WAF BOOK REVIEWS
Postmodern Architecture: Less is a Bore
By Owen Hopkins
With some 200 sometimes glorious colour plates, this compendium of ‘postmodern’ architecture is a visual treat – if you like a meal comprising desserts only. Amidst the multiple quotes accompanying the images, mostly explanatory or complimentary, a few acidic descriptions come as a relief to the saccharine sweetness of the visual content. Berthold Lubetkin, for example: ‘This is a transvestite architecture --Hepplewhite and Chippendale in drag.’ Missing is his even more pertinent observation, given at his Gold Medal address at the RIBA, where he compared postmodern architects to ‘ornamental pastry chefs’. He would have been appalled by this book.
However, the life, colour and inspiration displayed in its pages is the perfect rejoinder to those who insisted on the sort of joyless Modernism that eschewed the pitched roof as morally offensive, and which took the narrowest definition of function to create the sort of city urbanism which prompted the postmodern revolution. Owen Hopkins, who is about to leave his post as senior exhibition curator at the Soane Museum, staged an excellent 2018 show about British postmodernism, from which this book sprang (he has written a thoughtful introduction), though it is full of international examples too. The choice owes something to Charles Jencks’ claim that ‘we are all postmodernists now’.
For example, London readers might be surprised to see three prominent buildings in the capital being included in the postmodernist canon: Broadgate Circle by Arup Associates; the Queen Victoria Street offices by Foggo Associates; and Portcullis House, the Parliamentary offices opposite Big Ben, by Hopkins Architects. Really? And if they are, do they fall into that camp of buildings described by Richard Rogers (whose own vivid use of colour allowed CJ to claim him as one of Pomo’s own) in very blunt terms: ‘Postmodernism is the superficial aesthetic of shoddy commercial design obsessed with money and fashion’. Ouch.
Of course ‘postmodernism’ includes the good, the bad and the ridiculous, not least because it reasserted the role of art in the world of architecture. Michael Graves is cited: ‘I see architecture not as Gropius did, as a moral venture, as truth, but as invention, in the same way that poetry or music or painting is invention’ (see review below). The trouble with this is that the poet, composer or artist is not responsible for housing, schools, hospitals and the design of the city. Architects are, this being both mission and burden.
Robert ‘I am not a postmodernist’ Venturi understood this only too well, but could scarcely escape being pigeonholed in the same way as was Jim Stirling, the first postmodernist Gold Medallist. Being witty only added to the Pomo image: Sean Griffiths of FAT cites Venturi’s deadpan comment to the practice: ‘Keep up the bad work’. It might have served as a title for the book, but for the fact that much of what is shown is obviously the work of highly skilled architects.
Walter Gropius: visionary founder of the Bauhaus
By Fiona MacCarthy
Faber & Faber
Published in hardback last year, this is a most welcome more affordable publication which is also exceptionally good value: apart from the written content itself, there are multiple images, many of them in colour. This is exemplary publishing, providing a comprehensive index and a list of sources and references which will make it not just compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in 20th century architecture and design, but easy to use.
It is hard to praise either the research or the organisation of this book too highly. It engages with a gigantic cast of characters, spans a century of revolutions and wars, both physical and intellectual, and most of the world geographically. The three sections, Germany, England and America make sense as organizational device, even though Gropius travelled extensively outside each territory in the periods under review.
The range of buildings, from the Fagus factory to the PanAm tower in New York, is fully covered, extending even to the Playboy Club on London’s Park Lane (actually designed as a commercial building for the developer Jack Cotton).
But is the story of the founding and duration of the Bauhaus which forms the real core of the book. The history is extensive, particularly in respect of the personal relationships between the principal players, who were to affect each other for the rest of their lives. MacCarthy, who met Gropius once but knew well some of the people who were close to him, particularly in England, is the first biographer to have unravelled the messy story of the marriage to and subsequent break-up with Alma Mahler, a dispiritingly sad tale which largely contributed to the image of Gropius as a somewhat dour if not dismal character.
