Martin Filler’s latest book is Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume III: From Antoni Gaudí to Maya Lin, a collection of his writing on architecture in these pages. (December 2019)


The Unsinkable Modernist

Walter Gropius with the design for his and Adolf Meyer’s entry for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, 1928

Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus

by Fiona MacCarthy

The Bauhaus and Harvard

an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 8–July 28, 2019
Whatever else one might think of Walter Gropius—the pioneering German architect who founded the Bauhaus a century ago this year and thereby earned an irrevocable place in the pantheon of Modernism—it is hard not to be impressed by his most salient talent: survival. After each new somersault of fate he somehow landed on his feet and emerged undeterred.

The ‘Bold Vagaries’ of Frank Furness

The front façade of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; designed by Frank Furness, 1871–1876

Frank Furness: Architecture in the Age of the Great Machines

by George E. Thomas, with a foreword by Alan Hess

First Modern: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

by George E. Thomas
Late-nineteenth-century Chicago is widely deemed to have been the crucible of modern architecture in this country—the birthplace of the skyscraper, the city that nurtured Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and a host of other innovators dubbed the Chicago School. After World War II, Los Angeles—enlivened by an influx of émigré architects …

The Godfather

The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century

by Mark Lamster
A virtual aesthetic vampire, Philip Johnson habitually drained meaning from architecture by reducing it to a consumable style.

Paris, Texas

Dominique de Menil with artwork by Magritte and others, at the Menil Collection, Houston, 1990

Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil

by William Middleton
When I interviewed Dominique Schlumberger de Menil in Houston in 1987 for an article on her recently completed private gallery there by Renzo Piano—the Menil Collection, now universally esteemed as a pinnacle of modern museum architecture*—I found the seventy-nine-year-old collector and philanthropist, who was four decades my senior, to …


I.M. Pei: Establishment Modernism Lite

Architect I.M. Pei near his Pyramid Entrance at the Louvre Museum, at its opening, Paris, March 29, 1989

A characteristic mid-career I.M. Pei design began with his initial selection of an elemental geometric shape—a square, triangle, or circle, say—which he then bisected (often on an acute angle), rotated forty-five or ninety degrees, and finally juxtaposed against other Euclidean patterns similarly manipulated. The specifics of this slice-dice-and-spin formula changed from job to job given the variables of budget, site, and function, but the lookalike results were readily confirmed as Pei’s signature style—which might be termed Establishment Modernism Lite. His tendency to repetition was reassuring to clients, who not only wanted to know what they were going to get for their very large investment, but also enjoyed having an identifiable product by an acclaimed architect. The communications-savvy Pei received remarkably strong press support throughout his long career.

A Gilded Age at Architectural Digest

Arthur Elrod house, Palm Springs, California

In the early 1980s, when I was an editor at Condé Nast’s House & Garden magazine, my colleagues and I were perturbed by an idée fixe of the company’s legendary editorial director, Alexander Liberman. He kept pressing us to make House & Garden more like Architectural Digest, the Los Angeles-based upstart that, under the editorship of Paige Rense, was fast approaching our once-impregnable circulation figures. He must be going gaga, we thought, as we contemplated the flashy, vulgar interiors in that veritable bible of bad taste, which we called Architectural Disgust. But as Rense understood, you don’t have to like something you are curious to see, a point that we at House & Garden never acknowledged, to our peril.

Robert Venturi: Visionary Mannerist of Main Street

Architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, for a 2002 show of their work

One of the consuming questions in architecture during the mid-twentieth century was whether or not what was once known as the building art could be reoriented from the technological preoccupations of the High Modernists and focused on more humane and aesthetic concerns. Venturi and Scott Brown, along with their teacher and employer Louis Kahn, did more to bring about this change than any of their peers, and the importance of what has, as a result of their all living there, been called the Philadelphia School, continues to influence the built environment in countless ways. Rather than being ironic and condescending, the partners’ commercial and quotidian borrowings represented their belief that “Main Street is almost all right,” and that there is much to be learned from popular taste.

Wagner’s Wonder Woman

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung, March 1974

So vivid are my memories of the incomparable Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005)—by general consent the foremost female Wagner exponent in the second half of the twentieth century and my favorite of all the artists I’ve ever seen in live performance—that it came as a shock to realize that this year is her centennial. I was lucky to attend many unforgettable Nilsson evenings during her peak decades, among them an overwhelming 1974 concert version of Richard Strauss’s Salome with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti, which, with her in the incendiary title part, nearly blew the roof off Carnegie Hall.