stilgoe’s book. First, the New England coastal wetlands through which I am traveling are similar to the author’s cover photograph, which he describes in a frontispiece as a “traditional if now bewildered landscape,” but also because the author, an eminent landscape historian and photographer, bids us leave our electronic world behind and truly experience the natural terrain. An alchemist of words and images, Stilgoe takes us through a series of themes that explain society’s conception of landscape. Terms such as making, constructs, echoes, home, farm, ways, and field (which also serve as chapter titles) frame a stance on landscape — with etymological dissections, literary reference, and historic events documented to enhance his arguments.

In the chapter titled “Making,” Stilgoe describes turn-of-the-century aerial photographs created by amateurs with Eastman Kodak Company box cameras that were attached to balloons and floated hundreds of feet in the air to capture new perspectives on the landscape. While enabling a different level of understanding, this new technology also facilitated disconnection. Stilgoe builds on this idea with a reference to aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s North to the Orient, in which she suggests that rather than provide a greater understanding of the land below, she felt (as Stilgoe describes it) “that her body speeded along ahead of her mind, in a lack of synchronization robbing her ‘of the realization of life and therefore much of its joy’.” Excerpts of writings by Lindbergh, Edward Abbey, and others illuminate Stilgoe’s stance on wilderness, perception, cities, planning, and modernity in clever ways that in a less skilled writer could be perceived as snarky.

With dusk settling over the Northeast Corridor, I am reminded of Stilgoe’s comments on infrastructure, urbanity, and development. In a prescient passage, he describes pervasive use of outdoor lighting in cities and the false sense of security it offers to urbanites. He notes how the vast network of train lines that traverses the country is not lit, while our national highway system is fully illuminated. He describes President Eisenhower’s National Highway Defense Fund as a development scheme, suggesting that the 16,000 cloverleaf off-ramps created 64,000 new places for commerce. Eisenhower made people feel “safe” by bringing light to national infrastructure, enabling urbanites’ move to the hinterlands. But the perception of safety is subjective, with rural dwellers experiencing a very different and nonthreatening perception of darkness.

It would be too simple to cast Stilgoe as taking a particular stance on settlement patterns or the way societies cluster, shaping and defiling the landscape. What he does is reveal how language evolved from Old Norse, Frisian, Dutch, German, French, and American contexts in relation to forces in nature. Stilgoe shines in his descriptions of the origins and iconography of “Home” and “Farm” in Britain and America: “Houses prove critical in any understanding of liberty and freedom in British legal thinking,” he writes. “Legally, culturally, and emotionally, ‘House’ connotes far more than a shelter from bad weather or cold.” In Britain, the terms firm and farm are synonymous, Stilgoe notes, perhaps referencing the Charter of the Forest that posited acceptable extraction of resources from the landscape as long as it didn’t adversely affect one’s neighbor. Unfortunately, large-scale farming in the United States today doesn’t follow the 1217 model.

Beyond an etymological thesaurus, What Is Landscape? draws the reader into Stilgoe’s wide-ranging, fertile mind. Part poet, part narrator, he uses his encyclopedic knowledge to create a book that is a valuable resource for landscape architects, planners, land managers, ecologists, and anyone interested in the natural world in which we live.

Susannah C. Drake AIA FASLA, founding principal of DLANDstudio, is an internationally recognized urban designer and graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Dartmouth College.

Where Are the Women Architects?
Despina Stratigakos
Princeton University Press, 2016
Reviewed by Caroline James Assoc. AIA

An important contribution to the discussion of gender and equity in architecture, Where Are the Women Architects? advances a deeper agenda: to document the swell of grassroots and institutional efforts to promote women in architecture and to mobilize new initiatives. The book showcases a bitter reality of underrepresentation of women in architecture. Nearly 50 percent of architecture students are women, yet Stratigakos doesn’t see the progress today that we should hope for: Only 17 percent of licensed architects in the United States are women, with low pay, stalled careers, routine sexism, and low job satisfaction still the norm.

Stratigakos emphasizes breaking the silence and moving toward direct action: “I also see it as a clarion call. For those of you, like me, who care about architecture and want to see it a truly inclusive profession, I ask that you be vocal and make trouble.”

Take her intriguing chapter on Architect Barbie, which she created with her University of Buffalo colleague Kelly Hayes McAlonie: “As a feminist scholar,” she writes, “I am interested in analyzing the ideological fences that architecture has built around the profession — the barriers that determine the insiders and outsiders.” The pair took a stand by developing quite a different image of the architect. While the stereotypical architect is a sleep-deprived male wearing black, Architect Barbie, with her bright patterned dress and black ankle boots, unleashed discussions about how architects should look and act. Referred to as a lightning rod for long-standing tensions about gender, the doll launched with a symposium that ultimately led to the founding of the Missing 32% Project, a precursor to Equity by Design. This institution is leading a nationwide effort toward equity in the profession.

While students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Arielle Assouline- Lichten and I instigated a petition online to recognize Denise Scott Brown for her work; our aim was to correct the unjust oversight of an equal partner, one who deserved to share the 1991 Pritzker Prize awarded to her partner and husband, Robert Venturi. We reached out to colleagues, professors, and leaders in the profession for support and didn’t second-guess ourselves, wonder how the petition would be regarded, or worry who would disapprove. We were impatient to see proper recognition.

Through the thousands of people who signed, we became aware that the slight of Scott Brown resonated with many as an emblem of greater injustices in the system. My generation wishes for an architecture profession that welcomes diverse viewpoints and values.

Similar initiatives are sprouting in architecture schools. Women in Design at the GSD is spurring dialogues around equity and inclusion. On International Women’s Day, students invited practitioners to share their thoughts about the state of women in design; the group then polled the GSD community to define what feminism, radical practice, equity, and “self-care” mean to them. These topics would have been taboo five years ago.

Stratigakos identifies a gap in public consciousness: the need for more public lectures about the status of women. However, rather than simply describing the current status, these discussions should focus on women who have successfully challenged the status quo and identify the vehicles that could lead to action. This will shift attention away from “Where are the women architects?” to “There are the women architects!”

This book deftly records the groundswell of activism in architecture in print form, which helps to legitimize a movement. What if it became required reading for introductory survey courses on architectural history and theory? Her call to action — that equity is everyone’s issue — is urgent, and it is up to all of us to pick up the charge.

Caroline James Assoc. AIA received her Master in Architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is working toward architectural licensure at Maryann Thompson Architects in Watertown, Massachusetts.