Martin Filler is the author, most recently, of Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II: From Le Corbusier to Rem Koolhaas, a collection of his writing on architecture in these pages.
 (April 2016)

The Original Wagner

A selection of costume designs for Der Ring des Nibelungen: Figurinen by Carl Emil Doepler, Berlin, 1889,

Some devotees of Richard Wagner have suggested, not wholly in jest, that the best way to enjoy the master’s operas is with one’s eyes closed. For not only have few stage presentations of his monumentally conceived and famously lengthy music dramas ever approached the cosmic sublimity of their underlying compositions, but nowadays it appears mandatory for them to be produced as bizarrely as possible, and despite the composer’s detailed visual instructions to the contrary. All of which has made the history of the composer’s original conceptions—primary evidence of which is on view in the Morgan Library & Museum’s “Wagner’s Ring: Forging an Epic”—feel like something of a rediscovery.

Faith in Good Taste

Grace Farms, the River building

With structures designed by SANAA and landscaping by Olin, Grace Farms, the new $120 million complex in New Canaan, Connecticut, exhibits far loftier cultural aspirations than the megachurchs of the Sun Belt. But one wonders whether such expenditure, in the midst of almost unimaginably concentrated wealth, is the true path to a state of grace for those who would alleviate the sufferings of mankind.

Hanging Out with Hitler

A postcard of the Great Hall of the Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s Alpine retreat near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, circa 1936
Among the odder conceits of the Romantic movement was the vogue for rendering new buildings as ruins. Inspired by Piranesi’s moody vedute of noble Roman monuments in picturesque decay, late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century architects such as John Soane had their latest works depicted as they might look millennia in the future—bare …

The Man Who Shaped Tomorrow

Though he is little known to the American public today, the silversmith and industrial designer Peter Muller-Munk was among the most innovative twentieth-century American designers. Now, an illuminating new exhibition traces his evolution from craftsman of precious objects to stylist of household appliances like refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, was part of a broader midcentury shift from high-end exclusivity to mass-market practicality.

Amazing Building Adventures!

Matthias Gnehm: Die kopierte Stadt (The Copied City), 2014; click on image to enlarge

Architecture may seem to have little in common with comics. Yet the two mediums not only have a natural affinity, but the multi-panel drawing format can bring alive as few other mediums can the long, tedious, disjointed, and arcane process of the building art. An intriguing new exhibition at Oslo’s National Museum-Architecture provides a fascinating overview of this phenomenon.

The Rush of Berlin

Advertising photocollage for Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, 1927

The Neue Galerie exhibition “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933” likens the Weimar-era city less to Paris and New York than to Los Angeles. Both cities had only recently risen to prominence—Berlin when it became the capital of the newly unified Germany in 1871, and LA when moviemakers relocated there from New York in the 1910s—and thus readily embraced flashy upstarts untrammeled by local tradition or conventional mores.

America’s Green Giant

Frederick Law Olmsted; portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1895
Besides being an experimental farmer, prolific journalist, crusading publisher, military health care reformer, and insightful social critic, Frederick Law Olmsted was also the greatest advocate and impresario of the public realm this country has ever produced.

Gaudí’s Great Temple

The Sagrada Família, the basilica designed by Antoni Gaudí from the early 1880s until his death in 1926, Barcelona, Spain, 2011
It was begun in 1882 using the conventional neo-Gothic designs of Francisco de Paula del Villar, who after two years of persistent quarrels with diocesan supervisors quit and handed the job over to his largely untested assistant Antoni Gaudí. Over the next four decades Gaudí worked toward a church that would be both intensely personal yet embracingly universal, startlingly unprecedented though rooted in tradition, and altogether far more rich and strange than anything del Villar ever dreamed of.

Frei Otto’s Airborne Architecture

Frei Otto with his model of an arctic city under an air conditioned container structure, 1971

Over the four decades since the Pritzker Architecture Prize was founded, its jury has taken remarkably varied approaches to the accolade. This year’s award, which will be presented in Miami next week, has taken an unprecedented twist. Two months after being informed confidentially that he’d been named the fortieth Pritzker recipient, the German architect and engineer Frei Otto died.

New York: Conspicuous Construction

A rendering of the condominium towers planned or under construction at 225 West 57th Street (Nordstrom Tower), 157 West 57th Street (One57), 111 West 57th Street, and 53 West 53rd Street in Manhattan
The stratospheric amounts now at stake in newly built Manhattan buildings perhaps can be best understood by comparison with today’s contemporary art market, where multimillion-dollar paintings and sculptures have become favored instruments in the global transfer of vast and largely unregulated sums. The more expensive the object, the more money can be shifted internationally in one transaction.

Renzo Piano’s Hidden Masterpiece

The roof of Renzo Piano's Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, behind the historic façade to which it is connected, Paris, 2014

Though it has received scant attention since its opening in Paris last fall, Renzo Piano’s discreetly restrained Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé ranks among his best works. With its voluptuously swelling aluminum-and-glass-clad form, it is an ingenious demonstration of how to insert a work of avant-garde architecture into a historic setting.