He was far from that especially in his early life, but had to live with the image given him by Tom Lehrer in his witty song about Alma. MacCarthy shows why this was wrong, not that Gropius particularly cared.
If you haven’t read this book, you need to: as the celebrations around the Bauhaus centenary last year made clear, its effects are still with us.
Australia Modern: Architecture, landscape and design 1925-1975
By Hannah Lewi and Philip Goad
Thames & Hudson
This is an essential guide to a key period in Australian and indeed international architecture and design which helpfully uses chronology to good effect. That is because it is applied to building and design types, rather than simply lumping everything together. This allows for good comparative analysis – and reminds us that there was an Australian architecture before, during and after the construction of what can only be a centrepiece: Sydney Opera House by the non-Australian Jorn Utzon. Very well-illustrated with both (fascinating) historical and contemporary images, this is a handsomely produced encyclopaedic volume which almost be definition will be timeless.
Vernacular Architecture: Atlas for living throughout the world
Edited by Christian Schittich
Hardback £61.96 (Amazon)
This book is a reminder in a world of super-glossy homages to Modernism that vernacular housing is alive and well, rooted in traditions which relate to basic requirements for shelter and habitation whatever the climate and whatever the culture. This by no means implies any lack of sophistication on the part of indigenous non-architects across the world; indeed, the further you look in this admirably illustrated compendium, the more admiration you feel for the way in which materials and construction techniques combine to create not just shelters, but homes. Editor Christian Schittich can be proud of his achievement in producing such a comprehensive volume, arranged by geography, New discoveries abound on almost every page.
Portfolio: Foster & Partners 1967 - 2017
Edited by Tom Wright with essays by Norman Foster and Peter Buchanan
Foster & Partners
Where to begin? For fans of Foster & Partners’ work – and there are many of them – this will be an indispensable volume even for owners of the many volumes of collected works previously published. What this publication does is to put, under one roof as it were, not just the buildings but ideas behind unbuilt projects, not all of them familiar. Competition entries, commissions that got away, industrial designs, speculative ideas and of course the built work provide a treasure trove of architectural history from the past 50 years. In that sense it is worth every penny, especially given the lavish illustrations. The concise essays are a useful introduction to content and the design evolution is fascinating.
That said, as is frequently the case with monographic publications, the decision to avoid meaningful captions, that is to say captions that tell you more than simply what you are looking at, is a matter for regret. The publication really comes to life when you suddenly come across a Foster sketch with a few words, explaining a line of design thinking which is as concise as it is informative.
After that, all is silence: you simply have to look and admire. One hopes that a second edition would provide captions explaining the thinking behind particular projects, the difficulties overcome in delivering the extraordinary range of building types, and the way ideas were taken forward into other projects. In other words, rather than relying on the brief introductory texts for each decade, you want to be able to read this publication as a picture book, garnering information on every page in addition to the labels.
As it is, the volume is less than the sum of its parts – even though the parts establish the Foster office as being the most important architectural practice of the past 50 years.
Sensing Place: What is the point of architecture?
By Philip Gumuchdjian
Philip Gumuchdjian is a talented architect who worked for 18 years with Richard Rogers before setting u p in practice on his own account 20 years ago. A good and fair critic, who did an excellent job as a three-year chair of the sometimes-fractious RIBA Awards Group, he has now put pen to paper to summarise the ideas behind an impressive group of buildings he has delivered both in the UK and further afield.
The nicely produced volume includes other elements such as exhibition design – for example his successful exhibit at the last Venice Biennale, proposing a sort of pilgrim’s cultural route through his family’s native land, Armenia.
This book is mainly concerned with relatively small projects, but also includes some big collaborations, for example with Shigeru Ban on the Centre Pompidou-Metz, and some big ideas, which appeared in ‘Cities for a small planet’, the publication he co-wrote with Rogers and which formed the basis of the Reith Lectures for the BBC in 1995.
