Editor’s Choice May 2006

Modernism, Minimalism, Fundamentalism

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Glenn Murcutt, an Australian architect who in 2002 won his field’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, is probably the most atypical of the great living architects. Most “starchitects” design buildings for an international clientele; although Murcutt has been deeply influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, he refuses to work outside Australia, insisting that extraordinary architecture emerges only from a profound grasp of climate, culture, and environment. Most elite architects head large firms housed in slick offices; Murcutt, though, is a sole practitioner who works in a cramped, messy office in a semi-detached house. And whereas most virtuoso architects win and sustain their reputations by erecting major civic buildings, Murcutt has built only a few modest public edifices, including a mining and minerals museum in the outback (!) and a visitors’ center for a remote national park; his stature rests almost entirely on the more than 500 clean-lined, ecologically sound houses he’s designed for the Aussie haute and high-minded bourgeoisie. These crisp, light-filled, marvelously airy, typically long, lean, and low-slung rectangular homes—built largely of steel, aluminum, glass, and corrugated, galvanized iron (his signature material)—are, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, probably the most environmentally sensitive modernist masterpieces ever built, belying the notion, as critic Anne Whiston Spirn put it, “that ecological architecture must be rustic architecture with sinuous forms, half-buried in the ground, or nostalgic imitation of vernacular building forms.” Murcutt has made it his mission to “touch the earth lightly,” as he says (borrowing an aboriginal saying), and these limpid structures fairly float upon their sites, as they respond exquisitely to the topography, flora, temperatures, sunlight, views, winds, and rainfalls of their settings and also manage to be jaunty, relaxed, and remarkably livable. Because all his buildings are on the world’s second-most-remote continent, and because most of them are private dwellings, they’ve been seen by fewer people than the work of any other renowned architect, a fact that makes a comprehensive, accessible, well-documented, and amply photographed study of his oeuvre especially crucial. Luckily, this book is among the stellar works of contemporary architectural publishing. Just released in an especially durable and attractive paperback edition, at a far more approachable price (an entirely justifiable $49.95) than that of the hardcover, this work, whose original, French edition won the French Architecture Academy’s 2004 Architecture Book Prize, happily marries beautiful but always comprehensible photography (which conveys the unusually complex context in which Murcutt places his structures) with detailed, sometimes witty, consistently precise text (Fromonot, a Parisian architect and a co-editor of the architectural review Le Visiteur, shuns the grandiloquence that infects her profession; her translator, Charlotte Ellis, has done a superb job). Containing two lengthy and perceptive critical essays and chapters on nearly forty of Murcutt’s buildings (along with a good number of their plans, sections, and elevations), this book illuminates both Murcutt’s work and the art of architecture generally.

Those in the mood for some modernist eye candy will be sated by Hariri & Hariri Houses (Rizzoli). The architectural team of the Iranian-born sisters Gisue and Mojgan Hariri heroically eschewed the postmodernist juggernaut of the mid-1980s in favor of the sleek Miesian modernism that’s always been their hallmark (their Sagaponac House, completed last year, has already acquired the status of a neo-modernist icon). But as the gorgeous photographs in this gorgeous book make clear, theirs is a sumptuous minimalism, owing to the high level of craft and finish they bring to their projects and the luxurious materials they employ. Looks, though, are all this book’s got. The pro forma foreword by Richard Meier; the equally imprecise, phoned-in introduction by the usually penetrating critic Paul Goldberger; the sweet but jejune essay by the Hariris’ friend, the poet John Brehm (it’s so gaseous that you’d swear it was written by an architecture critic); and the very short text on each house all fail to elucidate the contributions of this very talented if sometimes over-intellectualized team. Those in search of a more considered (if equally poorly written and somewhat dated) appraisal should read instead Hariri & Hariri: Work in Progress, by the Hariris and Kenneth Frampton and Steven Holl.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, by Amy Hempel (Scribner). Few fiction writers are as intensely admired by their peers as is Hempel, though she’s never published a novel. Her reputation rests solely on the four landmark collections of short fiction gathered here, including the long-out-of-print Atthe Gates of the Animal Kingdom (used copies of which are both rare and expensive). She will forever be tagged a minimalist, which is accurate enough if largely unrevealing, since there’s both great and execrable minimalist fiction. True, a ruthless economy characterizes her writing, but it’s owing not to a studied lack of affect (an attribute that marks the most predictable and lazy minimalism) but rather to a lapidary precision and a severe, poetic aesthetic. Often she startlingly punctuates that aesthetic with a wit, reminiscent of Deborah Eisenberg’s, that has evolved from the sly and often loopy to the dark and mordant (Hempel has a gift for the off-kilter one-liner; in a story in her most recent collection, the narrator deploys one on a man who’s raping her). Dogs are Hempel’s career-long obsession, and no one has written of them and their relationship to human beings with more exquisite sensitivity and clear-eyed affection. Another constant is loss: nearly all her stories, written in a perfectly modulated voice, circle around broken people and the dissolutions, disillusionments, and bereavements they endure. Although leavened by a wry rue, Hempel’s is a hard-boiled sensibility, and each of her stories—many only a few pages long, and one of which consists of a single sentence—will leave the reader shaken, for they’re all spot-on exemplars of V. S. Pritchett’s 1982 description of the genre as “the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of modern life.”

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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