Magazine article The New Yorker

Homes of the Stars; the Sky Line

Magazine article The New Yorker

Homes of the Stars; the Sky Line

Article excerpt

In the late nineteen-fifties, J. Irwin Miller, the chairman of the Cummins Engine Company, decided to liven up Columbus, Indiana, where his company was based, by commissioning work from famous architects--I. M. Pei, Kevin Roche, and Robert Venturi, among others. Pei designed a library, Roche a post office, and Venturi a firehouse. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the city hall. Charles Gwathmey built subsidized housing. Richard Meier and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer built elementary schools. This made for a place that certainly isn't like any other small town in Indiana, but almost none of the buildings rank among their architect's best work, and Columbus, for all the good intentions, is pretty much the architectural equivalent of one of those art collections that consist of a Henry Moore, a Picasso, a Calder, and a Dali--an assemblage of names rather than a coherent set of works.

Thirty years after the Columbus project was begun, the dean of the college of art and architecture at the University of Cincinnati also had an idea about using glamorous buildings to attract attention, and the school hired Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, and Henry Cobb. Eisenman designed the architecture school, Graves an engineering building, Gehry a molecular-research lab, and Cobb the music school. This project had a master plan, but the whole turned out to be much less than the sum of its parts, and the parts themselves were not first-rate.

In the mid-nineties, Coco Brown, a developer who lives in New York and Bridgehampton, Long Island, acquired about a hundred acres of scrub in the hamlet of Sagaponack, hard by the East Hampton Airport. This is not the part of Sagaponack where Ira Rennert has built the Versailles-like complex that is the largest house in the Hamptons, although it is only a five-minute drive away. Brown's land is not beachfront property. He picked it up cheaply when another developer went bankrupt after putting a handful of houses on it. Brown figured that he needed to do something to distinguish the land, and, like Irwin Miller and the University of Cincinnati, he decided to start collecting architects. He hired Richard Meier as an adviser, and they selected venerable figures such as Graves, Cobb, Richard Rogers, and Philip Johnson, along with younger celebrity architects--Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Shigeru Ban, and Eric Owen Moss--to design houses. They also chose several architects who are less well known to the general public but have substantial reputations in the academic world--people like Stan Allen, Lindy Roy, Winy Maas, Jesse Reiser, Nanako Umemoto, and the sisters Gisue and Mojgan Hariri. This project may be the closest such architects will ever come to designing a freestanding house.

The project seemed like a publicity stunt at first. Designs for the houses were published in a coffee-table book, and there were reports of conflicts between Brown and the architects. Brown, who is seventy years old and tends to dress in the white linen garb of a plantation owner, is accustomed to telling creative people what to do, and he sent Philip Johnson, among others, back to the drawing board. He rejected Thomas Phifer's first design and told Steven Holl that he didn't like a lot of what he had done. "I talked back to Steven Holl and he got a lot less difficult," Brown said to me. "The architects are all stars--it's like a Robert Altman movie." Nevertheless, he signed off on several of the designs and started construction on five houses, including Henry Cobb's, which he even managed to sell. Late this spring, the first house was completed: a sprawling riff on Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion by the Hariri sisters, Iranian-born architects who have practiced in New York since 1986. Three others--the house by Cobb and houses by Annabelle Selldorf and Shigeru Ban--are due to be finished later this year.

The Hariri house looks a lot better than it did on paper. It has a kind of sumptuous, self-assured grandeur that plays on the floating planes and transparent volumes of Mies without ever directly imitating him. …

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