What you get here is not big polemic, but a series of digestible thoughts and explanations and insights from a working architect with a wide range of experience and cultural background, a notable contributor to the idea of ‘civil architecture’ enshrined in the RIBA’s Royal Charter.
Material and Mind
By Christopher Bardt
This is an unusual and thoughtful examination of the relationship between what (and how) we think, and the material world, mediated, as the book’s introduction says, by language, image and making in fields of design, the arts, culture generally and science. It also includes a speculation about the relationship with the digital world which is transforming all our lives.
The author is a professor of architecture at Rhode Island School of design, so the book is academic in tone, with appropriate footnotes and indexing. But it is written in plain language, helped by 104 black and white illustrations (by definition colour would have been welcome for his subject). Those chosen are sometimes unexpected, for example showing clay modelling of automobile design at General Motors in the 1940s, or contrasting Roman mosaics with a pixelated portrait of Barack Obama.
It is difficult to convey the rich mix of ideas and questions Christopher Bardt raises in a short review such as this. Suffice to say that they are stimulating and provocative in a constructive way, prompted by neuro-scientific research on the nature of the mind.
To take one example: Bardt describes the ‘peculiar conviction that the imagination functions autonomously’ when it is involved in creative activity via language, pencil, building material and so on, and that media and method are secondary considerations. He quotes the 20th century US writer and philosopher William Gass: ‘things give rise to thoughts, thoughts do not give rise to things, except secondarily as plans for action’. I immediately thought of the architect and his/her relationship to genius loci.
Juhani Pallasmaa endorsed the book, describing it as ‘an erudite and enticing exploration into the intriguing realm between and matter’. Thinking architects should take a look.
The Theatre of Work
By Clive Wilkinson
Clive Wilkinson Architects specialise in workplace design and have delivered offices for clients including Disney, Google, Intuit and Microsoft. Now their principal, Clive Wilkinson has distilled the experiences of the practice, formed in Los Angeles in 1991, into his first book. This is part practice monograph, part history and part disquisition on the changing nature of what we no longer quite call the office. The monographic element, unusually, is really very interesting, recalling the questions raised in relation to working on specific projects for specific clients in what seems to be an honest account of the design process. It is also very nicely illustrated. There is passing amusement to be gained from scrutinising the juxtaposition of pull-out quotations, where nuggets from Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault or Peter Drucker are immediately following by Clive Wilkinson observations, putting him in exalted company. There is also a curious proposition that as water is to fish, so is the city to humans – transparent. Actually the difference, as this book makes clear elsewhere, is that people are all too conscious about the nature of the space and volume we find ourselves in. Fish haven’t got the faintest.
Courtyard Living: Contemporary House of the Asia-Pacific
By Charmaine Chan
Thames & Hudson
As one would expect, this is a handsomely produced review of one-off homes across the Asia-Pac region, focussing on the ubiquitous courtyard condition that informs the title. The author’s introduction suggests that there might have been a more reflective book struggling to get out – she references the Schindler House and the Smithsons’ 1956 one-window townhouse – but confines herself mostly to description of the examples given. This is an upmarket pot-boiler where, as usual, photography trumps drawings. Only ground-floor plans are shown, even though many of the houses have what appear to be interesting sections, so an opportunity to think about the courtyard as volume, rather than simple space, has been missed. High production values did not extend to naming the location of each house referenced in the Contents section.
Millennials in Architecture: Generations, disruption and the legacy of a profession
By Darius Sollohub
University of Texas Press
This is a very interesting and timely study of inter-generational difference, the impact it is already having on the world of architecture this century, and what may result from changing attitudes to everything from ownership to climate change. This is an academic study, with the footnotes to prove it and sometimes the language – nomadicity is not a happy word, even if you intuit what it means. The author, an associate professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of technology, has a bit of a thing about nomads: ‘the habits of Millennial digital nomads have disrupted the academy far more than the profession because Millennials have been present in academia longer,’ he observes, before going on to speculate about what will happen to the profession as students gradually taking the lead within practice itself. This is an unusual combination of sociology, professional history and speculation about the future and the impact of new technologies. It is readable despite some clunky English.
