Renovating the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library viewed from the southeast corner. The library's facade features a promotion for Banned Books Week 2016, which had recently taken place.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. was designed by Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1972. It cost $18m to build and was a rare example of modernist architecture in the capital.

However, maintenance wasn’t kept up and it took 3.5 years to renovate. A documentary examined the modernisation, led by Dutch architects Mecanoo and DC-based OTJ Architects.

The documentary film follows architect Francine Houben as she investigates the past and present in order to design a world-class library. Francine delves into the archives, meets contemporaries of Mies and King, speaks to current visitors of the library, and participates in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Peace Walk. During her quest, both the building’s namesake and the original architect look over her shoulder critically.

Now I’m imagining one of those tawdry memes with Martin Luther King and Mies van der Rohe in a cloud looking down with their thumbs up.

Stream it below.

A Legacy of Mies and King - Renovating the Public Library of Washington D.C.

Mies related: Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion

(Image credit: Wikipedia, shared via CC BY-SA 4.0)

Albert Murray on race, jazz, and modernism

albert murray

Tim Keane wrote an essay on jazz writer Albert Murray for Hyperallergic. He touched on Murray’s life and his work examining modernist art and jazz:

In Murray’s view, jazz converts psychological pain and its vernacular offshoots into ritualized, polytonal, integrated music and dance. Jazz adapts and expands the written scores that the musician follows and ultimately surpasses; its best improvisers are extemporizing formalists learning from and competing with the innovations of peers, collaborators, and forerunners. Its refinements universalize the particular, dissolving personal history and psychosocial baggage, and call participants into the mythic dimension — an aesthetic realm that involves getting on the dusty dance floor.

There was also a brief critique of Murray’s 1970 essay collection, The Omni-Americans:

The book dismantles American Black separatism as a regressive, escapist fantasy that cedes the premise of white supremacy — the Balkanization of the country by race — to the nation’s bigots. Though he necessarily deploys them to make his points, misleading or reductive labels infuriate Murray, who believes that being American involves being neither wholly Black nor wholly white, while insisting that Blackness be defined as a characteristic as primarily American as whiteness has been since the country’s founding.

Fifty years on, such liberal hypocrisy is endemic to hyper-gentrified gluten-free neighborhoods, where Black Lives Matter posters hang in the windows of pricey condos, boutiques, and galleries — stretches of real estate that once housed working-class Black families and businesses.

Grab a copy of The Omni-Americans on Amazon and read Tablet Magazine’s review of the book on its 50th anniversary.

Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980

Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980

Post-war Eastern Europe went through radical change at the hands of communism. Brutalism married up with the harshest sociopolitical conditions and defined many landscapes, particularly in countries like Yugoslavia.

Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić examined the nation’s architecture and how it shaped the state when they visited MoMA’s Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 exhibition in 2019.

It was really an important contribution to create some kind of a life space for citizens in Yugoslavia. The end of World War II, there was a moment of destruction and trauma but then was transformed into a great source of energy for the reconstruction of the country. Hundreds of thousands of young people contributed to the construction of new railway lines, highways, dams, factories. The war really had left deep scars that produced an enormous forward-looking utopian vision of a better world. And architecture played a fundamental role.

HOW TO SEE | Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980

Paul R. Williams: the Black architect of public buildings and celebrity homes

Paul R. Williams standing in front of the Theme Building in Los Angeles

28th Street YMCA, Theme Building at LAX, and Frank Sinatra Residence on Bowmont Drive in Hollywood. What do they all have in common? A Black American architect named Paul Revere Williams.

Born in Los Angeles in 1894, Williams designed a mixture of celebrity homes for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball but also had a hand in designing iconic buildings such as 28th Street YMCA and Theme Building at Los Angeles Airport (LAX), the latter a significant piece of Googie architecture.

His award-winning career started in 1916 when he studied architectural engineering at the University of Southern California. He became a certified architect in 1921 and the first certified African-American architect anywhere west of Mississippi.

Before retiring in 1973, he designed over 2,000 private homes and public buildings, many now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here are 5 of them.

1. The Beverly Hills Hotel

The Beverly Hills Hotel sign
The iconic Beverly Hills hotel signage

While Williams didn’t design the original hotel, he did design the Crescent Wing and the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel signage. The hotel now has a suite named after him, with “a large patio for entertaining and a cool, 1950s vibe”.

