Wordless Wednesday: Unfinished (California City)

An unfinished apartment building in California City.

Wordless Wednesday: Hillside (Rosamond, California)

Wordless Wednesday: Searles Valley

Mineral-processing plant along Searles Lake (dry) in Searles Valley, California, just south of the town of Trona and southwest of Death Valley.

Wordless Wednesday: California City

The modernist pavilion at the center of California City’s central park. California City was one of the strangest towns I have visited.

I.M. Pei in Suzhou and Beyond

The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.

Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.

The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.

The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.

I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle. Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.

Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.

Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]

Jim.henderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.

The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.

The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby.[93] Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”[94]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC

Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.

Wordless Wednesday: Circle and Lines

A particularly beautiful detail in one of the nearby apartment complexes in Mission Bay, San Francisco. I photographed it before (a couple of years ago), but from a different angle and lighting.

Wordless Wednesday: Tappan Zee Transition

Tappan Zee Bridge (new and old)

The new Tappan Zee Bridge in front the remaining sections of the old bridge, partially demolished, in late November, 2018.

Wordless Wednesday: Bronx Portal

A stylized brick entryway, now sealed and fronting a space between two buildings on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

This is an example of a Thomasson.

Wordless Wednesday: Bronx Twins

“Twin” apartment buildings in the Bronx, east of the Grand Concourse, as seen from the terrace of the Bronx Museum of Art.

Toward a Concrete Utopia: Yugoslavian Brutalism at MoMA

We at CatSynth are admirers of brutalism, as anyone who follows us on Twitter can attest.  We love the geometric forms, how it screams “modern”, and how it makes such an intense break with tradition.  And I will admit, I also have a little fun using it to poke fun at the architectural conservatism prevalent in places like San Francisco.  But above all, it provides a singular beauty to built spaces.

Brutalism perhaps reached its zenith in the former Yugoslavia during the period between the end of World War II and 1980, a period that is highlighted in a current exhibition at the MoMA, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980.  It highlights the work of several Yugoslavian architects in the period and pieces ranging from prosaic apartments to public arenas to monuments.  The buildings themselves are, of course, not on display in the museum, but their stories are told through models, photographs, and examples of interior objects.


Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

A convergence of factors came together which allowed these modernist experiments to flourish.  Yugoslavia broke away from the Soviet bloc in 1948 and began to forge its own socialist path and identity.  It constituted itself as six republics in a federation in which traditional regional identities were subordinate to a new and modern whole.  At the same time, the country was devastated by World War II and needed massive rebuilding.  Finally, new ideas in architecture were emerging along with new materials, notably advances in concrete, steel, and glass allowed a new built environment to take shape.

The simple forms and surfaces were used for everyday buildings, such as apartment complexes, schools, and medical facilities.  But rather than just one-offs, they become part of a unified cityscape, a grand plan.  This was perhaps no more so than in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which was devasted by an earthquake in 1963 and largely rebuild using modernist design and principals.

Janko Konstantinov. Telecommunications Center. 1968–81. Skopje, Macedonia. View of the Southwestern Block façade. Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016
MARKO MUŠIČ.  Photograph by VALENTIN JECK
Ss. Cyril and Methodius University Campus, Skopje, Macedonia 1967–1974.  (Gotta love an architect named “Music”)

There are, of course, numerous rectilinear designs, sometimes in steel and glass, and sometimes dominated by concrete.  But concrete also allowed for the exploration of curved structures and organic shapes.  We see this in many of the large civic arenas, but also in the brutalist monuments built in the post-war period.  This “cell-like” structure in Macedonia takes it to the extreme, looking at once like an organic organism and a spaceship.

Wandering through the exhibition, one cannot help but imagine being the real spaces.  For me, the modernist, severe style brings a sense of calm and welcome that more traditional styles don’t always provide.  Ornament can be beautiful, but it is rarely ever calming in the way that simple texture and geometry is.  The calming nature of simple forms can extend to the interior spaces as well as the exterior, and the exhibition includes examples of everyday objects and furnishings.

Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Sadly, the Yugoslavian experiment ultimately failed, with country breaking apart and the entire region plunging into extreme nationalism and devastating wars in the 1990s.  This is a cautionary tale as we watch the plague of nationalism rising around the world, including in the United States.  Many of the architectural works in this exhibition did survive the wars.  But they do face continued challenges to their survival, including maintenance and a push to return to more “traditional” forms.  The “Skopje 2014” initiative, for example, is both farcical and tragic.  Despite these challenges, I hope the countries of the region will recognize and preserve the legacy of their modernist period for years to come.

This article only scratches the rough, hardened surface of the wealth in this exhibition.  It was truly a wonderful experience, even if so much was in my imagination through the artifacts.  Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 13, 2019.