By Peter Salter
This is a beautifully designed and published book about an architectural curiosity: Peter Salter’s clutch of houses for the developer Crispin Kelly (the former taught the latter at the Architectural Association) in west London. Originally intended as a commercial project, it has now become a sort of haven for creatives in search of short-term accommodation in congenial surroundings. A series of essays accompany the paintings, drawings and photographs which won the design a high commendation at world Architecture Festival in 2018. This is the story in the round – and in the best sense little is left to the imagination.
Climax City: Masterplanning and the Complexity of Urban Growth
By David Rudlin and Shruti Hemani
This is a thoughtful and sometimes powerful polemic about the nature of cities and the way they are ‘masterplanned’. The authors, both experienced urban designers and academics, take us through the history of city and neighbourhood-making, observing the exponential speed at which 21st century cities are being created. They argue that neither Dubai nor the green-exemplar Masdar offer a fundamental model for the way we should think about cities, preferring to regard masterplanning as the creation of trellises, with urban growth as a vine to be guided but not controlled or pre-determined in detail. Their conclusion about the best way forward, which is to promote the long-term role of a ‘master-developer’, responsible for masterplans, infrastructure and leasing/property strategy, may seem unremarkable, but the point is that the book demonstrates why they have reached this conclusion, and what the implications might be for future generations. Refreshingly free of stylistic prescription or proscription, the book is not about architecture. It is nevertheless a first-rate publication for students and professional architects interested in where and how urban design creates, for better or worse, the contexts in which architecture can emerge.
Dream City: Creation, Destruction and Reinvention in Downtown Detroit
By Conrad Kickert
‘Don’t forget the motor city . . .’ sang Martha and the Vandellas, when the Motown recording label was in its pomp. The demolition of Detroit’s Motown headquarter was symbolic of a city losing its way and which had, by the end of the 20th century, become a symbol of all that could go wrong in a post-industrial environment. And yet . . . the emerging revived downtown is an intriguing story of individual enterprise, civic and governmental absence, and a psychological resilience which suggests that there is a better future around the corner. This is a thorough academic study, with a chunky section of notes occupying almost one third of the volume. However, the prose style is readable and concise, and the research into the extraordinary history of this unique downtown area is entirely convincing, full as it is of driven characters intent on capturing parts of the city for their own aggrandisement, be it motor manufacture, parking lots or pizzas. This is the history and potential future of a very particular urban environment, but it has parallels and warnings for cities everywhere.
Model City Pyongyang
By Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drape
Thames & Hudson
Nicely produced an illustrated, there is a slight feeling of ‘The World’s Most Boring Motorway Stations’ about a model city intended to show off the aspirations and achievements of the hereditary regimes of North Korea post the Korean War, when the city was razed. The pastel colours have something to do with it, as does the relentless symmetry of grand spaces and buildings in strangely unpeopled photographs. Look closer, however, and you sometimes see what the regime’s architects are trying to get at, based on ideological tenets which make very clear that individualism is not required. Still, give a creative a pen and a budget and you never know what might happen; every so often a striking building (like the May Day Stadium) leaps off the page, in the same way that the city comes to life on the rare occasion when you see citizens apparently enjoying themselves. A few short essays are useful in providing background to the reasons for the architecture displayed, though they steer well clear of addressing the elephant in the room, that is to say the aggressive dictatorship of Kim Jong-Un and his stated nuclear ambitions which might, if he is not careful, result in the second general destruction of Pyongyang.
The Short Story of Architecture: A pocket guide to key styles, buildings, elements and materials
By Susie Hodge
Hardback £14.99 (publishing date end September)
A little bit large and heavy for a pocket, but this guide would fit handily into the shoulder bag of the lay-traveller. It would also make a decent present for a teenager showing interest in the subject. Compared to other pot-boilers on the history of architecture, its interest lies in the way it splits up styles from key buildings (which range from the Great Pyramid to the Elbphilharmonie) and the inclusion of brief sections on building elements (eg the balcony or the wall) and materials (timber etc). The glossary and index could have deployed easier-to-read type, but it is good that they are there. Overall verdict: refreshing.
