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Rediscovering Peter Blake

May 26, 2015


…and the story behind Venturi’s famous duck 

Maybe I should have titled this post “Discovering Peter Blake” instead, because although I’d heard the name, I didn’t know much about the man until recently. Over the years I’d come across scattered references to God’s Own Junkyard, Blake’s 1964 jeremiad against “the flood of ugliness engulfing America”—the tide of billboards and neon and tract houses unleashed during the postwar building boom. Robert Venturi invoked God’s Own in his classic Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which appeared two years later, and which I re-read a few weeks ago.

This time, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy of Blake’s book online, along with No Place Like Utopia, his architectural memoir, if that’s the best way to describe it.

Who was Peter Blake? First off, he is not the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. This Peter Blake was born Peter Blach in Germany in 1920. His father was the head of a public utility company, and he grew up wealthy in Berlin, with an English governess and chauffeur. That changed abruptly in 1933. The Nazis removed his father—who was Jewish—from his job, confiscated all his property, and expelled the family from the country. It was very fortunate, in retrospect.

The story of Blake’s early years, at least as it is told in No Place Like Utopia, is that of an almost preternaturally lucky young man. Blake wants to become an architect: good thing his father happens to know Walter Gropius, who secures him an internship with Serge Chermayeff in London. Later, while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Blake is hired by a still-obscure local architect, a “sweet, romantic, hopelessly impractical, and slightly incomprehensible dreamer” named Louis Kahn.

At a party one night, Blake meets a girl; she is working for an English family that lives nearby, and lo and behold, the family is that of the great philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

All of this would start to grate if Blake wasn’t so charming and didn’t have such juicy anecdotes about the luminaries he keeps bumping into. As a very junior writer at Architectural Forum magazine, Blake decides to write an honest review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly published autobiography, which he finds pompous and turgid. He leaves the draft on his editor’s desk and goes to lunch. In the meantime, the Great Man himself—routinely fawned over by the magazine’s senior editors—sweeps into the magazine’s offices and finds it.

When Blake returns, his colleagues look pale and the draft is still there. Scrawled across it in red crayon are the words, “George—I always thought you were a son of a bitch, but now I know! F. LL. W.” (The editors are able to talk Wright down, and Blake isn’t punished for his transgression, although the review is pulled and replaced with a positive one.)

After the war, in which Blake serves as a U.S. intelligence officer, he meets Philip Johnson at a cocktail party in the Hamptons. Weeks later he is speaking on a panel at MoMA at Johnson’s invitation. Afterwards, Johnson and MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr, take him out to lunch: Would he like to become the museum’s new architecture curator? Blake still doesn’t have a degree, and he’s not quite sure what a curator does. But he accepts.

Many of Blake’s best stories are about Johnson—who was arrogant and bitchy, he concedes, but also charming, brilliant, and capable of surprising generosity—as well as Mies, Kahn, “Lajko” Breuer, and his Architectural Forum colleagues (he returned to the magazine after a stint at MoMA), many of them European emigres like himself.

Blake’s critical judgments have aged well, too, for the most part. He saw that Wright was a genius as well as a megalomaniac. He recognized the brilliance of Paul Rudolph, and would no doubt be distraught to see many of Rudolph’s buildings threatened with demolition today. He admits that his first impression of Lewis Mumford was utterly wrong (he thought he was a fuddy-duddy) and that it took him a long time to grasp the importance of Jane Jacobs.

No Place Like Utopia captures the heady spirit of an era when progressive designers really thought they could change the world, but a few too many chapters begin with some sighing variation of, “Ah, those were great times to be alive!”

God’s Own Junkyard is an entirely different sort of book. In the foreword, Blake explains that it “was not written in anger. It was written in fury.” It is a blistering indictment of the uglification of America’s landscape in 150 pages, many of them given over to photographic evidence of the crass billboards and gimcrack architecture that Blake believed were ruining the country. There is a clear precedent in Ian Nairn’s “Outrage” issue of the Architectural Review, published in 1955, an indignant chronicle of the “subtopia” that was swallowing Britain, according to Nairn.

image1 copy

The funny thing about reading God’s Own now, though, is that many of the places in the photos look…not that bad? And even kind of good. Venturi himself points this out in Complexity and Contradiction. “The pictures in this book that are supposed to be bad are often good. The seemingly chaotic juxtapositions of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity…”.

