Emilio Ambasz

Architect, Argentina and United States
Emilio Ambasz is an Argentinia-born architect and designer whose international
design and architectural projects have made him a significant contributor to the history of
contextualized modernism in 20th-century architecture.
After completing military obligations, Ambasz applied to universities in the United
States and (with the recommendation of Williams) entered Princeton University under a
Palmer Fellowship to the School of Architecture as a freshman in 1963, placed in the
junior-year design studio his first semester, and switched to the first-year graduate
program his second semester. He completed his studies as a graduate student, receiving
his professional degree (a Master of Fine Arts) in two years, having been waived from the
undergraduate curriculum, and joined the faculty in 1966. Appointed as a lecturer,
Ambasz was promoted to assistant professor during 1966–69. In 1968 Princeton awarded
him the Philip Freneau (Class of 1771, Poet of the Revolution) Preceptorship, established
in 1949 as a bicentennial endowment to provide three years of research funds in
recognition of scholarship. In addition, he served as a visiting professor at the
Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany.
Ambasz drafted the charter for the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies
(IAUS) in New York while on the faculty at Princeton and served as its deputy director,
dividing his time initially after joining the Architecture and Design Department of the
Museum of Modern Art of New York in mid-1969, where he served as its curator of
design from 1970 to 1976. His philosophical manifesto for design as the basis of
interdisciplinary discourse was articulated in “Institutions for a PostTechnological
Society: The Universitas Project” (1971), a working paper produced under the joint
auspices of both the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and the Museum of
Modern Art, from which several of his published writings were subsequently drawn.
Derived in part from the thought of Argentine philosopher Tomas Maldonado, Ambasz’s
work postulated the complementary nature of science and design, where the former deals
with the given (to reveal order) and the latter seeks to alter the future (to create order).
The Museum of Modern Art’s design collection reflects Ambasz’s vision of dialectic
between American high technology and the value-added qualities of European design. In
addition, he initiated several milestone exhibitions on architecture and industrial design.
“Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” (1972) was not only a comprehensive
investigation of the 1960s effect of Italian product design but also an intellectual
challenge to design “boundaries.”