This project was the first of many for Williams at the hotel. Throughout the 1940s he designed additions and alterations, updating much of the Mission-style hotel complex. Williams was responsible for creating the hotel’s aesthetics, which have essentially remained unchanged even with new ownership in the 1990s.

Quote via Paul Williams’s official website

2. First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles

First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles
Photo by Ysa Adams / Incite Photography

Completed in 1968, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles (also known as First A.M.E. or FAME) was designed in the Late Moderne style with “a zigzag motif used along the roofline and the porch of the front entrance enlivening the simple stucco exterior of the building”. When Williams passed away in 1980, his funeral was held at the church.

3. Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company commissioned Williams to design the new building. Built in the Late Moderne style, he used steel and concrete to create a five-story building with a mezzanine, basement, and enough space for GSM’s 300+ employees. The building also had a 400-seat auditorium, a cafeteria, employee lounge and medical department and cost over $1.06m to build (including the cost of the furniture). After a renovation in 2015, a monument was erected in Paul R. Williams’s honour.

4. Jay Paley House

Jay Paley House

The Jay Paley House was designed by Williams for businessman Jacob Jay Paley and his wife in the 1930s. Construction started in 1932 and was completed in 1936, with subsequent renovations in 1945 and 1961. It cost $100,000 to build and stayed in Paley’s hands until his death in 1961, when the estate was subdivided and sold for $475,000 to Barron Hilton, who lived there until his death in 2019.

The Hollywood Regency-style house covered two stories and contained 32 rooms. According to The Jeffrey Hyland in his book, Legendary Estates of Beverly Hills, it was a departure from Williams’s previous styles at the time:

“He started with the traditional English Georgian style and then gave the residence a thoroughly modernist spirit, creating a residence that was both traditional and contemporary.”

5. Theme Building (LAX)

Theme Building (LAX)

And last but not least is The Theme Building, a Googie structure housed at the Los Angeles International Airport. Williams was part of a team of architects who turned the design into a Space Age reality including William Pereira and Charles Luckman of Pereira & Luckman, and Welton Becket.

The secret to the building’s iconic “crossed” arches lies in an illusion. What appears to be a single construction is, in fact, a combination of four 15 foot-long concrete legs reinforced by steel. The Theme Building was a cultural crossover between pop culture, architecture, and a growing interest in the space age. In 1993, The City of Los Angeles designated the interior and exterior as a historic-cultural monument.

For more on Paul R. Williams’s incredible career, check out 99% Invisible’s episode on The Architect of Hollywood.

Rent this Mies van der Rohe documentary on Vimeo

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I love a bit of modernist architecture and my favourite building is the Barcelona Pavilion in Barcelona. I loved it before I knew who the architect was but once I did, my eyes were opened to some of the greatest modern buildings ever constructed. And they were thanks to Mies van der Rohe.

Mies wasn’t the only modernist architect making waves at home and abroad but he was arguably the most influential. Buildings like the Seagram Building, Farnsworth House, 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, and the National Gallery in Berlin are referenced decades after completion and he gave us two famous quotes (although they didn’t originate from him):

In the documentary, Mies, a number of architects review his works alongside footage of Mies explaining his thought processes and philosophies. You can rent the documentary on Vimeo for £4.99. This gives you 48 hours to stream it on your desktop as well as iOS, Android, Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast.

Stream the trailer below.

Copyrighted works from 1923 enter the public domain today

Public Domain

Firstly, happy new year to you all. We hope 2019 is even more prosperous than 2018. If you’re a creative or a lover of the arts, today’s events might help with that.

1st January is Public Domain Day. What does that mean? Well, works of art from 1923 become the copyright-free to the public, meaning you can quote as much as you want wherever you want without attribution. The same will be said for works from 1924 next year, 1925 the year after and so on. Naturally, works before 1923 are also public domain unless otherwise set.

