Mike Welton: Arts Annalist and Recorder of Fabulous Design
By Max Eternity
If you’re at all interested in the world of art and design, it would behoove you to know the name: Mike Welton. This guy gets it through and through.
Welton’s a major recorder of all things interesting and worthy in the world of art and design, and very few hold the gravitas of Welton when it comes to modern and contemporary Architecture—including practices in sustainability—and basically, the last century of building-at-large.
Welton is architectural critic for The News & Observer, in North Carolina, and he’s the author of Drawing from Practice, published last year by Routledge Press. It’s a unique and resourceful book that features imagery and interviews with a selection of the contemporary world’s most renowned architects, including Daniel Libeskind, Laurinda Spear, Phil Freelon, and Michael Graves—with who he’s developed a friendship with through the years.
Too this, Welton is credited with writing for a heft of publications—enviable to any arts writer of note—with dozens of past articles being published at Dwell Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Ocean Home Magazine, Interior Design, and New York magazine.
Welton’s the founder of Architects + Artisans (A+A), an online magazine “where good design and those who create it can be illuminated and discussed,” and he’s a contributing author to a brand new book, entitled Dream of Venice Architecture.
In Dreams of Venice, 26 architects and arts writers talk about their experience in Venice, Italy. In addition to Welton, Dream of Venice Architecture includes commentaries by Tadao Ando, Frank Harmon, Louise Braverman, Guy Horton, James Biber, and Thomas Woltz, among others. And the publication of Dream of Venice is quite timely in that 2016 Venice Biennale presently in full swing. And though Welton is an 8th generation Virginian, he says Venice is his favorite city—it’s a place he calls “home.”
A few weeks ago, Welton and I spoke by phone about the books, the articles, and “various and sundry things,” as the saying goes.
Welton’s a credit to the arts and humanities—he’s a citizen of the world—and I feel fortunate to call him my friend.
Eternity: How did you get into writing?
Welton: I’ve been writing all my life…it’s like, I didn’t really have a choice.
Eternity: And why do you say that?
It’s like what William Faulkner said—it’s an itch that you have to scratch. And so, I’ve been writing all my life.
Eternity: Were you writing as a journalist, or poetry, or critiquing?
Welton: When I was younger I started out with fiction. Then I went to the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and I was elected managing editor of the Commonwealth Times, which was the student newspaper. And then was elected executive editor the following year.
Eternity: Broadly speaking, in all the years you’ve been writing what would you like to see more of in the world of journalism that doesn’t get enough attention—whether gaping holes or areas that you think need more coverage—especially in the realm of the arts and humanities…does anything come to mind?
Welton: Well, I do write about that stuff. I just finished writing for a local magazine, about an American Impressionist, Childe Hassam, and that was a really interesting piece. We’re gifted here in Raleigh to have the North Carolina Museum of Art. We have a very fine collection of 15th and 16th century art, but also modern work.
I got to spend a great deal of time with the curator of the Childe Hassam show. I really enjoyed that, so I’d like to work with more curators to discover how they put together their collections—why they’ve done what they’ve done.
Eternity: Now before we talk about your book, I’d like to ask about a recent article you wrote about architectural preservation in Raleigh, North Carolina. I know about the Garland building—but what’s happening there—I hear several important modernist buildings have been demolished in the last 3 or 4 years?
Welton: I’m working right now on a piece about 5 mid-century moderns buildings [in North Carolina] that have easements, or landmark status, so they can’t be torn down. They are 5 very fine buildings that have been saved by this community.
Eternity: That’s nice.
Welton: We have this legacy here of mid-century modernism of the late 1940’s through the 1970’s or so, when the School of Design and Architecture, North Carolina State, was recruiting world-renown architects, who were projecting an image for North Carolina out onto a national and international stage.
These were very progressive thinkers. They were designing these great buildings for themselves. And the buildings now—some of them are 50 or 60 years old—and that’s [are at] just a very vulnerable time for any building.
Eternity: I think I know—50 or 60 years old—but, why would you say that?
Welton: If you think back to the 50’s or 60’s that’s when all the Victorians were being torn down. But now, people would be horrified if somebody was trying to tear down a Victorian.
Eternity: That’s right…that’s right.
Welton: So, my understanding is—after talking to a lot of people here—is that people don’t treasure the homes that they grew up in. They treasure the homes that their parents and grandparents grew up in.
Welton: They are too new to be treasured, and not old enough to be preserved.
Eternity: It reminds me of the essay Isabelle Hyman wrote some years ago in regards to the work I did preserving the Breuer Library in Atlanta, saying that “taste change with regard to the appearance of building, as they do with every cycle of creativity.”
Welton: Well yes, and you know the brutalist buildings, like that library are really at risk. They are being torn down left and right. I just saw, yesterday, another one of Paul Rudolph’s brutalist apartment complexes being torn down.
Eternity: I am still so torn about that school [by Rudolph] in Saratoga, Florida, that got town down.
Welton: He did a lot down there.
Eternity: Yep—good work. But back to Raleigh…?