Modernity and Durability
Perspectives for the Culture of Design
Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani
The boundaries between history and theory have never been entirely clear in architecture: Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani’s book Modernity and Durability Perspectives for the Culture of Design, elegantly and perceptively shows why this is the case. His central thesis is that design – across urban design, architecture, furniture and product design – is a craft rather than an art. As such it is subject to the discipline of tradition, a cumulative and collective process where innovation is only possible in small increments; the wisdom of ages (and accumulated knowledge and skill) shape any endeavour. These endeavours can contribute to the knowledge embedded in craft discipline, but not overthrow it. Every act of creation is, therefore, part of a historical continuum whose evolution can only be understood through historical investigation, and whose theoretical relevance lies in how it embeds knowledge derived over time.
In Lampugnani’s words, this potentially quite conservative argument becomes alive and challenging. Take, for example, one of his opening comments: ‘unlike in the era of Charles Baudelaire, the modern can no longer be what is fleeting and ephemeral, but primarily – perhaps exclusively – what is durable’. Almost all commentators on the ‘modern’ over the last century, from Benjamin to Berman, have stressed this elusiveness of ‘modernity’, if not modernism which has crystallised into a few outward signifiers. But Lampugnani’s challenge to this received wisdom is more solidly rooted: it is as an act of resistance to the plethora of meaningless images and the waste of resources that the modern world has brought about. The modern, in other words, can be turned into its own remedy.
But only through craft. ‘Let us look’ he writes, ‘at design as a patient, conscientious, accurate and competent work whose result will also be useful, right and fine, and in some very rare cases, a work of art’. In this light, design has to eschew novelty for its own sake and rely on its own traditions to produce something, a building, a piece of furniture or a product. The association with the accumulated skills and experience of a craft tradition gives design ‘solidity’ – a groundedness in both history, and also, through the concept of utility, with contemporary need.
This has several corollaries. One is that it characterises design as a phenomenon more akin to language or even culture itself, than as a succession of great monuments. The second comprises the implications of the relation with use, mentioned above.
Language, especially in the form of oral tradition, has many analogies with Lampugnani’s depiction of design-as-craft. It too represents the collective endeavour of numerous individual contributors, none of whom can control or alter it at will. And as such it can also embed important elements of knowledge which can be recovered for contemporary application. Similarly but more broadly, any form of cultural tradition includes certain persistent elements, whether ‘archetypal’ images or forms, phrases, beliefs or ideas. ‘Types are generalised solutions, solidified over time. They are produced not individually, but collectively over time’.
Solidity is an important concept for Lampugnani, the essence of how the modern can become what is durable rather than ephemeral. ‘Solidity is not simply an object’s resistance to wear and tear, but the adequate and substantiated representation to that resistance, and functionally not just the practical imperatives for which an object was devised and made but also of immaterial, emotive and intellectual needs that may even not have been envisaged in the actual design programme.’
Lampugnani argues the slow evolution of a craft tradition gradually refines its archetypes into ‘the invention and production of correct, appropriate and necessary objects’. These are assertive words to describe the results of design, But Lampugnani’s point is that only with experience accrued through time, rigorous and unsentimental testing and a ‘ruthlessly exact analysis of specific functional, productive, economic, sociological and ideological requirements’, can such contextual conditions be expressed in design. And once they have been fitted to form, and form fitted to them, why try to reinvent them? There are echoes here of Aldo Rossi and the persistence of form over function, where a space designed as a stadium proves a more than serviceable town square (Rome’s Piazza Navona) or the shape of an amphitheatre metamorphosises into a fine urban space (Lucca, or with reservations and far more etiolated, the Guildhall in London).