This was meant to take place a lot sooner if it wasn’t for an intervention by the US government. In 1998, congress signed a bill, sponsored by Sonny Bono (yes, that Sonny Bono) allowing a 20-year extension of the copyright term. According to Open Culture, “the legislation, aimed at protecting Mickey Mouse, created a ‘bizarre 20-year hiatus between the release of works from 1922 and 1923.'” Now that’s over, certain Mickey Mouse cartoons and appearances are free to remix without fear of Disney. Well, fear of Disney is never totally extinguished.

But what was released in 1923? A lot of stuff. Mostly silent movies, artwork from the Art Deco period, works from the Harlem Renaissance, early jazz compositions. If you love modernism as I do, this will be like uncovering a treasure trove.

Below you will find a list of works from 1923 and general content free from copyrights. Always remember to check works from any years prior to 1923 to make absolutely sure you follow any licence requirements (if there are any). And happy hunting!

Lists of public domain works from 1923 and more

The World's Largest Mondrian

It’s in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the founding of De Stijl, a Dutch modernist movement. Piet Mondrian was a chief progenitor who inspired the likes of Maarten Baas, Joris Laarman and Piet Hein Eek, who are still influenced by the De Stijl today. The façade was created by Madje Vollaers and Pascal Zwart of studio VZ.

Mondrian’s style is overused both in concept and as the sole representation of modernism. I love it but in short visual bursts. Having his iconic work on such an important building looks wonderful but I can see how it would bore Dutch people after a few visits.


Modern Art - It's More Than Just White Paintings

Why these all-white paintings are in museums and mine aren't

The fact they’re white is more than a little poignant. Vox asked the question “Why do all-white paintings sell for millions of dollars and end up in museums?” The answer isn’t “because high art is pretentious and has a serious problem with diversity and inclusivity” as I’d have hoped.

Instead, Elisabeth Sherman of the Whitney Museum of American Art said “there is much more to these paintings than meets the eye, and while you could have painted one of these priceless pieces of art, you didn’t” (quoted from the Vox video description).

While I agree with the latter, the former feeds into the general pretension of modern art. A lot is inferred but the reason behind some works of art could just be “I liked how it looked” without a need for a deeper, hidden meaning. But that would devalue otherwise mediocre white art, wouldn’t it?

Postwar modernist Gunnar Birkerts dies at 92

Interview: Gunnar Birkerts (Michigan Modern™ Design that Shaped America)

Alexandra Lange wrote a brilliant piece on the modernist architect Gunnar Birkerts, who died this week at the age of 92. Birkerts was born in Latvia but fled his home towards the end of WWII as Russian troops entered.

After graduating from Technische Hochschule in 1949, Birkerts eventually opened an office in Detroit. His love of geometry shone through his work, in buildings such as Marquette Plaza in Minneapolis and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. His work was in contrast to the brutalism seen in Ukraine, not far from where he was born.

Stream an hour interview with Birkerts below.

10 Classic German Expressionist Films

NOSFERATU - German Expressionist classic

Open Culture has selected 10 iconic films to watch for free, from Nosferatu to the prophetic classic Metropolis.

German Expressionism ended in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. They weren’t interested in asking uncomfortable questions and viewed such dark tales of cinematic angst as unpatriotic. Instead, they preferred bright, cheerful tales of Aryan youths climbing mountains. By that time, the movement’s most talented directors — Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau — had fled to America. And it was in America where German Expressionism found its biggest impact. Its stark lighting, grotesque shadows and bleak worldview would go on on to profoundly influence film noir in the late 1940s after another horrific, disillusioning war.

10 Classic German Expressionist Films: From Nosferatu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari via Open Culture

Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion (Documentary)

The Barcelona Pavilion was originally designed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe but was demolished after the exposition ended.

Mies had a series of photographs taken of the building beforehand and thanks to these images, a group of Catalan architects were able to reconstruct it between 1983 and 1986.

This documentary details every innovate aspect of the pavilion, with quotes from Mies himself. Every element of the building had a purpose without the coldness of others of the era.

Innovation was the underlying theme, with opulence from the materials used (red onyx, marble and travertine.) As a lover of both Mies and the construct, I found it fascinating and learnt a lot from it.

Anyone with even a passing interest in architecture, design, or the modernist period will enjoy this documentary.

SeMies related: Another Mies documentary and Paul R. Williams: the Black architect of public buildings and celebrity homes

[36] German Pavilion | Ludwig Mies van der Rohe