One building in Blake’s rogues’ gallery stands out: It’s the Big Duck, the bird-shaped building built by a duck farmer on Long Island to sell, fittingly, ducks and duck eggs. Blake doesn’t comment on it, his preferred strategy being to let the photos speak for themselves. But the result of him including it was not what he anticipated. Even in Blake’s time, the duck was a beloved piece of Americana (it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and would have made most readers smile, not howl in outrage.


National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons


Sensing this, Venturi responded by appropriating the Big Duck as a Postmodern mascot—and an enduring architectural metaphor was born. The tug of war over the duck made Blake question his stance in God’s Own and, ultimately, back away from it (although, an earnest Modernist through and through, he never could come around to the archness of PoMo). The passage he devotes to the dispute in No Place Like Utopia is worth reading:

Venturi was clearly a serious and thoughtful critic of the Modern Movement. He was also a witty one: I had recently published a book entitled God’s Own Junkyard in which I attacked the sort of commercial vandalism that was destroying the American landscape and townscape. Most of the book consisted of photographs of what to me seemed exceptionally vulgar examples of this sort of vandalism—and these were contrasted with examples of natural and manmade environments that struck me as idyllic and increasingly threatened by vulgarians.

One of the “vulgar” examples I showed was the Big Duck near Riverhead in Eastern Long Island, an area which I had come to know very well and to cherish before it was yuppified by rich summer people; and the Big Duck was a store for the sale of dead ducks and their postmortem by-products.

Venturi argued that the Big Duck was a perfectly valid architectural statement…he further argued that every building that expressed its purpose with clarity and effective imagery was doing precisely what the Parthenon (for example) had done in its own time and place. “The Parthenon,” Venturi wrote, “is a Duck!” And this became one of the slogans of the Postmodern Movement…

I must confess that I laughed out loud the first time I read this definition of the Parthenon. Within a year or two of the appearance of God’s Own Junkyard (in 1963), to the applause of thousands of do-gooders, I had begun to realize that my view in writing the book had been more than a little narrow and obvious, and that I had shown almost no interest in popular imagery or, for that matter, in the increasingly visible images of Pop Art.

Venturi made off with the whole basket of duck eggs, in the end.

Blake died in 2006, at the age of 86. I’d like to read his articles in old issues of Forum as well as New York magazine, where he wrote an architecture column. He was the dean of the architecture school at Catholic University in later life, and complained that Washington was a cultural wasteland (it was the early ’80s, so he was probably right).

As a former architecture-magazine editor and a Washingtonian myself, I can’t help but feel a sense of kinship with Peter Blake, and wish he were better known.

RIP Michael Graves

March 12, 2015


Like so many people in the design community, I’m saddened by the death today of Michael Graves. His cheeky, sometimes cartoonish Postmodernism was not for everyone; it was usually (but not always) for me.

Clearly, though, Graves left Washington better than he found it. The courthouse annex he designed on Pennsylvania Avenue is wonderful, a light, graceful riff on ponderous federal classicism. And who can resist the St. Coletta charter school? It is a lovable building, and there aren’t too many buildings you can say that of these days.

There will be other, far more eloquent tributes to Graves, so suffice it to say that his late-life commitment to universal design principles, and to bringing good design to the masses, were inspiring. RIP.

Now, if only the National Park Service would re-erect Graves’ scaffolding on the Washington Monument. It never looked better. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr.)


Graves’ Washington-area projects (in no particular order):

Washington Monument Restoration

William Bryant Annex, U.S. Courthouse, Washington, D.C.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Transportation Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

International Finance Corporation Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Interior of Sigma Chi Townhouse, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Perseus Office, Washington, D.C.

Beatley Central Library, Alexandria, Va.

Wounded Warrior Home Project, Fort Belvoir, Va.