So how is all this modern? Lampugnani points out that the word’s etymology derives from ‘what is ours, now’. This licensed ‘the last century’s avant-garde’ to ‘break away sharply from the past and project itself, triumphantly, purified and renewed, into the present if not even into the future’. There is a Faustian spectre here, a theme much worked by Marlowe, Goethe, Busoni and Thomas Mann. The latter‘s Doctor Faustus is perhaps the most coruscating depiction of the implosion of European culture in the middle of the 20th century.
‘The culture of modern design has always been married to the utopias of its time’, writes Lampugnani’, adding ‘all such marriages have failed… the great utopias are also falling apart’. This echoes of Mann of Faustus, but almost in parallel, he also wrote Lotte in Weimar, a far tenderer mediation on German culture. And so Lampugnani also offers a chance of redemption. ‘I should like to be able to think that a few of those hastily discarded utopias, albeit modified against the backdrop of recent history, are actually still tenable’. But this redemption depends not on Margarethe’s prayers [Gretchen am Spinrad] or a charismatic leader, ‘Not a borrowed utopia … but a utopia genuinely its own and generated within it’. There is hope but only if we pick it up ourselves.
The book consists of a series of short, linked essays grouped into thematic chapters, ‘Design and its facets’, ‘Good Qualities’, ‘Contemporary Differentiations’ and ‘the Shadow of Modernity’. While reading its sometimes dense text the qualities of the book itself start to become evident. It is beautifully designed and produced, printed on high quality paper with wide margins into the gutter for physical ease of reading. The texts are elegantly written, if in parts quite challenging. Lampugnani credits Lupe Bezzina with the design, Kyung Hun Oh with the preparation of the English text (much of which was published in German or Italian first) and Philip Meuser with the overall production.
It is in other words a craft production itself, which becomes even more explicit with the illustrations which are dispersed throughout the book. Each is a frontispiece from a 17th or 18th century treatise on architecture, which recalls the tradition, originating in the Renaissance, of making books on architecture. Here the medium really does reinforce the message.
Building on Tradition: The new architectural language of Qatar
Produced by John McAslan & Partners for Msheireb Properties
What might simply have been a vanity publishing project for a Qatari property developer has turned out to be far more interesting. It tells the story of the Msheireb development in downtown Doha, where a roll call of international architects, mainly British and American, have designed a contemporary city quarter with many of the attributes of the best Islamic architecture. Concisely written by Ruth Slavid, the amply-illustrated text outlines the seven principles which informed the work of all the architects engaged in the project, an implicit critique of the sort of International Style modernism which invaded the Arab world in the 1970s. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Thames & Hudson
The ongoing interest in, and love of, white houses is explored by monograph specialist Philip Jodidio in a handsomely illustrated book featuring the work of contemporary architects across the world. Each featured house, it is claimed, ‘employs the apparent simplicity of white to reflect light and accent materiality, pressing the frontiers to form (sic) to the point of abstraction’. It is also claimed that the white house ‘celebrates a universal form for all people and lifestyles’. This is clearly drivel, but there are plenty of houses to admire here. But don’t expect photographs showing how the colour white can change and degrade. It’s all perfect.
Brave new worlds
The New Arab Urban: Gulf cities of wealth, ambition and distress
Edited by Harvey Molotch and Davide Ponzini
New York University Press
Gulf cities and their architecture are frequently objects of criticism and sometimes ridicule. This book, a collection of heavily footnoted essays by academics with a wide range of relevant expertise, takes a Venturi-esque attitude to them: like Las Vegas, to study and understand them implies neither ridicule, nor celebration. The cities under review are all part of the ‘Arabian Peninsula’, but are not a comprehensive list, focused more on the most ‘controversial and dynamic’, most notably Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
So very little on Oman (where tall towers are not allowed) or the Msheireb project in downtown Doha, where show-off design is subjugated to a demand for high-quality urbanism; this is not unreasonable, since these conditions are the exception rather than the rule – more’s the pity, one can’t help thinking.
