Wright On!


How can one render in such a small space all of the insight and erudition — the sheer brilliance — that fills the sizable pages of Neil Levine's Modern Architecture: Representation & Reality, recently released by Yale University Press? This work has the shape and texture of a traditional coffee-table book, but moves well beyond that confining categorization. There is far more text than is customary in such volumes, although there are the commensurate number of excellent illustrations, all beautifully rendered by the craftspeople at Yale.

If one considers the text alone, it resembles something that might be headed for use in a classroom, but rarely are undergraduates treated to such riches, such mastery and pedagogical — in the best sense of the word — ease. This is a book that satisfies almost all of the senses, but it's the mind that benefits most.

Those who take a quick perusal of the book, though, may come away a bit confused by the title. The words "modern architecture" summon up the great names of recent history — Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Frank Gehry. They are here, of course, along with other luminaries, but they don't begin arriving until 150 pages or so into this 300-plus page book.

That's because Levine is interested in precedents, and interested as well in confining his discussion. He begins in the 18th century with an analysis of the English landscape garden as one of the first embodiments of ideas that we think of as modern and ends with a wide-ranging discussion of Louis Kahn's career, in which we see "the aesthetic of the unfinished," as the author characterizes it.

In his introduction, Levine — the Emmet Blakeney Gleason Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, as well as the author of numerous other works — states that most chronicles of modern architecture appear to see the history of this period as a rather rough ride, with the modern element asserting itself in the 18th century fairly clearly, but with the 19th century generally seeming to have an unhealthy schizophrenic nature when it comes to architectural progression.

He characterizes this crucial period as a "no-man's land of historical revivalism and eclecticism, where engineering appears temporarily to supersede architecture as the place for experimentation and invention in building. This book proposes a new way to think about modern architecture as a continuous historical development."

Levine makes clear in the early pages that his emphasis in this volume will not be on style, which, he argues, "has usually served only to isolate one century from another," but rather on representation. And, as might be ascertained from the way the author's mind works, his conception of representation goes against the grain as well.

His argument here is fairly complex and cannot be summarized briefly. Which means that Modern Architecture is not the book someone unversed in the subject should turn to as an introductory text. A fairly sophisticated knowledge of modern critical terminology as utilized in the plastic arts is also something of a necessity to make one's way through this challenging work.

Even some of the knowledgeable may have some trouble navigating through the first 150 pages (only because they may not be as familiar with the 18th- and 19th-century terrain Levine has chosen to traverse), but once names like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn appear, the struggle is rewarded and the benefits become immediately apparent.

The discussion of Wright's Fallingwater alone is worth any strife — and makes the price of this singular volume seem minimal.


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