(updated 3/13)

Variations on Charles Goodman

September 14, 2014


photo-5Last week I decided to swing by Hammond Wood, the Silver Spring development of 58 mid-century modern houses designed by Charles Goodman and built from 1949 to 1951. I had driven through once before, but this time I parked and walked around most of the neighborhood.

It’s no Hollin Hills (Goodman’s masterpiece of a subdivision in northern Virginia), but Hammond Wood is still, its listing on the National Register of Historic Places says, “historically significant as an intact, architecturally cohesive example of Charles Goodman’s merchant builder subdivisions in Montgomery County.” The listing also notes that the houses “are largely intact and the Goodman ‘form’ can be clearly distinguished; alterations generally conform to Goodman’s Contemporary palette.”

That’s mostly true. I didn’t see anything spectacularly out of character, but Hammond Wood has only been on the Register since 2004, and Wheaton has never been a destination for the kind of people who rave about mid-century design. In other words, I get the feeling that ordinary middle- and working-class people still live in the neighborhood and have added their own touches to the houses, reflecting their varied tastes, over the years. I don’t love all the alterations, but paradoxically, I find this more heartening than if every house were to exhibit faultless, Dwell magazine-approved Good Taste. The homes really are as beloved and adaptable as Goodman hoped they would be.

Here are some of the Goodman variations I spotted on my short walking tour.

photo-1Stained glass. The architect tried to give the front glass wall of every house a southern exposure, to maximize daylight.

photoPergola. The house gains a semi-sheltered outdoor space, but loses some of the horizontality of Goodman’s original design.

photo-7Solar panels (plus satellite dish).

photo-2The electricity meters stuck onto the houses aren’t attractive. Training ivy to grow over it is one solution.

photo-8A sympathetic second-story addition.

photo-6Wait, what happened here? An architect who once worked in Goodman’s studio, Harold Esten, apparently had a Philip Johnson moment and extensively redesigned the house. It’s no longer seen as contributing to the historic Goodman district. But it does have its charms. 

photo-13I call this one the all-American. It has an expanded parking pad, an altered entrance with a Home Depot-issue front door, and of course, a flag.

photo-9Where the neighborhood ends: Goodman’s house inflects to the topography and landscape. Its neighbor, not so much.

Zaha Hadid is right to be angry

September 5, 2014



An article in the New York Review of Books called into question both her character and professional competence. Taking issue with that doesn’t make her a diva.

Was Zaha Hadid wise to file a lawsuit against the New York Review of Books and its critic Martin Filler? Probably not. Defamation suits, as I recently reported in Architect magazine, rarely make it to court, and when they do, the bad PR far eclipses the plaintiff’s odds of winning, which are slim. To prove defamation, a plaintiff has to show “actual malice” on the part of the defendant–that he or she knowingly made false statements or had a reckless disregard for the truth. It seems unlikely that Hadid could prove this of Filler and the NYRB (then again, I’m not a lawyer).

But is Hadid right to be angry? Absolutely. Filler (and by extension, his editors at the NYRB) made a grave error in how they characterized her comments on construction-worker deaths. To be clear: In February, Hadid made comments about the deaths of construction workers in Qatar, in response to a question from the media. What she said–blunt, though not quite as blunt when you read it all–was that she hoped the Qatari government would look into the issue, but it was outside her purview as an architect.

“I think that’s an issue the government–if there’s a problem–should pick up,” she said. “Hopefully, these things will be resolved.” In response to a further question about whether the deaths concerned her, she replied,

Yes, but I’m more concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I can make a statement, a personal statement, about the situation with the workers, but I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.

Now let’s compare that to how Filler characterized her comments in the NYRB (he has since retracted and apologized for the story). He refers to a New York Times op-ed by an advocate for fair labor practices in the Gulf states, mentions Hadid’s Al Wakrah stadium, then writes:

She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. ‘I have nothing to do with the workers,’ Hadid has claimed. ‘It is not my duty as an architect to look at it.’

