Man of Steel: The Life and Work of Robert Bruno


In the early 1970s, sculptor Robert Bruno began work on a house of corten steel in a suburban development just outside of Lubbock. When Bruno died more than three decades later, that house, a remarkable organic structure looking out over a recreational lake, was still unfinished. Today it sits vacant and empty, its future uncertain. Meanwhile, much of Bruno’s other work, a catalog as astonishing as it is diverse (jewelry, sculpture, furniture, architecture) is either forgotten, neglected, or lost altogether. My latest feature for the DMN tells Bruno’s story. It’s said that journalism is the “first draft at history,” and I hope this piece will introduce Bruno to the cannon and inspire more in depth examination of his career. An excerpt:

You first see it, this unlikely vision, shortly after turning onto Canyon View Drive, a gently rolling street lined by the kind of anonymous homes that define American suburbia. What is peeking up over the horizon is something decidedly different, however, and soon enough you will come upon it in all its remarkable glory: a four-legged organism of blackened steel perched on a scruffy ridge, its curving forms resolving themselves in a postcard view over the blue waters of a recreational lake. It could easily be something landed from outer space, the kind of house a James Bond villain might occupy, if he were to put down roots in a nondescript residential development 15 minutes from the drowsy heart of downtown Lubbock.

Inside, there are no aliens and no cinema bad guys. The house itself is unoccupied and has been since 2008, when Robert Bruno, the charismatic if somewhat mysterious sculptor who had made the house his life’s work, died at age 64 after a prolonged battle with colon cancer.

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As meticulous as he was capricious, Bruno had built the house with virtually no assistance over the course of some 30 years, designing and modifying it as he went, frequently tearing out portions that no longer pleased him. On an apparent whim, he was known to jettison months of work. It was a process that seemed to take as many steps backward as forward and left friends and neighbors to wonder if he would ever finish. Indeed, after so many decades, they had come to understand that finishing was something that didn’t matter to him.

You’ll find the story, with interactive features showing the house during construction, is here.

Where Mad Men Meets the Facts of Life


My latest for the Dallas Morning News is a feature on the erstwhile Braniff Hostess College, a forgotten gem of the mod era, where the airline trained its flight attendants. Reporting the piece was great fun, and I’ve included a short “oral history” of life in the building, and in the sky, from the hostesses themselves. An excerpt:

The doors and windows to those rooms were fitted with an electronic alarm system connected to the front desk, lest any hostess try to break curfew or import one of the city’s eligible bachelors. Monitoring of the trainees was strict. Although the airline traded on their sexual appeal and presumed availability, it did not, in fact, want its hostesses to be available. The company’s insistent use of the term “college” denoted a vision of ladylike sophistication, as if its training center should be considered alongside Bryn Mawr and Wellesley.

Indeed, hostesses were required to be of “good character,” “pleasant disposition” and “easy temperament,” with at least two years of college education, according to a contemporary brochure. Graduates could expect long hours sitting by the telephone, waiting for calls not from suitors, but unforgiving Braniff flight dispatchers. It was typical for hostesses to wear wigs, as they were afraid to miss a call while in the shower.

But they were also objects, and being attractive, young and single was part of the equation. “When you got married or turned 32 you had to quit,” said Aggie Clark, a Clipped B. “We just assumed we turned too ugly or too dumb.” The physical requirements were stringent: height between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 9 inches; no more than 135 pounds.

Other recent stories:
James Carpenter Gift Wraps the Cotton Bowl
Architecture to the Rescue
Dallas: A Canvass for Change
Escaping Astrodoom
A Plan to Save Braniff’s OMB
DFW: A No-Nonsense Monument Hits Middle Age

The Seagram Story


My favorite postwar building in New York? There are only two options: the Whitney, Marcel Breuer’s inverted ziggurat on Madison Avenue, and the Seagram Building, the Mies-Johnson masterwork on Park. Both possess a rare combination of modern austerity and generous, almost playful humanity. I write about Phyllis Lambert and the making of the Seagram Building in this Sunday’s New York Times:

Though it now seems an implacable and timeless monument, a bronzed monolith standing resolutely behind its well-proportioned plaza, the tower’s existence was by no means ordained. In June 1953 Ms. Lambert was a 26-year-old recently divorced sculptor living in Paris, a self-imposed exile from her native Montreal and from her domineering father.

It was then that she reeled off a missive to her father, a response to his own letter outlining plans for a New York skyscraper. She was not impressed with the undistinguished modern box his architects proposed and let him know: “This letter starts with one word repeated very emphatically,” she wrote, “NO NO NO NO NO.”

Seven more pages followed, in which Ms. Lambert alternately scolded, cajoled and lectured her father on architectural history and civic responsibility. There was “nothing whatsoever commendable” in the proposed design, she wrote. “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.”

Check it out, along with a follow up on Design Observer.

Big D


I am pleased to announce that next month I will become the new architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, and also a professor in the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington. This is an extraordinary personal opportunity, to say the least, and one that will place me in a city of Ewing-sized ambition and energy. In getting to know it, I’ve come to see Dallas as a city engaged in a tremendous effort to progressively reinvent itself for the new century, but one that remains burdened by a built legacy that has left it physically and metaphorically divided. In many ways it is the archetypical American city, and in every way it is a fascinating subject.