Welton: There are a lot of interesting, progressive, forward-thinking architects practicing here. One of the requirements, if you were going to teach at North Carolina State School of Design, the dean said, well you have to build, also.
So, they were designing and building homes for themselves—they were designing and building homes for others.
Eternity: That’s brilliant. But here’s this, in my prior discussions a couple of notable architecture professors both of them essentially said that while architecture is the arts experience that we all encounter the most, it is the least talked about, and taught, in [public] school. What do you think about that?
Welton: Well, I never took a course in architecture. I don’t know why that it—there’s a lot of things lacking in the school system. But you know, the role of the [architecture] writer is to inform other people—to educate people—to bring them along.
Eternity: Yes, yes. And I’ve found in my own writing that striking a balance between education and critiquing. How do you feel about that?
Welton: Well, at Architects + Artisans I rarely say anything negative. If I don’t like a building, I just don’t write about it. In the case of my role here at the News & Observer, it’s my duty to be balanced.
I was influenced by a journalist in Richmond, at The Times, and his name was Charlie McDowell.
He’s long since gone, but he had some interesting thoughts on what a columnist should do. He always left open the possibility that he could be wrong, and that: Nobody’s a friend and nobody’s an enemy. The idea is to be as fair as you can. Try to be as literate, thoughtful and understated, and personable, as possible. And the biggest thing is to write as though you writing to an intelligent old friend.
Eternity: You do have an appeal with your writing. I really appreciate you writing, as you know, and obviously a lot of other people do, as well. So tell me about the book, Drawing From Practice?
Welton: Well, it was a long shot. There is no guarantee, but I thought that it was a topic of interest.
There are two camps about drawing in architecture. They either really believe in it, or they’re kinda like: I got a program that can do that for me. So, it’s kinda like computers versus drawing by hand. And this book has to do with drawing as a means of articulating a concept.
Eternity: I’ve enjoyed looking the book…and I’m looking now at a drawing and completed project by Ellen Cassilly
Welton: Ellen’s a Durham architect, and I wrote a piece about her home that she designed—for The New York Times—back in 2009. And she a big believer in drawing while she’s talking to her client, so that she can interpret what they’re saying, on paper, as they talk.
Eternity: Well, I love the use of negative space—and of course, these planes that are just floating in mid-air. It’s really fabulous.
Welton: That house is very interesting…and it’s a really grand location.
Eternity: As we talk, I’m looking also now at Marlon Blackwell. There’s this building, with a glass curtain…
Welton: I believe it’s a library.
Eternity: Yeah…right. Any thoughts?
Welton: Marlon Blackwell is a rock star. He’s a great guy, and he’s smart as a whip. He’s the dean of the architecture school at the University of Arkansas.
Eternity: Lovely building—it’s hard edged, but it doesn’t feel hard. It looks quite inviting.
Welton: It is.
Eternity: And now, I want to ask you about Michael Graves. To be honest with you, I appreciate his work mainly because other people appreciate it so much, but I’ve never quite wrapped my head around it. So, you know him. Where is he coming from with his work—how he puts things into space?
Welton: Well, he taught at Princeton for a long time, and you know he was one of the greats; one of the New York 5, with Meier and a few others.
He was named a Rome Fellow, and went there [to Rome Italy] and he sent me a copy of his book. He signed it—the book, Images of a Grand Tour. And the book is just full of the drawings that he did by hand, of classicism. And when he got back here [United States] he slowly lost the modernist stuff, and made references to scale and proportion of Greek and Roman buildings. And he’s reinterpreting that stuff in new ways.
Eternity: Well I appreciate that, because I didn’t know the backstory. And I think I’ll see his buildings differently now when I look at them.
Welton: He’s also a big believer in drawing by hand.
Eternity: From past conversations, I know you have spoken at length at least once or twice with Phil Freelon. I see the Museum of African-American Diaspora (MoAD) all the time when I’m passing through museum row in Downtown San Francisco, and I know he is one of the partners building that massive new museum on the Washington DC Mall, but just recently I saw a picture of a parking structure he designed in Raleigh, and though Wow, that looks good. Seriously, who makes a parking garage look so divine??? This guy makes anything look good. What’s he like?
Welton: And it looks just like that at night. It’s pretty special.
Eternity: I mean, it’s amazing!
Welton: And you know, the opening drawing on that page: that’s the initial parti for that building.
Eternity: That’s a great drawing.
Welton: Well Phil, he’s one of the great success stories in North Carolina. He had his own firm here for a long time, and then he merged with Perkins and Will. He’s got a seat on the board [of directors], which is really quite something.
He’s the architect of record on the [African-American] museum on The Mall. He and Max Bond Jr. worked on that conceptually, and then invited Adjaye to come in. It’s quite something.
Eternity: Oh yeah. I have no desire to be in Washington D.C., but that building will get me there.
Welton: It will open up pretty soon.
Eternity: So, any thoughts about a future book?
Welton: Yeah, I’m turning over in my mind a book about landscape architecture, but I haven’t got it figured out yet.
Eternity: It’s been really good taking to you.
Welton: Thanks Max.