The editors (both also contribute essays) have complementary backgrounds: Molotch a professor of sociology at New York University, Ponzine an associate professor planning at Politecnico di Milano. Their invited contributors have expertise in respect o, architecture, economics, planning, politics, Middle East culture, oil, geography and photography. In respect of the latter, Michele Nastase (who co-wrote a book with Ponzine on ‘starchitecture’ across the region) contributes a well-judged piece on architecture as spectacle, a strand that runs through much of this volume.
In a telling phrase, the editors describe the condition of many gulf cities as being ‘mired in the present’, rather than the past. The point is that the collection of new-ish countries under review do not have the patina of history which has informed innovation: instead, it is the here and now, imported in large doses, which has created the sometimes sensational but more frequently banal world of towers and shopping malls which expats and tourists seem to find so compelling.
In this world, with some exceptions, immigration is not a first-world problem, but a developing world condition in which the indigenous population is a tiny minority. Guest-workers may be badly paid by European or American standards, but the reason they go to Dubai is because conditions in their native countries are so much worse. Western media interest in Gulf conditions is partly because of the presence of Western ‘brands’ in all those shopping malls: the contrast between luxury and poverty is too striking to ignore.
As are the architectural extremes represented by Burj Khalifa and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, often held up as examples of unnecessary extravagance, vanity projects on a gigantic scale. To which one can only respond that experimentation and innovation are surely worth pursuing, not least because we can learn from both success and failure in the near-laboratory conditions from which these projects (including Masdar, the low-carbon city) emerge. In fact we may have to learn, because the new urbanisms emerging from these experiments are taking root beyond the boundaries of the Gulf, informing thinking across the Islamic world and further afield. The editors conclude the book, as they begin it, with a nod to Venturi, and his comment that we have ‘an obligation to the difficult whole’. Paul Finch
Design Champion: The Twentieth Century Royal Fine Art Commission 1924-1999
By Robert Bargery
Royal Fine Art Commission Trust
Paperback available via Amazon
The Royal Fine Art Commission was a peculiarly British institution. Founded by Prince Albert to advise on the installation of artworks in the Palace of Westminster, rebuilt following the fire of 1834, it foundered after his death in 1861. It was revived in 1924 to advise government on architectural matters and operated until the end of the century. In 1987 its chairman, Lord St John of Fawsley, created the charitable trust which survived the demise of the RFAC, and continues to fly the flag for high standards of design in public life. This well illustrated story is a fascinating slice of architectural and political history, written by the Trust’s executive director, Robert Bargery. He worked at the RFAC and briefly for its successor body, the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (which only lasted 15 years as a government adviser). This is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between architecture and public policy in Britain.
Aesthetics Equals Politics: New discourses across art, architecture and philosophy
Edited by Mark Foster Gage
What exactly are ‘aesthetics’? The challenge of this book of essays, edited by the assistant dean at Yale School of Architecture, is a challenge to cultural theorists, artists and architects in the 20th century who distrust representation except as a veil for underlying power structures, only evident to the very clever. By contrast, this book suggests a new way of thinking about aesthetics as relating to the sensibilities of individuals and communities. They believe this could represent a ‘turn’ in philosophical thinking which would affect multiple disciplines. If accelerationalism, afro-futurism, object-oriented ontology and xeno-feminism are your sort of thing, look no further. As ever, the arguments are essentially made in words, and as usual with academics, plain English it ain’t.
Evolution. The work of Grimshaw Architects: Volume 4, 2000 - 2010
Edited by Rebecca Roke
The latest volume in the Grimshaw oeuvre complete, covering the first decade of the 21st century, coincides with the awarding of the RIBA Gold Medal to founder Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and his retirement as head of the practice. Volume 5 is promised by the end of the year, suggesting a period of intense reflection about the past and future of a significant global office. The 20 buildings featured in volume 4 cover a range of buildings types and geographies; they include the triumphant Eden Centre biodiversity celebration in Cornwall, which should surely have won the Stirling Prize, the Zurich Airport project, and significant railway stations in Amsterdam and Melbourne. Other overseas work 9ncludes an exhibition hall in Frankfurt, a science centre in St Louis, a headquarters complex in Duisberg and a museum in Monterrey, in addition to numerous buildings in the UK. The quality of photography and drawings is exactly what you would expect; the only drawback is the usual inevitable chronological arrangement of material in this sort of work. There was undoubtedly an evolution of ideas as well as commissions.