It is especially heartening, and I suspect not just for me, to see a major metropolitan newspaper finding a way to add an architecture critic to its payroll in 2013. That speaks to the level of interest in architecture and urban planning in Dallas generally, but also to the leadership at the paper and at the university, who together have found a way to make this position possible. Though there has been a welcome proliferation of architectural and urban criticism online, it is a sad fact that the professional rank in daily print journalism is an endangered species. These positions, in my opinion, have the greatest power to shape discourse and policy in the service of the broadest possible public. I am honored and humbled to be joining this select group of practioners.

For the record, I will not be abandoning my home on Design Observer, and I will remain on the masthead at the Architectural Review. Most importantly, work on my biography of Philip Johnson, who had his own critical connections to Texas in general, and Dallas in particular.

The Floating Worlds of Stephen Talasnik


A few months ago, I had the good fortune to become acquainted with Stephen Talasnik, an artist of considerable energy and charm who creates dense, mesmerizing works in two and three dimensions. New Yorkers may be familar with his idiosyncratic portfolio from one of his many exhibitions here or from his recently installed work at Storm King. Our initial introduction led to my contribution of an essay to Talasnik’s new book, Floating World, a documentation of his installation of extraordinary bamboo islands at the Denver Botanic Gardens. These pieces, all meticulously assembled by hand, are held together by repurposed military restraining ties. An excerpt of my piece from that book is up on Design Observer; I hope it conveys the intelligence, generosity, and visual pleasure of both Talasnik and his work. He has some very exciting major new projects on the horizon, works on a grand land-art scale that I expect will become great American landmarks. But that is for the future.

New York at Night


What better way to close the year than with a celebration of those beloved establishments, some gone and some still here, that give the city its character? I close the door on 2012 in the Metropolitan section of the Times with “Elegy in Neon,” a short piece on the latest tombstone from James and Karla Murray. (Don’t miss the accompanying slideshow.) As I write: “You can trace your personal geography in these pages. Here’s the reformed speakeasy where you first spied that dark-eyed beauty, the old standby where they still know your order, the dim-sum parlor that served your grandparents and is still there for your children.”

A few other favorites from the year gone by:
Still Here: The Once and Future Library (Metropolis)
A Brief History of the Microwave (Icon)
Letter to a Critic Departed (Design Observer)
The New Barnes (Architectural Review)
Memories of Architecture’s Lost Visionaries (Design Observer)

The Library: Still Here


What is the future of the library in a digital age? This is the subject of my cover story for the July issue of Metropolis. As I write, “We’re at a moment of profound change in the way we consume information, and that change is shaping the kinds of information we value. It is also shaping the spaces in which we consume information. How does one even begin to think about designing libraries in a time of rapidly developing free custom essays technologies and shifting programs?” The story highlights how a few libraries are adapting to a world of change and uncertainty. It also suggests that, while many are proclaiming the death of the book (and subsequently the building designed to house it), libraries are in fact more popular than ever, and they’re playing ever more vital roles in a society where public space is all too rare.

Hall of Fame


What kid doesn’t dream of making it to baseball’s Hall of Fame? Being fairly incompetent on the field, I had few illusions about making it to Cooperstown the conventional way, but I am very proud to go in through the side door of the library. It may not count as official enshrinement, but the research archive I put together in writing Spalding’s World Tour has been acquired by the Hall, and will henceforth be available to scholars as the Mark Lamster Papers, alongside the collections of Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Robert Creamer, and others. It is a tremendous honor.

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I’m also pleased that my work will continue to have a life, and perhaps be a source for writers of the future. The Spalding tour, with its intertwined themes of American diplomatic and commercial adventurism, not to mention its wonderful characters, is a subject that remains relevant and worthy of exploration, and I expect it will be so for years to come. It also seems appropriate to keep this material in Cooperstown, as that city’s claim as baseball’s place of invention is a product of Spalding’s fabricated history of the game. I am not the first to debunk the Doubleday myth, which has a disturbing staying power, but I am glad to have contributed, in some way, to the continuing efforts to bring enlightenment to the national game.

Where New York’s Medicis Keep their Junk


A couple of weeks ago, while waiting for my daughter at the Manhattan terminus of the Roosevelt Island Tram, I was attracted to a largely windowless tower a few blocks to the north. It seemed a remnant from a time long past, which indeed it was. Some investigation revealed it to be the warehouse of Day & Meter, Murray & Young company, which has been the storage venue of choice for New York society since it opened its doors in 1928. This building became more and more interesting the more I learned about it, revealing itself to be more than just a warehouse of physical objects, but a mainframe of urban memory. Its history is the subject of my feature in the Metropolitan section of this Sunday’s Times. Check it out.

Another New Address: The Architectural Review


I am pleased to announce that I have joined the masthead of The Architectural Review, the venerable English magazine, as Associate American Editor. It’s an honor to join a magazine with such a distinguished history, and it continues my tradition of associating myself with only the organizations for which I have tremendous respect. This new appointment will not keep me from my work at Design Observer, so if you don’t have my page there bookmarked, please do so.

For what it’s worth, here are a few of the pieces I’ve written for the Review:

James Stirling: Notes from the Archive
Small Scale, Big Change
Center of Controversy