‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bauhaus’
Janet Abrams, with foreword by Deyan Sudjic
Princeton Architectural Press, 320pp, £22
If you opened a book and its first sentences asked “Have you ever wandered down a street in a familiar city, noticed a new building asserting itself in strident aesthetic contrast to the surrounding urban fabric, and asked yourself: ‘What were they thinking?’ Or navigated a cumbersome website and wondered: ‘Isn’t there a simpler way?’”, wouldn’t you want to keep reading? They characterise Janet Abrams’ 30-year enquiry into spatial appearance and its visual representations, played out in the 26 interviews included in a new anthology, ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bauhaus’.
The catchy title is one of her striking skills, in which she encapsulates the profiles’ themes. Over three decades from the 1980s – as the US correspondent for the recently established Blueprint, and the first architectural critic of The Independent, and ID Magazine’s writer-at-large, and as an early exponent of relationships between architecture and digital design – she interviewed architects, theorists, graphic designers and media moguls. Included on her radar are several who have now reached public mythological status, including Rem Koolhaas (‘Delirious Visions’), Frank Gehry (‘Call That a Fish, Frank?’), and Michael Bloomberg (‘Information Overlord’) jet-segueing from his financial media empire to New York mayordom. They are very good reads, by an agile writer responding to the considerable space and freedom she was given to investigate her subjects’ creative ideas, and convey character.
She profiles architects, some of whom made the jump to graphic spatial worlds, others from peer-appreciated aestheticism to status as lucrative design brands. They remind us of the value of discussing architecture in its cultural and social contexts, and of a brief era when a global design discourse mattered to the British mainstream media. Abrams wrote many of these pieces for a general if informed public when journalism was a craft, and in publications where space was granted for more than news, sensationalism or coverage of conspicuous consumption. My memory of The Independent was that the design column was integral to the main paper, as it remains in European broadsheets such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, to name but one.
In Abrams’ profiles there are histories of the distant and the immediate past, linking the two- and three-dimensional design fields together, and presenting postmodernism not as a style but a cultural tendency. Later interviews include goliaths of the graphics world and major digital technology players such as Paul Rand and April Greiman, as well as the architect, information designer and founder of the TED conferences, Richard Saul Wurman.
The gratifyingly long pieces result in informative, contextualised explanations, converting the conventional superficial exchange to occasions when an interviewee’s personal quirks distinguish the experience. With fragments of real time, some of them settle into cinéma vérité. Abrams’ meeting with Peter Eisenman, ‘(Mis)Reading Between the Lines’, starts with an arrival at his well-concealed studio akin to a sequence from the film ‘Being John Malkovich’, setting the scene for his eccentric digressions.
The pieces were written in what now feels like a less self-referential time, when the parallel visual worlds informing architecture produced integrated discussions, and when American design seemed to hold more interest in the UK, before what Abrams calls the “push-pull of ideas across the Atlantic” was overtaken by a current high-architectural fashion slanting eastwards towards Switzerland and Mitteleuropa.
Abrams is one of the few critics who could write as cogently and effectively on current media as on architecture. In the last interview – first published in her book ‘Else/Where: Mapping: New Cartographies of Networks and Territories’ – she intelligibly unpacks the complexity of designer Ben Fry’s genomic visualisations, no mean feat. ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bauhaus’ leaves one wanting less of the current anodyne reporting of projects and designers, and more reviews of the kind which Janet Abrams’ book is made.