The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph

The living room and upper level of Paul Rudolph’s Beekman Place penthouse apartment, New York City, which he renovated during the last twenty years of his life, from 1977 to 1997
A fall from critical grace is not uncommon in the arts, but somehow seems more surprising in architecture than in literature, music, or painting. Buildings tend to remain in the public realm longer and more conspicuously than books that go out of print, operas that languish unperformed, or paintings relegated …

Frank Gehry in Paris

The Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, Paris, 2014
Strange as it may seem, Frank Gehry, the volcanic improviser of freeform structures unlike anything seen since the irrational fantasies of German Expressionists a century ago, has attained the stature of those visionaries’ contemporary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the hyperrational codifier of modern architectural reason. Though Gehry’s precepts are …

The New Chartres: An Exchange

The repainted choir of Chartres Cathedral, July 11, 2012 (Click to enlarge)

Contrary to Martin Filler’s assertion that virtually nothing remains of the previous painting at Chartres, beneath the grime not one, but two layers of false masonry were visible, one dating to the thirteenth, the other to the fifteenth century. If there is anything controversial, it lies with the restorers’ decision to use the thirteenth-century false masonry as their guide.

A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres

Chartres Cathedral, with repainted vaulting in the choir contrasting with the existing nave and transepts in the foreground, Chartres, France, July 11, 2012

Apparently with the full support of the French state, restorers have set out to do no less than repaint the entire interior of Chartres Cathedral in bright whites and garish colors. Looking upward we saw panels of blue faux marbre; nearby were floor-to-ceiling piers covered in glossy yellow trompe l’oeil marbling, like some funeral parlor in Little Italy.

Falling for Photography

Sam Wagstaff (left) and Robert Mapplethorpe, 1974; photograph by Francesco Scavullo

Beyond launching Robert Mapplethorpe’s career, Sam Wagstaff was a prescient curator of contemporary art, all-purpose tastemaker, and pioneering collector of photography. Now we are given a closer look at one of the most remarkable artist/patron relationships of the late twentieth century in Philip Gefter’s new biography, Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe.

The Charms of Edwin Lutyens

The Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens
Forty years ago it would have seemed preposterous to assert that the two greatest architects of the twentieth century were Le Corbusier and Edwin Lutyens. Although each was considered supreme in his respective sphere—Le Corbusier among modernists, Lutyens among traditionalists—their comparative influence differed tremendously. Whereas Le Corbusier’s precepts became the …

The Unstoppable Soprano

Magda Olivero during curtain calls for her performance as Floria Tosca in Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, 1978

How old is too old in opera? It all depends on the voice and the role, of course. Beverly Sills, who had a relatively light instrument, retired at fifty-one. Birgit Nilsson, the Heldensopran, bowed out at sixty-four. The tenor Plácido Domingo is still onstage at seventy-three. But few have lived up to the standard set by the Italian soprano Magda Olivero, who died in Milan this month, at the age of 104.

Furnishing a Life

Fernand Pelez: Interior of a Bedroom, watercolor, late nineteenth century

Novelists have long been attuned to the psychology of interior design. But such connections were less common in nonfiction before the publication in 1958 of Mario Praz’s La casa della vita, which appeared (in Angus Davidson’s lustrous translation) as The House of Life a half-century ago this year.

The Road to the Zombie Office

Barbara Stanwyck and Donald Cook as employees of the Gotham Trust Company in Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face, 1933
If we are what we eat—a notion that seems irrefutable in today’s food-fixated United States—then another corollary, at a time when personal identity often derives more from professional pursuits than private matters, would be that we are where we work.

The Insolence of Architecture

Palm Jumeirah island, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008
Rarely do architecture writers convey a sense of place with the observational acuity, physical immediacy, and (on occasion) moral outrage of the British journalist Rowan Moore. Since the turn of the millennium, Moore—a Cambridge University—trained architect and younger brother of Charles Moore, the newspaper and Spectator editor and Margaret Thatcher’s …

Engineering Elegance

Cecil Beaton: Charles James with Model, 1948

The highly constructed garments created by the Anglo-American Charles James (1906–1978)—who is the subject of a new retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are such feats of fabric engineering that they can stand up by themselves. This is all the more striking in view of the era in which he reached the height of his career. During the 1930s, women’s clothing was generally limp and clinging, but James was able to achieve strong, sculptural shapes with stiff materials like grosgrain and taffeta that stood away from the body.

An Architecture of Perfect Imperfection

Lina Bo Bardi: Preliminary Study for Sculptures-cum-Stage-Props on Trianon Terrace, Museum of Art of São Paulo, 1965. Martin Filler writes that the masp building, visible in the background of this drawing, is a ‘feat of engineering, with just two gigantic red-painted steel trusses that span and support the two-story glass-walled gallery container longitudinally.’
The hundredth anniversary of an overlooked creative innovator sometimes coincides with the revival of a reputation that is already underway. That has been happening lately with the posthumous lionization of the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, who was born in Rome in 1914 and died in 1992 in her adopted …

The Master of Fireproof Modernism

Rafael Guastavino's tile vaulting for the now-closed City Hall subway station, inaugurated in 1904

If all politics is local, then much architectural history is also a neighborhood matter. Thus I harbor an abiding fondness for the Spanish émigré master builder Rafael Guastavino. Time and again in old New York buildings, it’s a delight to lift up your eyes and unexpectedly find Guastavino’s distinctive herringbone terracotta tile patterns overhead.

Taking Down Picasso

Pablo Picasso's 1919 stage curtain for Le Tricorne, at the Four Seasons Restaurant, New York

The real estate mogul Aby Rosen is planning to remove a historic Picasso stage curtain from the Seagram Building on February 9. The wall-sized, unframed canvas, which Picasso created in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, has hung in the tower’s Four Seasons Restaurant since it opened in 1959. According to the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Peg Breen, taking down the delicate work could be its death sentence. The Landmarks Conservancy is seeking a last-minute injunction to halt the removal.