This is lucky number seven in our series of interviews on books and reading with interviewer Wes Del Val. Lucky for us, because Wes caught the ear of Martin Filler, a renowned writer of architecture criticism, and a fountain of insight on the world of books as well. Prepare to take notes...
OGR No 7: Martin Filler
For years I’ve enjoyed Martin Filler’s essays on architecture for The New York Review of Books and if you’re unfamiliar with these masterful, elegant works and/or don’t have access to the Review’s online archive then you must pick up one of the three collections NYRB has released. His writing hits that perfect sweet spot where someone smart about architecture will appreciate his learned critical eye and someone who knows little about it will feel smarter after. Publishers Weekly said “Martin’s contribution to both architecture criticism and general readers' understanding is invaluable."
Martin studied Art History at Columbia, started writing for the New York Review in 1985, and has had well over 1000 pieces published across dozens of international publications over his five-decade career. His care and discernment are on full display here and he gives us one rich, considered answer after another. You’ll feel smarter after. I did. -WDV
WDV: Are there any architects who you know or would hazard to guess were lifetime readers of diverse genres and as a result more empathetically understood the nature of humans in the built environment?
MF: Of all the architects I’ve known during my forty-five-year writing career, certainly the most literate and learned was Robert Venturi (1925-2018), who made the most of his first-rate education. A self-described “nerd,” from childhood onward he read widely and deeply. After a solid start at an excellent Quaker day school, Venturi grew intellectually at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy—where he was well versed in the classics and became fluent in Latin—and continued to thrive at Princeton. By the time the twenty-nine-year-old architect arrived in Rome to pursue a fellowship at the American Academy, he was able to take full advantage of everything the Eternal City could offer him.
The ultimate result of Venturi’s Roman sojourn was his masterful polemic Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), a gorgeously written and soundly argued book that calls for a more inclusive contemporary architecture informed by Europe’s high-style tradition as well as America’s vibrant popular culture. His fellow Pop architect Charles Moore (1925-1993) was another prolific author whose reading had been likewise omnivorous and eclectic, which gave a distinctive sparkle to his erudite, empathetic, but often irreverent architectural prose. When will we find their like again?
What one book did you read when young that had the biggest impact on sending you on this dedicated path to writing about architecture?
In the autumn of 1963 when I was fifteen, I spotted a $2.25 Pelican Original paperback of Nikolaus Pevsner’s An Outline of European Architecture on a swivel rack at a chain bookstore in a New Jersey shopping mall. After a quick browse I knew I had to have it. Perhaps I was hooked by the ground plan of Balthazar Neumann’s Rococo pilgrimage church of the Vierzehnheiligen in Bavaria, an interlocking composition of three overlapping ovals that mesmerized me on the spot. When I began reading Pevsner’s text, what piqued my interest most was his elevated but lucid voice, absolutely comprehensible to a complete novice but wholly uncondescending—a lifelong admonition to never talk down to your audience, no matter how broad it might be.
How do you feel reading about buildings if there are no images to refer to?
Even when I was a kid I was told that I have an unusually vivid visual imagination, so I find it relatively easy to “see” things as I read about them even when there are no pictures. As a writer, though, I understand that’s not a widely shared trait, so depending on my particular audience—which has varied widely over the years from a broad lay public to expert professional specialists—I calibrate my descriptions to my likely readers.
For more than a decade before Robert Silvers first invited me to contribute to The New York Review of Books in 1985, I’d been writing for heavily illustrated professional journals like Progressive Architecture and consumer magazines like House & Garden, where a great deal of the informational burden was carried by multiple color photographs that could tell a story virtually on their own. But because a typical Review article has just two or three illustrations at most—one of which might be a David Levine caricature, such as his fiendish fantasy of Philip Johnson with the AT&T Headquarters’ split pediment implanted atop his head like devil’s horns—I quickly got used to making my physical descriptions as exact as possible.
Above all, I realized that you have to clearly elucidate a design for your readers through words alone. That was expertly accomplished by Lewis Mumford, my early role model and America’s most influential architecture critic during the three midcentury decades when he wrote “The Sky Line” column for The New Yorker, which in those days used no photos whatsoever. I’m convinced that my writing became much more focused and precise without my dependence on the visual crutch of images.
I love that Levine of Philip. Ah David, he was such a wonderful addition to the Review, I miss him, as do likely many others. Since you mentioned him, can you give us a great Bob Silvers story? He’s a publishing hero of mine.
Bob knew everything. Apart from my perpetual amazement at the depth of his architectural knowledge, he astonished a pregnant woman writer who once sat next to him at dinner by telling her more about natural childbirth than her obstetrician had. But he also knew everyone, and was on first-name terms with almost all the literary figures of consequence during the second half of the twentieth century, sometimes even a nickname basis. In one of my many schmoozy Sunday afternoon phone conversations with Bob, it took me a while to realize that the “Bunny” he mentioned was neither Mrs. Paul Mellon nor a Playboy Club waitress, but actually his frequent Review contributor Edmund Wilson, whose unlikely childhood family endearment that was.
