Mark Alan Hewitt

Architect, historian and preservationist practicing in the New York area.

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In London, a Venturi-Scott Brown Masterpiece Is Threatened

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London National Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Despite its dazzling collection of masterpieces, London’s National Gallery has been cursed with a series of ill-advised architectural schemes over its two-century existence. Only once have its leaders made a truly inspired and visionary choice: in the mid-1980s, the gallery held a competition, won by Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (VRSB) of Philadelphia, to build a special collections building.

The addition was constructed from 1988 to 1991, using funds donated by the Sainsbury family as a gift to the nation and was immediately hailed as one of the finest buildings of its type erected in the 20th century. It has remained popular with Londoners and has served well as an expansion of William Wilkins’s undistinguished classical building ever since. Experts on the work of Robert Venturi, John Rauch, and Denise Scott Brown consider it one of their masterpieces. Apparently, the National Gallery has a different opinion.

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New Construction Is Not Always the Answer

New Construction Is Not Always the Answer - Featured Image
via the Greater Syracuse Land Bank

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

California, as with most American states, has a housing crisis. Unlike the rest of the country, it is actually working to ameliorate the situation, with private and public initiatives that critics can’t help but label inadequate. The Bay Area made accessory dwelling units legal by changing zoning laws, but that has hardly made a dent. Some cities are now pushing for additional upzoning to give developers more room to bring new buildings to market at lower rents. There are all sorts of studies, university sponsored or underwritten by the industry, that recommend more-or-less radical fixes for a seemingly unfixable problem. Environmentalists are naturally cast as villains because they don’t condone greenfield developments. And Californians are tough on their elected officials, as the current governor learned last year. 

Where Are the Architectural Masterpieces?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Shortly after the millennium, Vanity Fair, a magazine that purports to follow every kind of cultural milestone, asked a select group of 52 “experts” to pick the five best buildings since 1980. The selections were bizarre; almost every building was by one of the chosen architects, which made up the vast majority of those asked for their picks. Few choices received more than five votes.

The Allure—and Importance—of Architectural Models

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

In this week's reprint, author Mark Alan Hewitt talks about models and their importance. "For those of us lucky enough to have grown up during the 1950s and ’60s, models were hot stuff—and not just the kind that statement may bring to mind", he states. Going back to the realistic models of the 70s, similar to today's virtual renderings, this essay retraces their history and the artists that produced them.

Why Don’t We Teach Chinese Architecture in the United States?

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Why Don’t We Teach Chinese Architecture?"

How many U.S. architecture professors know that there is a Chinese treatise equivalent to Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture? Very few, I suspect. I taught architectural history for more than 20 years before I discovered the marvelous Yingsao Fashi, a Song Dynasty book by a prominent court official who, as far as we know, was not an architect or builder. In fact, prior to the Ming Dynasty no prominent temple, palace, or shrine in China was designed by an architect because the concept of a single mastermind in charge of a building project was foreign to the East Asian way of designing environments of any kind.

Status, Statues, and Statutes: The Issue With Monuments to Flawed Men

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Monuments, as Alois Riegl pointed out a century ago, are aids to memory. “In memoriam,” the carvings cry out. Though they are almost always tainted with political ideologies and social values, they can stand on their own as works of art, absorbing meanings over millennia. Many that we continue to treasure were once associated with events and practices antithetical to modern mores and taboos: Greek temples were founded on the altars of animal—and, earlier, human—sacrifice; the pyramids were made by slaves; market crosses may have served as flogging posts. There really are no innocent human artifacts dedicated to remembering human acts, as fact or fiction.

It’s Time to End the Reign of Single-Family House Zoning

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Practicing architects live and die by zoning regulations. We begin routine projects by reading ordinances and calling local officials to reassure clients that their desired outcomes will be possible under current land-use laws. If we’re lucky, the project will be built without troublesome variances and hearings before stony-faced zoning boards. Increasingly, however, what seemed straightforward and responsible 15 years ago is today considered controversial enough to merit a public hearing, and perhaps the assistance of high-priced attorneys. Often, the issue is protecting the “rights” of nearby homeowners, who see their property values threatened by any new development.

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What is Beauty in Architecture Today - and Are We Afraid of it?

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "The 'B' Word: How a More Universal Concept of Beauty Can Reshape Architecture."

Why Reusing Buildings Should - and Must - be the Next Big Thing

Sustainability awards and standards touted by professional architecture organizations often stop at opening day, failing to take into account the day-to-day energy use of a building. With the current format unlikely to change, how can we rethink the way what sustainability means in architecture today? The first step might be to stop rewarding purpose-built architecture, and look instead to the buildings we already have. This article was originally published on CommonEdge as"Why Reusing Buildings Should be the Next Big Thing."

At the inaugural Rio Conference on the Global Environment in 1992, three facts became abundantly clear: the earth was indeed warming; fossil fuels were no longer a viable source of energy; the built environment would have to adapt to this new reality. That year I published an essay in the Journal of Architectural Education called “Architecture for a Contingent Environment” suggesting that architects join with both naturalists and preservationists to confront this situation.

Modernism: The International Style that Wasn't

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "Was Modernism Really International? A New History Says No."

I taught architectural history in two schools of architecture during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then it was common for students to get a full three-semester course that began with Antiquity and ended with Modernism, with a nod to later twentieth-century architecture. My text for the middle section was Spiro Kostof’s magisterial History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. With many centuries to cover, he spent very little effort in dealing with the twentieth century. In the last third of the course, students read texts such as Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier and Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. My colleagues and I felt that we offered students a pluralistic and comprehensive review of key developments in the history of the built environment.

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Robert Venturi and the Difficult Whole: How Architecture's Enfant Terrible Changed Design Forever

This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "Robert Venturi and the Difficult Whole."

Robert Venturi (1925-2018) was the most influential American architect of the last century, though not primarily for his built work, or because of his stature as a designer. He will never stand beside Wright, or Kahn, or even Gehry in that regard. Between 1965 and 1985 he and his collaborator, Denise Scott Brown, changed the way all architects look at buildings, cities, and landscapes, much in the way that Marshall McLuhan, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol changed our view of art, media, and popular culture during the same period.

I worked with Bob Venturi during my apprenticeship in the 1970s; I also grew up with his books, buildings and paternal influence. He and my father were one year apart; Denise is the same age as my mother.

Forget the Critics: Traditional Architecture Can Still Make a Contemporary Place

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Contrary to Architecture's Critical Establishment, Robert A.M. Stern's Yale Colleges Are a Triumph of Placemaking."

In late January I attended a moving memorial service at Yale’s Battell Chapel for Vincent Scully, the man who led me to architecture as a career, and who continues to inspire me as a writer and historian. While there I took the opportunity to tour Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, Yale’s first new residential colleges in half a century. I came away marveling at the quality of the architecture, and thanking my alma mater for its vision and commitment to enhancing the city and the campus.