by Marc Treib. Yale University Press, January 2017. 272 p. ill. ISBN 9780300208412 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed May 2017
A notable scholar of modern as well as landscape architecture, Marc Treib sheds new light on how five master architects approached nature in their work. As he states in his introduction, “Buildings by modern-period architects exemplify varied attitudes toward topography, climate, and vegetation that range from fruitful consonance to marked dissonance.”
Working chronologically, Treib reminds readers of Wright’s sensitivity to nature and arguments for organic architecture. He notes, however, inconsistencies to Wright’s thinking and approach to landscape, especially with respect to the site. Treib attributes this to a desire for creativity. In the desert landscape, Wright was aware of the effects of wind and light and the need for careful materials selection. At Taliesin West, many walls were battered at fifteen degrees to work with the gently sloping terrain. “Sun-accepting” concrete blocks were among the materials used and manipulated in new ways, especially in the house for his son, David. Treib concludes that the nature of the desert site was less important to Wright than the “architectural ideas being imposed upon them.”
Writing about the Farnsworth House, Treib notes Mies van der Rohe considered nature to be the “other.” Building and site appear separated in contrast to the work of Wright. Treib describes this work as an example of building and site in “harmonious opposition.” Nature is viewed through the house; Treib concludes that Mies restricts landscape to an “optical device.”
Neutra, on the other hand, was adept at integrating exterior and interior living spaces. As a modernist, he took full advantage of new technologies and unique materials. Concerned about his clients’ needs, he was able to use the inward facing plan and vegetation to help fashion a sense of privacy. By engaging the landscape and giving full attention to the site, he created a spirit of place and an architecture rooted in the California climate.
Alvar Aalto, too, created buildings that worked well with their sites. For Aalto, the house and landscape were designed to work together, such as at the Villa Mairea. The child of a surveyor, Aalto’s familiarity with topography was coupled with civic responsibility. His mother’s family was engaged in forestry, inspiring in Aalto an understanding of the physical terrain and a desire to work with nature. Aalto’s travel sketches attest to his strong interest in landscape.
Lastly, Treib turns to Luis Barragán, who drew inspiration and form from his native Mexico and its vernacular tradition, rarely using natural materials. According to Treib, “Barragán’s are landscapes made by an architect: they are architectonic. They enfold spaces within their walls, choreograph movement, and broadcast brilliant chroma.”
An important contribution to the study of modern architecture and landscape, Marc Treib summarizes the approach to nature of five different architects, augmenting the eloquent text with beautiful color photographs and an extensive bibliography.