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What Does Midcentury Modern Even Mean These Days?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Auction houses, secondhand furniture stores, and realtors make small fortunes from a nomenclature that, despite the fuzziness surrounding its indeterminate span and whether everything made during its indefinite duration ought to be stamped with the same label, continues to demand attention. Years from now, serious collectors of architectural magazines may search for that single issue of the 21st century magazine Dwell, absent a major spread of a house designed in the midcentury modern (MCM) manner or a restoration of a building from that era. MCM is the very blood that pulses through the publication’s arteries, promulgating a view of a squeaky-clean and well-lighted lives lived almost invariably by (often childless) ectomorphic couples, blissfully happy under a flat roof with floor-to-ceiling windows affording fine views of distant landscapes best enjoyed behind insulated glass in an ambient temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit. But what are we to make of this term, this period—some even call it a “movement”—so well-known globally it goes by initials?

“I Think of My Work as Imploding Rather than Exploding:” in Conversation with Michael Rotondi of Roto Architects

Michael Rotondi’s buildings—museums, civic centers, education facilities, monasteries, restaurants, and residences—evoke kinetic mechanisms that fold, hinge, twist, and split open. They express the architect’s feelings, thinking, and mood at the time they had been designed, and, on some occasions, during their assembly and construction. Rotondi was born in 1949 in Los Angeles.

He established his RoTo Architects, a research-based firm in his native city, in 1991 after co-heading Morphosis for 16 years with Thom Mayne. Parallel to his practicing career, the architect has been teaching and lecturing at SCI-Arc, Southern California Institute of Architecture, which he co-founded in 1972, led its graduate program from 1978-1987, and was the school’s second director for a decade from 1987 to 1997.

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The Poetry of Water: Symbolic Meanings in Built Space

In a world of extravagant textures, colors, and flavors, who would have thought that a substance that has no color, no smell, and no taste is precisely the most essential for human existence? Antagonistic in itself, water carries an ambiguity of values and meanings that confer a high degree of complexity sustained by the versatile and soluble profile that distinguishes it in a complex simplicity. In this sense, water, as a source of life, has become an object of devotion and study over time. This has fostered a continuous effort focused on understanding, transporting, and controlling this element.

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Carlo Scarpa, a Virtuous Architect of Water

Even as a child, the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa was very aware of the fundamental element that would describe and underpin his work many years later: water. When he played and ran around the maze of streets and canals, Scarpa listened to everything around him, especially the richness of stimuli that his hometown offered him. A sensitive reader of places, he found his great text in Venice. This culture, subtle and almost academic, except for that devotion to scenography and the esoteric, is built over time; art, space, history, all compiled in his readings, trips to knowledge, and in his contact with artists and writers.

Scarpa would base his evolution as an architect on his extraordinary visual culture and his respect for tradition and the way of doing things in past eras; taking up the baton of that time and converting his reality into architectural space where all the pieces are independent units, dialoguing with each other or, as he liked to say, singing. He positions himself before what exists, whether it be an artistic piece or architectural space, from knowledge and sensitivity. He will apprehend the history and place in which it occurs and accentuate the existing beauty in things, showing the prominence of the new as a precious element.

Carlo Scarpa: The Master of Sculpture and Light

Natural light is one of the most critical elements in architecture. Although unbuilt and difficult to control, it plays a crucial part in defining how space is perceived in terms of scale, textures, materiality, and overall atmosphere. Natural light also impacts the emotions people feel in a space, whether lack of light makes us feel fear and anxiety or ample light makes us feel safe and ethereal. As much as light impacts architecture, architecture also impacts light. Through framing vistas, creating 3D massings that cast sculptural shadows, and carving voids from solids that create unique light projections, many architects have mastered design techniques that utilize light in a way that seamlessly integrates it within a building- and perhaps one of the best to do this was the Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa.

Exploring Territorial Relations: The Swiss Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Biennale is Curated by Karin Sander and Philip Ursprung

Switzerland’s project for its national pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition–La Biennale di Venezia will be curated by Karin Sander and Philip Ursprung to explore territorial relationships within the Giardini of La Biennale. Titled “Neighbours,” their project is focused on the spatial and structural proximity between the Swiss Pavilion and its Venezuelan neighbor. By turning architecture itself into the exhibit, the project also highlights the bond between the architects of the two structures: the Swiss Bruno Giacometti (1907 - 2012) and the Italian Carlo Scarpa (1906 - 1978). The exhibition will be on display from May 20 to November 26, 2023.

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Architecture That Hides Stories: A Look at the Brion Tomb by Carlo Scarpa

As human beings we cannot live without stories, we need them to fill those gaps in our reality, to live in our imagination those thousands of lives that are different from ours and, in some cases, impossible.

Could we qualify as "good architecture" that which has a story, or several stories, to tell us? That which is a story in itself? Such a subjective question undoubtedly generates different answers, but one possible answer is "yes". And one example is the Brion Tomb project, one of Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa's major masterpieces.