Tower Bridge. History, Engineering, Design
Thames & Hudson/Tower Bridge
Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the bridge this June, this timely study by the always reliable Kenneth Powell includes previously unpublished original working drawings and construction photography, amidst a wealth of visual material (212 illustrations) which would make this book a suitable present for anyone with an interest in the bridge, professional or lay. The history of the site prior to construction of the bridge, to designs by Sir Horace Jones and Sir John Wolfe Barry, is covered, though it would have been good to have read more about Joseph Bazalgette’s proposals for a bridge, and the attempt by the Metropolitan Board of Works to take control, only to be rebuffed by the eventual client, the City Corporation. This should not detract from the quality of what is offered, including as an appendix useful dimensional information and a reading list. Anyone with an interest in Victorian London will want a copy.
The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire
James Bentley, Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry
Yale University Press, London
Pevsner’s original guide was published in 1962 and updated by Bridget Cherry in 1977. However, in addition to revisions and corrections, the latest edition has been expanded to twice the original length, including hundreds of buildings for the first time, across a wide range of types. The author/reviser is Dr James Bentley, who can now be considered a Pevsner veteran having completed revised guides to Essex (2007) and Suffolk (two volumes, 2015). With about 200 illustrations, ‘Hertfordshire’ will be an essential purchase for anyone with a serious interest in the county and its architecture.
Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics
University of California Press
Hardcover $45, £35
This is a dense and detailed study of a legendary figure on the cusp of art and architecture, who died aged 35 in 1978. Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell, but devoted himself to what Frances Richard terms ‘anarchitecture’, a series of largely site-specific interventions that violently but hauntingly chopped and cut pieces out of buildings to create new and unexpected spaces and forms. Matta-Clark spoke of creating ‘confusion from a clear sense of purpose’: Richard untangles many of the strands of this complex figure, going into how he devised, executed and recorded his works. In the process his contribution to the semiotics, poetics and politics of the physical environment emerges, which satisfying shows how he challenged to all-too-easy conventions of architecture.
Architects’ Sketchbooks – The Creative Process
Thames & Hudson
This book promises to be a bargain with over 900 illustrations by 60 architects covering a wide demographic and geographic range – especially as it also claims to provide ‘true insight into architects’ creative processes’. A bargain it certainly is, but the claim to true insight can only be admitted with reservations. Architectural creativity is not limited to drawing: it is also about detail, construction and verbal discussion. To understand how drawings fit into that would be a real achievement. Instead this book reinforces the point that Banham made, that drawing is the way of socializing architects into the profession – and far from the only way of designing buildings. Readers may feel themselves left with the rather narrow impression that architects draw in all sorts of ways, with varying degrees of affinity – and lacking images of the buildings which supposedly emerge from these drawings, almost no way of assessing their creative potential.
New Chinese Architecture
Twenty Women Building the Future
Austin Williams (Foreword by Zhang Xin)
Thames & Hudson
In 1949 China had 120 cities: now it has 684 with another 240 to be added within ten years. This statistic tells a familiar story but Austin Williams offers an important and fascinating insight into it. Selecting 20 ‘newly emerging young female talents – together with a couple of grandes dames’ he shows how the complex history of gender relations intersects with economic growth. Under communism everyone was expected to work almost always in manual work, with little distinction for capitalist gender roles. Amid the repression some talented and determined women found ways to acquire an education and opportunities that arguably a less oppressive regime could not have provided. Williams’ informative texts depict individual experiences within this maelstrom, and illustrate architecture which if not always of the highest quality shows the range and sheer difficulty of building in so complex a society. This book may finger stars of the future, but it also opens a way into thinking about the overwhelming architectural challenge of our time: how to urbanise and raise living standards for billions of people, and how some woman are successfully engaging with it.