But Bob was also an enthusiastic man-about-town, enough so to have been invited to Truman Capote’s now-legendary Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966. His familiarity with and acceptance in international high society was unchallenged (he subscribed to the belief that history was made at night, and claimed to have gotten many of his best ideas at parties), and of course nothing, but nothing, that went into the New York Review ever escaped his eye.
For example, in a blog that I wrote about a fashion exhibition at a New York museum, I referred to the original owner of a Balenciaga dress on view there as a socialite because she had married one, and was startled when Bob called to discuss my word choice. “You see, Martin, I knew her well,” he explained, “and she was not a socialite but what was known in those days as a party girl. When you wanted to have an enjoyable evening with someone who was pretty and fun but perhaps not of the highest virtue, you called a party girl, and that’s what she was. A party girl.” How could one possibly argue with an informed editorial correction like that?
Thank you! I could take endless anecdotes about him.
What are some books about architecture worth displaying on a coffee table because they’re both so well written and designed?
I have such reverence for books, especially beautiful ones, that I hate them being used for decorative purposes or as mere aspirational signifiers. To see fine publications laid out on coffee tables near sloshing drinks and drippy dips fills me with dread. I also recoil when I see those vertiginous floor-to-ceiling towers of vertically stacked art books beloved by decorators and repeatedly published in shelter magazines. Get some proper bookshelves!
That said, I esteem many architecture books in the coffee-table format for their combination of pictorial quality and admirable writing. Among the best is The Houses of McKim, Mead & White (1998) by Stanford White’s architect great-grandson Samuel G. White and the photographer Jonathan Wallen. Another exemplar in that vein is Bruce Smith’s Greene & Greene: Masterworks (1998), though its color images of the brothers’ work by Alex Vertikoff are so meltingly romantic that a visit to those intricately detailed Arts and Crafts bungalows might seem somewhat of a letdown.
As for this year’s new releases, none approaches the ideal balance between style and substance achieved in Eileen Gray, the research-rich catalog edited by Cloé Pitiot and Nina Stritzler-Levine, co-curators for the eponymous exhibition on this early modernist Anglo-Irish architect and furniture designer that opened at New York’s Bard Graduate Center Gallery in February. The Amsterdam-based graphic artist Irma Boom has uncannily channeled her subject’s design ethos into the print medium, conveyed by the catalog’s minimalist matte-black-on-gray cover, and even more so through its geometrically-patterned fore-edges, printed in three shades of grisaille to evoke the muted tones and rectilinear motifs of Gray’s celebrated carpets. Book design simply doesn’t get more sophisticated than this.
Few ever top Irma, she’s incredible! I imagine she has to say no so much more than she says yes.
Any thoughts on why architects are so rarely the leading characters in fiction? Ask most literate people and they’d say The Fountainhead is the only novel they can think of that features an architect, and that was written almost 80 years ago!
The tedious workaday slog of bringing a structure to reality is fraught with so many difficulties, compromises, and longueurs that it’s easy to understand why architects by and large are poor prototypes for fiction. Furthermore, the inward creative process in any artistic medium is notoriously difficult to portray, as seen in the many laughable Hollywood films about musical composers. Even the great Ibsen, who invented a new form of psychological stage drama, doesn’t tell us much about what Halvard Solness, the protagonist of The Master Builder, specifically does at work, apart from his being an insufferable control freak like numerous other architects to this day.
Surprisingly, I found one of the most incisive fictional depictions of a contemporary architect in the first graphic novel I reviewed, Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor’s Batman: Death by Design (2012). The arch-villain is a thinly disguised avatar of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas named (in case the personality parallels were not obvious enough) Kem Roomhaus. Yet as Batman admits, this megalomaniacal master builder “may be an affected, narcissistic creep, but he’s also a genius,” and I could not concur more wholeheartedly.
What is the prettiest library you’ve ever been in?
For pure aesthetics and drop-dead refinement, you can’t beat the horticulturist Rachel “Bunny” Mellon’s Oak Spring Garden Library, designed in 1980 by the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes as a seventieth birthday present from her husband, the philanthropist and connoisseur Paul Mellon. This deceptively simple, whitewashed stone structure—inspired by the vernacular architecture of the Aegean and unobtrusively nestled into the hillocks of the Mellons’ 2000-acre Oak Spring estate in the Virginia hunt country southwest of Washington, DC—contains her collection of some 19,000 objects, principally rare illustrated botanical books and manuscripts. It’s the apotheosis of what I’ve termed “stealth wealth,” a now almost extinct taste for understated yet costly perfectionism that reached its apogee in the decades after World War II among a tiny group of very rich, cultivated American aristocrats that included the Mellons, the Rockefellers, and the de Menils.