As has now been widely reported, 1,000 workers didn’t die building Hadid’s stadium–not a single one did, because it hasn’t even broken ground yet. Filler made a mistake that I can sympathize with, as a journalist, taking the total number of worker deaths across Qatar that’s cited in the op-ed and transposing it (by accident, one assumes) to Hadid’s project in particular. But that is a big mistake. And it’s compounded by his selective quotation of her earlier comments, making it look as if she renounces any responsibility, even concern, for people who died building one of her designs.

You may find Hadid’s “not-my-problem” stance on human-rights abuses to be disappointing, or disingenuous. I certainly do. But she’s not angry because people disagree with her about that. As the lawsuit makes clear, what she objects to is the false assertion that 1,000 people died on her watch and she shrugged it off. Morally and professionally, there is an important distinction. Architects are supposed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants, which could reasonably be extended to the safety of the people who construct their buildings (in principle, if not by the letter of the law). Filler’s article impugned her as a person, and also as an architect.

In general, the media response to the case has downplayed Filler’s error and focused on what a misstep it was for Hadid to file suit. ArchDaily published “6 Reasons why Hadid Shouldn’t Have Sued the New York Review of Books.” In Metropolis magazine, Martin Pedersen wondered, “[W]ho the hell is giving Zaha Hadid career advice these days?”

I was troubled by a Vanity Fair piece by Paul Goldberger, a critic whose work I admire, taking Hadid to task for her “diva”-like behavior. “Zaha Hadid is Still Wrong About Construction Worker Conditions,” the headline reads–well, yes, that’s true, if a little beside the point when it comes to the lawsuit. Goldberger lets loose on the “imperious,” “spoiled,” and “self-absorbed” Hadid, warning that she may be remembered as “a cross between Maria Callas and Leona Helmsley,” and throwing in a Barbra Streisand comparison for good measure.

Thin-skinned architects are not hard to find. Goldberger could have mentioned how Le Corbusier once threatened to sue a writer for (accurately) describing him as Swiss–Corb was offended because he regarded the Swiss as a nation of innkeepers. The implication seems to be that as a woman, Hadid is a diva first, an architect second.

A few voices have come to Hadid’s defense, pointing out that many famous architects are willing to work for governments with dubious track records on human rights, but she gets more than her fair share of criticism for it. That’s true, and I think it must have something to do with gender–deep down, we expect women to be carers, incapable of saying “it’s not my duty” to prevent human suffering. I wonder if the same goes for PR–if there’s an unstated expectation that Hadid, a woman, should care more than a man what the public thinks of her. That she should have better “people skills.”

If a similar (false) statement were made about a male architect, and he shot back, would the response be the same? Somehow I doubt it. Diva is a feminine noun.

The Whole Foods that Frank built

August 22, 2014


Gehry WFFrank (Gehry) and pioneering developer Jim (Rouse), that is. In the early 1970s, Frank Gehry completed one of his first buildings, the headquarters of the Rouse Company (now the Howard Hughes Corporation) in Columbia, Md.

Original Gehry Rouse building

The original building, courtesy Howard Hughes Corporation

The building just underwent a renovation by Baltimore’s Cho Benn Holback + Associates, and reopened earlier this week–as a Whole Foods.

I drove to Columbia to check it out. 

Cho Benn removed the original third floor to make a double-height space for Whole Foods, but otherwise deferred to Gehry’s design; his white stucco and wood trellises are intact.

StuccoThe store had only been open two days when I visited, and the customers looked lost, but not disappointed. It’s a lovely, light-filled store, even on a rainy day.

WF interiorWF dining areaCho Benn lavished some extra care on the specialty food stations (like this vegetarian diner with a sculptural ceiling element).

WF vegetarian dinerI especially liked how the architects reinterpreted the small glass atria at the front. (Is that the right term for them? They’re such a hallmark of 1970s and 1980s corporate architecture, yet I’m not sure what they’re called.) 

WF front 2The Whole Foods overlooks a manmade lake with a promenade that Rouse envisioned as Columbia’s main civic space. There was hardly anyone around on a gray Friday morning. More on Columbia and its future in my next post.

WF lake