It included the designed conversion of the objects’
shipping containers into exterior display kiosks that populated the Museum of Modern
Art’s Garden Court, effectively extending the exhibition beyond its programmed domain.
His exhibit “The Architecture of Luis Barragán” (1974) reintroduced a minimalist
modernism at a time when the historicist revivalism of postmodernism was emerging yet emphasized the Mexican architect’s lyrical and symbolic underpinnings. In
“The Taxi Project” (1976), Ambasz developed a “performance specification” for urban
taxis and, in a manner similar to his “Italy” show, called on industry to respond with
prototypes anticipating the “smart cars” of the late 1990s.
In 1976 Ambasz represented the United States in the Venice Biennale, the first of
many subsequent international exhibitions of his work. This coincided with the formal
opening of his firm, Emilio Ambasz & Associates, and the first of a series of design
awards in the program of the journal Progres s ive Architecture, awarded to his design for the Grand Rapids
(Michigan) Art Museum. This building combined adaptive re-use of an existing Beaux
Arts building, contextual urban revitalization, and reformation of the building with the
intervention of an abstract transparent inclined planar roof, filling the interior of its C
shape and creating a major interior public space. At the same time, this building served as
a symbolic sign for the museum and an allegorical reference by means of a water cascade
over this roof surface.
Ambasz has characterized himself as an inventor. His design work has essentially
straddled the boundaries of a “critical” discourse, at all levels of its definition. This
embraces the tradition of Le Corbusier’s notion of normative standards and architectural
projects as prototypes of larger issues as well as Amancio Williams’s belief that
architecture is a creative act, postulating alternative models to the present condition. In a
method that combines the rational and the lyrical, and quoting Walter Gropius, “Develop
a technique, then give way to intuition,” Ambasz asserts that he does not design with
words; instead, he is a maker of images.
Ambasz’s images, moreover, might best be characterized as a fundamental purism
characterized by a process of extreme reduction in which the object aspect of the
architecture disappears, or at least nearly vanishes, through integration with the
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 76
landscape. As a basic leitmotif of his work, this idea represents more than merely a
philosophical giving back of the land that the building occupies. It is a strategic gesture to
address the crisis of the object in mid-1980s design, to do away with the edifice. It
becomes the frame from within which to harness the site, as in much of the visual arts of
the preceding decades.
Among Ambasz’s works are the Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall (Fukuoka,
Japan), a Janus-like building addressing its urban streetfront and embracing an existing
park at its rear, which literally ascends the 16-story building, a theme extended in his
Phoenix Museum of History (Arizona) and the Myca Cultural and Athletic Center (Shin-
Sanda, Japan). Landscapein-building include the Union Station (Kansas City) and the
Nichi Obihiro Department Store (Hokkaido, Japan), where interior spaces become great
winter gardens, as if the landscape had developed internally. Building-in-landscape are
the Schlumbeger Research Laboratory complex (Austin, Texas), the House for Leo
Castelli (East Hampton, New York), the Lucille Halsell Conservatory (San Antonio,
Texas), Thermal Gardens (Sirmione, Italy), the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Memorial
Museum (Ramat Hanadiv, Israel), and the Barbie Doll Museum (Pasadena, California); in
all cases, these are fundamentally underground earth-sheltered structures as well as
“marked sites” in which man-made structures emerge from a seemingly continuous
Projects that emphasize an aformal strategy of change and indeterminacy include the
Center for Applied Computer Research (Mexico City, Mexico), the New Orleans
Museum of Art (Louisiana), and at an urban scale, the Master Plan for the 1992 Universal
Exposition (Seville, Spain), which incorporate floating structures in a parklike setting or
themes of evolution grounded in a rigorous armature whose fabric is intended to
incorporate variety or actually devolve, such as with the Cooperative of Mexican-
American Grape Growers (California) or “Pro Memoria” Gardens (Ludenshausen,
Ambasz’s career includes design in graphics, installations, and products for which he
holds a number of patents. His industrial design has involved formulating the process
from concept through manufacture: design, detail, patent, tools, and product. Often, there
is a mechanical invention fundamental to the concept: the “Vertebra” furniture series
(included in the design collections of both the Museum of Modern Art and the
Metropolitan Museum of Art) involved a dynamic reconfiguration to adjust to position,
further extended in the “Vertair” series, which developed a patented upholstery system
that expands and contracts. Ambasz has a wide range of products, from toothbrushes to
mechanical pens, including the development of diesel engines as chief design consultant
to Cummins Engine since 1980.
In 1989 he was featured in an exhibition, “Emilio Ambasz: Architecture,” at the
Museum of Modern Art (which traveled through 1995) and subsequently a one-man
show, “Emilio Ambasz: Architecture, Exhibition, Industrial and Graphic Design,” which
was designed by Shigeru Ban and traveled from 1989 to 1991. Although his work
continues to be published, particularly internationally, his products and graphics are
recognized by awards (several have also been accessioned to the Design Collection of the
Museum of Modern Art).
A citizen of Monaco with several international residences and offices in New York
and Bologna, Italy, Ambasz continues his production despite the demands of practice. In
Entries A–F 77
his publications, no projects are dated, and it is never clear whether they were built. In a
sense, this is the essence of Ambasz: to leave behind a Chinese puzzle that appears as one
thing but that contains complex interlockings to be revealed and discovered by others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Je suis un étudiant d'architecture a l'école nationale d'architecture et d'urbanisme en Algérie.
J’ai choisie de faire un expose sur l’architecte Emilio Ambasz, j’ai cherché des documentations sur le principe, le concept et les dispositifs de cet architecte.

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