The library’s 80-foot-long double-height great room is simultaneously grand and inviting, with modulated natural light, exquisitely crafted pale wood bookcases and cabinets, and windows positioned to frame idyllic landscape vistas. During Bunny Mellon’s lifetime one wall was dominated by Mark Rothko’s radiant 10-by-15-foot canvas abstraction No. 20 (Yellow Expanse) (1953), which soon after her death in 2014 was sold privately for a reported $200 million. Most importantly, the library makes you want to curl up with a book there for hours on end. Following the founder’s wishes, her Oak Spring Library Foundation has opened this treasure house as a horticultural research center for scholars and designers who can apply for residencies of varying lengths, during which they live in the Mellons’ former home nearby.
Please write a book on the concept of “stealth wealth.” Your definition of it begs for and justifies book-length treatment.
Which living architect’s library would you gladly accept once they die? Don’t worry about practicalities, this just regards the contents.
I’m now nearly seventy-two and more concerned about culling our architectural library than adding to it, so the last thing I’d want is to acquire someone else’s books, no matter whose they might be or how wonderful they are. We’ve already given our rarest British art and architecture volumes to Paul Mellon’s Yale Center for British Art, including Edwin Lutyens’s personal copy of Batty Langley’s densely illustrated pattern book The Builder’s Complete Assistant (1738), a prime example of A.W.N. Pugin’s gloriously polychromatic Floriated Ornament (1849), and a signed first edition of Max Beerbohm’s droll lampoon of the Pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti and His Circle (1922). I sometimes regret their departure, but I’m relieved to know that they won’t wind up in a yard sale some day.
That’s understandable. Then who is an architect who you know has a fabulous library? Back to Philip Johnson, he even had a book done about a portion of his large collection.
I don’t know much about the current contents of architects’ personal libraries because I try to keep a careful social distance from people I’m likely to write about. At least two of the seemingly genuine friendships I’ve had with major architects I became personally close with in the 1970s—Charles Moore and Frank Gehry—ended decades later, the minute I expressed reservations about their new work, even after numerous articles that helped build their reputations.
One elderly New York architect is said to have a breathtaking collection of rare early Modernist architecture books, but I’ve heard from mutual friends that some of his treasures were acquired under shady circumstances. In fact, an illustrated Le Corbusier manuscript that we bought from a supposedly reputable dealer in the 1980s was revealed to us to have been of dubious provenance and part of a swap that architect made for some bibliographic rarities. We quickly and luckily offloaded it through another dealer to a respected institution, but for legal reasons I’d better not go into any more detail. You know who you are!
I won’t press, we’ll leave it there!
What building in America would you get the most pleasurable reading done if you got to stay there for a week?
Because I particularly like reading in bed, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to lie down with a good book in the ingenious double-sided sleeping alcove that Thomas Jefferson designed for himself at Monticello, though I doubt I’ll get an invitation to do so. More realistically, I can imagine myself spending an enjoyable week in the splendid, light-flooded Reading Room of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the architect John Notman’s 1845 Italianate gem on Washington Square.
What’s the best biography about an architect written in the past decade?
If I may extend your time limit by one year, my choice would be Rosemary Hill’s insightful 2009 biography of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain. Only forty when he died in 1852, Pugin nonetheless exerted an outsized influence on nineteenth-century architecture, both through his executed designs—most famously the dazzling interiors for the Houses of Parliament in London—and his many publications, which advocated the Gothic Revival as a spiritual antidote to the crass commercialism of the Industrial Revolution.
Profoundly religious but professionally driven, Pugin was a quixotic figure who railed against economic forces he could not possibly counteract. Paradoxically, his comprehensive, socially oriented view of the built environment, which extended down to smallest details of design, would have a formative effect on the underlying utopian values of the Modern Movement, even though the historically based style Pugin championed could not be more different from what is today generally considered modern architecture.
Any favorite examples of writing saving a building?
If writing alone were able to save endangered landmarks, then the world would be a better place. Alas, more often than not, architecture critics’ pleas fall on deaf ears, as I found with my New York Review of Books screeds condemning the Museum of Modern Art’s demolition of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum in 2014. However, even unsuccessful attempts to save worthy architecture can have a lasting impact.
This was best demonstrated by Ada Louise Huxtable’s impassioned 1963 New York Times editorial, unsigned but easily identifiable as her work, which decried the destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s majestic Pennsylvania Station, an outrageous act of civic vandalism that launched the historic preservation movement. “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately deserves,” Huxtable wrote. “Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” What more could one writer say to oppose powerfully intertwined real estate and political interests that didn’t give a damn?
“Tin-can” and “tin-horn”…both could be regularly trotted out still today, almost 60 years later, and thank goodness we’ve got a critical voice like yours to go on record with similar when necessary. Thanks Martin!