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Review - Book - Strange Details

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By Andrew Mead

Strange Details.
By Michael Cadwell.
MIT Press, 2007.
184pp. £11.95

In early drawings for the Farnsworth House in 1947, Mies van der Rohe situated it on a hillside above Illinois’ Fox River, in much the same way that, 40 years earlier, his Riehl House near Berlin had overlooked its grounds like a belvedere. But then Mies abandoned the hill and immersed the house in the landscape (above), placing it vulnerably close to the river – a fact which both Mies’ client Edith Farnsworth and a later owner, Peter Palumbo, would regret, as floods lapped around its white-painted steel frame.

What was Mies up to? Michael Cadwell offers an answer in one of the four essays in this engaging book; his other subjects being Carlo Scarpa’s Querini Stampalia Foundation in Venice; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin; and Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art.

What unites the four buildings for Cadwell is a quality of ‘strangeness’, which crystallises at the level of detail. In the Jacobs House, for instance, it’s another kind of deliberate vulnerability, because ‘given the choice between protecting or exposing wood there, Wright always chose the latter’. Left as constructed, the house ‘would only have lasted the generation of its family’.

If at times the readings seem decidedly subjective – Cadwell calls them the products of ‘informed imagination’, not rigorous scholarship – he nonetheless carries you with him, because they’re anchored by precise observations and are well expressed. To say something original about four seminal figures is no mean feat.

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