Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Architect of Everywhere

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime serendipities. The editor of Architecti in Lisbon had asked me to write a piece on the Argentina-born "world" architect (with active ateliers in New York, Bologna and Tokyo) Emilio Ambasz.

I'd been dazzled by his San Antonio Botanical Center when it opened in 1988. And in 1989, seeking out the new provincial museum in Lugano, Switzerland (a luminously recycled townhouse by Gian-Carlo Rossi), I literally stumbled on Ambasz's sculpted terrace for Residence-Au-Lac (1976): It beguilingly evokes the Alpine landscape which the residents view every day as they leave for work. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I've never met an Emilio I didn't like.

So when I got the Architecti mandate, I phoned Stuart Wrede at the Museum of Modern Art, whose 1988 Ambasz exhibition reinforced my hunch that Senor Ambasz was the freshest voice in world architecture. He suggested I go direct to the Ambasz office.

When I phoned Marie Wildman, the architect's aide, she agreed to have a packet of Ambasziana ready for me at the Greenwich Village atelier the next morning. I took an earlier train from Philadelphia than I usually do, with extraordinary results.

Ambasz's 11th-floor office was inaccessible because a security key kept the elevator from working there. I waited for a key man. In a few minutes, a very elegantly dressed man appeared with the needed key.

"Are you with the Emilio Ambasz firm?" I asked.

"I am Emilio Ambasz," he replied with a twinkle. Thereupon ensued the most remarkable 90 minutes of architectural discourse it has been my pleasure to participate in.

For a start, I'd just returned from Zurich, where I'd reviewed the Robert Maillart retrospective at the Design School Museum. To my delighted amazement, Ambasz told me that as a science high school student in Resistencia, Argentina, a prescient book on Maillart had been his first epiphany that engineering and architecture were not only compatible but (as his ingenious solutions attest) mutually dependent for grand results.

Since his staff didn't start work until 10 a.m., the master tutored me magisterially, one on one, about his life and work. His first teacher at Princeton, at 19, was none other than civil engineering professor Donald Billington, who organized the first American symposium on Maillart in 1972.

Billington quickly knew he had a genius on his hands, and when the young whippersnapper instantly solved a stress problem Billington had set to test his reflexes, the professor moved the boy into graduate school after only a year at Princeton.

Princeton awarded Ambasz a traveling fellowship at the still tender age of 20. During his first encounter with the City of Light, a thug mugged him. But the resolute lad refused to surrender his valuables. Disillusioned, he left Paris the next morning for Provence to expand his architectural horizons in a less thuggish milieu.

He taught at Princeton and served as curator of architecture and design at MOMA / New York until 1976, during which time he mounted landmark exhibitions on Italian design and Mexican architect Luis Baragan.

I asked Ambasz if it wasn't frustrating to be a curator instead of an architect. His reply revealed his humanistic character: "Oh, no. I loved it. Planting seeds. Helping young architects establish their reputations. Seeing them grow. I've never felt more important or useful."

His quixotic "poetry of the pragmatic" philosophy is perhaps best represented by "The Taxi Project," in which the goal of designing a better taxi for with world's metropolises put him in conflict with U.S. auto executives. The president of General Motors sniffily replied to Ambasz's request for financial and moral support by turning him down cold with the explanation that his company produced 55,000 taxis during the preceding year and didn't need MOMA's help in designing better ones. (Several European auto firms had supported the project enthusiastically, by the way.)

No matter. Ambasz included the GM prexy's acidulously arrogant remarks in the show's catalog, triggering a libel suit from GM. But he had the GM president's letter, and after a bit of legal huffing and puffing, GM dropped the suit.

Ambasz's attitude toward authority and power is also evident in the money he raised for this offbeat show. He borrowed $4,000 seed money from Dr. Frank Stanton, then the president of CBS and by most accounts the real brains behind William Paley's long tenure at the broadcasting corporation.

Paley was also on MOMA's board and was deeply skeptical about the Taxi Project as a MOMA enterprise. When Paley told Ambasz in effect to junk the project, Ambasz simply shouted down the insolent streetfighter Paley.

It helped him that his recycling of an old Beaux Arts structure in Grand Rapids, Michigan, into the Grand Rapids Art Museum (1976) put him into touch with Gerald Ford, for years the U.S. Congressman from that city and a major voice for the auto industry. Courtesy of Richard Nixon's duplicity, Ford became President, and his clout emboldened Ambasz in his skirmish with Paley.

Ambasz entered the world of architecture in 1976, leavened by his liberal education at Princeton (where all the luminaries of our age seemed to be gathered--Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Louis Kahn, not a bad professoriat for a young foreigner!), and toughened by his grapples as MOMA curator at the no-longer-tender age of 33.

His first major work, the Grand Rapids Museum, won Progressive Architecture's Award. He was in the race for aesthetic immortality. He also won the competition to extend the Beaux Arts New Orleans Museum of Art in 1983.

In 1984, it was a rehabbing of a bank interior in Rockefeller Center for Banque Bruxelles Lambert, a $3 million job. In 1984 he also created a Celestial Gardens for Texas Eastern Corporation in Houston, establishing his central reputation as a man who knew how to create garden Edens in our gritty cities.

So it was entirely natural that Ambasz be awarded first prize and a gold medal in a limited international competition for the master plan for Expo 92 in Seville. That site exhibited the same Ambasz persistence in finding fresh solutions for tough problems. His inspired idea: recycling an abandoned Carthusian monastery and a 19th-Century ceramics factory as emblems of the future-looking Expo, solidly rooted in a usable past. It once again attests to Ambasz's pragmatic humanism.

In an era when ecological talk is often shallow and self-serving, Ambasz has staked out a position that combines love of the land and its unique individualities with a hard-headedness that appeals to businessmen more given to bottom lines than to levitating visions.

For example, in an international competition for the Sanda Cultural Sports Center in the new city of Shin Sanda, Japan, his proposal came in much higher than other offers. But the local press mounted a successful campaign for the Ambasz proposal because of his poetic muse. The Japanese know an imported National Treasure when they see one.

Furniture designer, design consultant for Cummings Diesel Engines, garden planter, recycler of noble old buildings--here is a polymath for all seasons: Emilio Ambasz.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 25, 1992

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