Spotlight: Carlo Scarpa

One of the most enigmatic and underappreciated architects of the 20th century, Carlo Scarpa (June 2, 1906 – November 28, 1978) is best known for his instinctive approach to materials, combining time-honored crafts with modern manufacturing processes. In a 1996 documentary directed by Murray Grigor, Egle Trincanato, the President of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia for whom Scarpa renovated a Venetian palace in 1963, described how "above all, he was exceptionally skillful in knowing how to combine a base material with a precious one."

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Designing Dead Space: How Architecture Plays a Role in the Afterlife

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Courtesy of VERO Visual. ImageHofmanDujardin

While cemeteries have long served as a place in which we can honor and remember our loved ones, they are also often places that showcase architecture, and landscape design. In the late 19th century, cemeteries evolved from overcrowded and unsanitary urban spaces into rural, park-like social centers. In cities that lacked public parks, cemeteries became popular destinations for picnics, holidays, and other family gatherings.

Is Religious Architecture Still Relevant?

Some of the greatest architectural works throughout history have been the result of religion, driven by the need to construct spaces where humanity could be one step closer to a higher power. With more people choosing a secular lifestyle than ever before, are the effects that these buildings convey—timelessness, awe, silence and devotion, what Louis Kahn called the “immeasurable” and Le Corbusier called the “ineffable”—no longer relevant?

With the Vatican’s proposal for the 2018 Venice Biennale, described as “a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular,” it is clear that the role of "religious" spaces is changing from the iconography of organized religion to ambiguous spaces that reflect the idea of "spirituality" as a whole.

So what does this mean? Is there still a key role for spirituality in architecture? Is it possible to create spaces for those of different faiths and those without faith at all? And what makes a space "spiritual" in the first place?

10 Hard-To-Reach Masterpieces And How To Get There

Visiting architectural masterpieces by the greats can often feel like a pilgrimage of sorts, especially when they are far away and hard to find. Not everyone takes the time to visit these buildings when traveling, which makes getting there all the more special. With weird opening hours, hard-to-reach locations and elusive tours we thought we’d show a selection from our archives of masterpieces (modernist to contemporary) and what it takes to make it through their doors. Don’t forget your camera! 

9 Incredibly Famous Architects Who Didn't Possess an Architecture Degree

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Had the worst jury ever? Failed your exams? Worry not! Before you fall on your bed and cry yourself to sleep—after posting a cute, frantic-looking selfie on Instagram, of course (hashtag so dead)—take a look at this list of nine celebrated architects, all of whom share a common trait. You might think that a shiny architecture degree is a requirement to be a successful architect; why else would you put yourself through so many years of architecture school? Well, while the title of "architect" may be protected in many countries, that doesn't mean you can't design amazing architecture—as demonstrated by these nine architects, who threw convention to the wind and took the road less traveled to architectural fame.

This Concrete Furniture Hardware is Inspired by Carlo Scarpa's Architecture

Material Immaterial Studio has unveiled MIRAGE, a series of concrete furniture hardware inspired by the works of architect Carlo Scarpa.

The MIRAGE series is made up of concrete handles, knobs, and robe hooks, all of which aim to create character through light and shadow. Some of the pieces, with a zigzag pattern, are meant to reduce the heaviness of the concrete material, making it seem light and delicate, while other pieces are meant to express a sense of solidity.

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Riccardo De Cal: Into the Labyrinth — architetture veneziane

Riccardo De Cal presents his exhibition Into the Labyrinth at Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, Italy. The exhibition will include 20 photographs, primarily selected from De Cal's new publication Dream of Venice Architecture. Inspired by novelist Jorge Luis Borges's statement that the maze, "is a building built to confuse people," De Cal has created an interior environment of metal armatures, audio recordings and photography. Designed by Melissa Siben, the exhibit is a modern three-dimensional representation of the labyrinthine structure of the city of Venice.

"Baby Rems" and the Small World of Architecture Internships

The world of architecture is small. So small in fact, that Rem Koolhaas has been credited with the creation of over forty practices worldwide, led by the likes of Zaha Hadid and Bjarke Ingels. Dubbed “Baby Rems” by Metropolis Magazine, this Koolhaas effect is hardly an isolated pattern, with manifestations far beyond the walls of OMA. The phenomenon has dominated the world of architecture, assisted by the prevalence and increasing necessity of internships for burgeoning architects.

In a recent article for Curbed, Patrick Sisson dug into the storied history of internships to uncover some unexpected connections between the world's most prolific architects. With the help of Sisson's list, we've compiled a record of the humble beginnings of the household names of architecture. Where did Frank Gehry get his start? Find out after the break.

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Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947 at Rooms for Glass / Selldorf Architects

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Corroded, 1973 by Carlo Scarpa | via Selldorf Architects

The new exhibition space Rooms for Glass (Le Stanze del Vetro) in Italy, designed by Selldorf Architects, will open this summer in August 2012. The first exhibit to inaugurate the space will be Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947, a collection of over 300 glassworks by architect Carlo Scarpa. The exhibit will run until November 29, 2012, after which Rooms for Glass will continue showcasing the art of Venetian glassmaking in the 20th century with other exhibits.

Read on for more after the break.

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