Martin Filler is the architecture critic for The New York Review of Books (NYRB) and the author of Makers of Modern Architecture (2007) and, most recently, Makers of Modern Architecture (Volume II). This new book is comprised of 19 essays that were originally published in the NYRB between 2008 and 2013. The volume is a lovely size, convenient to carry, elegantly typeset, and convivial to absorb. Each essay is a small jewel meticulously crafted and filled with a dense personality. The tone and physical attributes of the book illustrate an old-school reverence for and the craft of writing about architecture. This stance is the tome’s greatest asset and Filler is a fine architect of writing.At the 12.09.13 Oculus Book Talk at the Center for Architecture, Filler and Michael Wise discussed the author’s body of work and his intimate and frank relationship with the architectural world. Wise brought up Filler’s infamous “wicked wit” and asked if such candor produced regrets. Filler explained that he takes his job very seriously and candor is his means to effective criticism. As a reader, this wit sometimes produces an uncomfortable feeling: “is it insight or gossip?” But as a device to understand an architect it is useful, although the proto-Freudian line doesn’t always follow in the actual buildings.
Filler writes amazing descriptions of buildings with an ability to maneuver through space with words like a very good perspective drawing: clear, articulate, and very often inspired. His moral architectural compass serves him well. He will not write about a building he hasn’t visited. He considers himself a critic and not a design advisor (blessedly). Filler revealed that he mirrors the tone of Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, which explains the “wit,” and channels the pithy stance of The New York Times’ dance critic Alastair McCauley’s work.
This volume is advertised as illustrating a “special emphasis” on the increasing role of women in the field, including the work of Billie Tsien, AIA, Elizabeth Diller, and Kazuyo Sejima, and their major impact on the building landscape of New York and the global architectural market. But exactly how many “ambitious wives” are described – too many. More thorough insights here, please, fewer stereotypes.
Filler’s discussions on the method and orchestration of buildings are superb, as is his ability to cite sources and the derivation of architects’ work. In this age of Pinterest and sampling, the need to explain architects’ reliance on derivation and tradition is crucial; he is an apt advocate of the history of the building arts. At the book talk, the story he told of the Kennedy Library and its diminished manifestation after the 1970s recession was fascinating. As was the telling of the “well-nigh-perfect” spatial harmony in Bernard Tschumi’s Archaic Gallery in the New Acropolis Museum, because the museum staff had a 20-month period to manipulate and install the Greek sculptures.
This brand of criticism is elegant and worldly. When Filler likes a project, he reveres it. The final essay is on Michael Arad, AIA, the winner of an AIA Young Architect Award and architect of the National September 11 Memorial. The first paragraph, in particular, is a moving tribute to Arad’s architectural masterpiece. The reader moves through the horrible machinations of the building process of this site, and the inner workings of the New York political landscape during the construction. He illustrates the relationship between Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and Arad’s work, citing Lin as a moral beacon for Arad’s road through the difficult process. In the end, it’s Filler’s complete understanding of the project that is so touching, and readers will feel that they, too, are experiencing a special place.
Annie Coggan is a principal with Coggan and Crawford Architects, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Event: Oculus Book Talk: Martin Filler, Makers of Modern Architecture (Volume II)
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.09.13
Speakers: Martin Filler, contributor, The New York Review of Books, and author, Makers of Modern Architecture (Volume II); and Michael Z. Wise, contributing author, Travel + Leisure, and co-founder, New Vessel Press
Organizer: AIANY Oculus Committee