Emilio Ambasz: Curating a New Nature
Barry Bergdoll
Rizzoli New York, 2022

Barry Bergdoll’s “Emilio Ambasz: Curating a New Nature” is neither an exhaustive biography of the titular designer nor an extensive catalog of his collection of interdisciplinary work. Instead, it is a re-evaluation of the architect, industrial designer, and museum curator that seeks to synthesize his diverse oeuvre into a singular thematic project.

The book begins with an introduction that summarizes the meteoric path Ambasz took from the provincial Argentinian town of his birth to the center of American architectural discourse. After working in the office of the influential Buenos Aires architect Amancio Williams, Ambasz enrolled as an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1964. He was advanced to the master’s program within a year and graduated in 1966. He was soon hired by the Museum of Modern Art as an associate curator of design before being promoted to full curator.

The next section’s 51 pages detail Ambasz’s curatorial work. Bergdoll, who himself served as chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, includes a history of the museum’s department of architecture and design before Ambasz arrived. This provides context, explaining how the institution went from displaying good design to defining what it meant for design to be good. The book describes how Ambasz, whether focusing on domestic Italian design or New York taxis, sought to create exhibits that displayed objects in their contextual environments. According to Bergdoll, this focus on context would also come to characterize Ambasz’s architectural work.

In the book’s second and longest section, Bergdoll describes the architectural projects that defined Ambasz’s career. From the beginning, Ambasz focused on the interplay of buildings and nature, an unusual approach at a time when architects (modern or postmodern, white or gray) emphasized their buildings as objects. Whether it be the late Brutalist work of Paul Rudolph or the early intellectual exercises of Peter Eisenman, these buildings may have been built on a site but had little relationship to that site. And while Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown may have been interested in context, their interest lay in the built context rather than the natural one.

Although the early work of Ambasz still featured monumental abstract forms, those forms were explicitly engaged with the natural world. In a 1976 Progressive Architecture Award-winning proposal for an art museum, Ambasz proposed inserting a monumental entry stair and fountain whose waters — at least as illustrated in the submitted rendering — would have mirrored the sky and clouds overhead. It is doubtful this effect would have worked as drawn (P/A jury member and fellow Argentinian César Pelli thought the idea was “strong” though its execution was “unconvincing”), but it was an early demonstration of the power of a poetic image regardless of its technical viability.

It would be another decade before Ambasz would see one of his architectural visions translated into physical reality. In the early 1980s, this Argentinian-born, New York-based architect had accumulated three concurrent projects in Texas: a plaza for a downtown skyscraper in Houston, a research lab in Austin, and a conservatory for a botanical garden in San Antonio. Despite the diverse scales and programs, Ambasz’s designs each shared an emerging thematic idea that would define his future work. Bergdoll asserts that in these projects “Ambasz was designing landscapes in which any sharp line between architecture and nature, landscape and object, building and setting, had been definitively eliminated.”

In the end, only the San Antonio project would be realized. Charged with creating a conservatory to display non-native plant species, Ambasz called for burying a series of enclosed gardens, each dedicated to a different climatic environment. Skylights rendered as geometric prisms controlled the amount of daylight entering into these these gardens, which were accessed via a sunken courtyard. In addition to referencing the conservatory greenhouses of the Victorian era, these glazed prismatic “hats” also gave the project its iconic image.

With the completion of this project in 1987, Ambasz achieved a reconciliation between architecture and nature promised by his earlier unbuilt works. The Lucile Halsell Conservatory provided Ambasz with a near-perfect opportunity to demonstrate his visionary approach to building with nature, and the result remains no less stunning today.

The simplified narrative that often accompanies the work of a singular visionary “genius” such as Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison often neglects the team of practitioners doing the exhaustive work required to turn a vision into the real thing. Bergdoll is unique in that he mentions by name the architect of record (Jones & Kell), the project manager within that office (Dan Wigodsky, AIA), and other professionals responsible for refining Ambasz’s design and overseeing its construction: Custom glazing systems had to be developed for the iconic skylights, while individualized mechanical systems had to be engineered to maintain the precise temperature and humidity requirements. The inherent contradiction of artificial methods being used to create a natural environment was not lost on critics at the time (Herbert Muschamp’s review of the project in The New Republic was entitled “The Lie of the Land”), but even so, Ambasz’s first built project represented an impressive initial effort for a young architect who would go on to build a vast and impressive body of work.

Except that didn’t happen.

Bergdoll describes subsequent projects in Japan and Italy, but in an architectural career that has now spanned nearly a half century, it is remarkable how little Ambasz has actually built. And while Ambasz deserves credit for creating a compelling vision of what a “green” architecture could be, situating Ambasz as the father of that movement feels overstated given how so many other architects explored similar themes. Frank Lloyd Wright, to name an obvious example, had certainly been interested in the relationship between buildings and nature well before Ambasz. Even in Texas, Pliny Fisk established his Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems while Ambasz was still curating at MoMA. Ambasz may have approached things from a different, more poetic perspective, but the technical work being done by Fisk and others was just as critical to the development of what would come to be known as sustainable design.

The book’s third and final section details Ambasz’s work as an industrial designer. Here the connection of Ambasz’s designs to the thematic ideas at the core of his curatorial and architectural work is the most tenuous. In addition, the extent of Ambasz’s contribution to certain projects is at times unclear. Bergdoll includes quotes implying Ambasz was responsible for the innovative breakthroughs of the Cummins N14 diesel engine. Although it is believable that Ambasz provided the engine’s iconic colors, insufficient evidence is given that he was also responsible for engineering its cooling system. Questions of why the “prophet of green architecture” was designing an internal combustion engine remain similarly unanswered.

Unlike other architects who describe their work in voluminous manifestos, Ambasz has often described his work through magical fables. Stories can certainly be useful for getting at larger truths, but fact must ultimately be separated from fiction. Even with Bergdoll’s detailed analysis, Ambasz remains an elusive figure. Yes, he worked to reconcile architecture and nature, but the resulting reconciliation was limited. Yes, his architectural designs foreshadowed later trends in “green” design, but they lacked the technical thoroughness required for them to be considered truly “sustainable.” Ambasz may have provided an aesthetic promise of what was possible, but it fell to others to make that promise real. Bergdoll seems to acknowledge this ambiguity by arguing that Ambasz’s work acted as a catalyst for the sustainability movement and at the same time represented a missed opportunity for what could have been.

Even if the number of projects completed by Ambasz is small, the work remains powerfully evocative. Each project is worthy of greater study and scrutiny. Each work merits the exact kind of thoughtful analysis Bergdoll provides. “Emilio Ambasz: Curating a New Nature” might not be the definitive work on this singular designer, but it is a welcome addition to the growing mythology of Ambasz and his work.

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the former interim editor of Texas Architect.

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