Category Archives: contemporary collection

New Museums in China

New Museums in China by Clare Jacobson
Princeton Architectural Press, 2013
Hardcover, 241 pages

As of 2013 there are supposedly 3,500 museums in China. This is about 1,000 more than two years before that, but still only roughly 20% of the number of museums in the United States. Of course, quantity is not the same as quality (both in terms of architecture and exhibitions), but Clare Jacobson's book on new museums in China shows that the country can boast of some of the best new architecture for museums anywhere on the planet. Jacobson highlights 51 museums in 31 cities, a smattering relative to the thousand museums supposedly completed in just the last two years, but enough to illustrate the variety of approaches to museum commissions in China, from quasi-vernacular designs to alien forms that call attention to the buildings more than their contents.

Jacobson, an architecture and design writer based in Shanghai, discusses the view from her windows of the construction of the Shanghai Nature Museum, acknowledging that elsewhere the museum's sheer size and architectural ambition would be news, but in Shanghai it's just one of many museums underway, a blip on the radar. Elsewhere in the introduction she lays out why so many museums are being built in China (investments in art, a rising interest in philanthropy, etc.) as well as the fact many of them are private collections and what all this means for the architecture created to house art. Like the descriptions of the 51 buildings, the introduction says a lot in a few words, giving the book a focus on providing context and telling stories.

Each building is presented with color photographs and drawings. Such is the norm these days, but the descriptions benefit from featuring quotes from the architects, revealing how Jacobson searched for stories (as well as her reporting for Architectural Record) by talking with architects rather than relying on press releases and information available online. Nevertheless, it would have been beneficial (if difficult or unrealistic) to also include snippets from the clients that are exhibiting the art and commissioning architects to make strong statements. Regardless, Jacobson's book is an important and essential one covering an aspect of China's building boom this century. The country may be criticized for the unsubtle ways of demolishing traditional architecture in favor of predominantly ugly, large-scale housing (something of a cliche now), but the museums collected in the book show there is still room for well considered architecture in China by foreign and local architects alike.

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Lettering Large

Lettering Large: Art and Design of Monumental Typography by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić
The Monacelli Press, 2013
Hardcover, 224 pages

What happens to letters, words and phrases when they are blown up from their usual place on the pages of a book to occupying space within the public realm? The most obvious answer is that they become advertising, gracing the sides of buildings or billboards to entice consumers toward a certain product or brand. But as co-author Steven Heller asserts in a piece at Designers & Books, Lettering Large "is not about advertising—it’s about how the language of advertising is applied to architecture and art and identity."

Most of the examples of monumental typography collected in the book are fairly recent, but Heller and Ilić do acknowledge the history of large letters on buildings and in space, be it inscriptions on the buildings of ancient Rome or early modern attempts to synthesize architecture and graphic design. If one thing comes across while imbibing the many examples in the book's 240 pages, it is the blurring of the boundaries between art, architecture, typography, graphic design, and even landscape in many contemporary settings.

The authors compiled what seems like hundreds of examples of monumental typography into four chapters: Monumental Outdoor Type, Typo-Hypnotic Messages, Big and Better: Type as Object, A-R-T in T-Y-P-E. Generally, the venues for the first and last chapters are landscapes, while building facades and spaces are the canvases for the examples in the middle chapters, though this is hardly a rule. The book starts with the most monumental letters of all, those that are ideally read from above, via airplanes and even satellites. The North Carolina Museum of Art, with "PICTURE THIS" set into the landscape by Barbara Kruger, is actually one of the smaller such examples. For this and other large-scale messages to stay intact, the landscape will need to be maintained, but some of the more appealing examples are temporary formations of people (echoing the way Coca-Cola used birdseed in Piazza San Marco to entice pigeons to unknowingly spell out the company's name over 50 years ago) that are used for a variety of purposes, be it political, civic pride, or humor.


Not surprisingly, most of my favorites fall in the middle two chapters, where architecture takes on a more prominent role than in the chapters bookending them. The "typo-hypnotic messages" in the second chapter adorn building facades and line their insides, often conveying a message. Simplicity of the message is penultimate, even though in cases like the temporary MOMA QNS it took some effort, or being in the right place at the right time, to understand it. When used as an object in the following chapter, type becomes a pattern or just another texture or surface decoration. Words and phrases overlap and collide, symptomatic of our time when there is too much information to convey meaning adequately.

Heller and Ilić's helpful but basically uncritical text clearly places the emphasis on the great number of examples of monumental typography that exist, particularly from the last 10-15 years, and the even greater variety of applications. There is the feeling that letters, words, and phrases blown up to life-size and larger are a really good thing, even if the results are questionable at times – Mitsutomo Matsunami's Number House comes to mind. And it's easy to get swept along with them, taking in the ping-ponging fun, serious, and often colorful projects all over the world. Each page brings to mind a building or landscape with letters or words, making me see if the authors included it in the book; these searches make it clear the book really should have an index. But that is a small fault in an enjoyable book that is also a great reference of how type surrounds us even more than we could have imagined.

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Old Buildings, New Forms

Old Buildings, New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations by Françoise Astorg Bollack
The Monacelli Press, 2013
Hardcover, 224 pages

I have always loved old buildings. They are the visible, three-dimensional record of our life on earth. They can be thrilling or modest architectural works; they can be interesting or banal. But they are always complex cultural objects, whose value lies in their very existence. -Françoise Astorg Bollack

Rather than looking at building types or buildings in a certain local, New York-based architect Françoise Bollack presents 28 projects that transform old buildings and contexts in various ways. She breaks down these techniques into five chapters: Insertions, Parasites, Wraps, Juxtapositions, and Weavings. Her book is predicated, as the quote above shows, on an appreciation of history and a desire to creatively change the relationship between it and our present. The book is full of some great examples of how old buildings are not static set pieces; they are canvases for the continuing evolution of places and the lives within them.

Many people will not be fans of the more jarring transformations within these pages, such as Steven Holl's replacement of the center wing at Pratt's Higgins Hall in Brooklyn or Will Alsop's black-and-white box on stilts in Toronto, but one of the most convincing aspects of the book can be found in the introduction to each chapter. There, Bollack presents historical precedents that lend credence to the handful of techniques she highlights, while also adding weight to the idea that transformations are necessary and welcoming.

One precedent, in the Parasites chapter, is the expansion of the 19th-century Boston Custom House, carried out by Peabody & Sterns in 1905. The large stone Greek Revival structure capped by a Roman dome would certainly be landmarked into stasis today, but Peabody & Sterns transformed the temple-like building into a base for a much larger campanile. Granted, visual character is maintained by classical elements in the tower, but I'd wager that it was greeted with a similar amount of shock as some contemporary additions.

I'm not advocating for matching new buildings to old ones (something Steven Semes argues), but rather that the contemporary juxtapositions between new and old should be seen relative to past epochs. When we look at the essence of changes like the Boston Custom House, they were more dramatic than we think all these decades and even centuries later. The same could probably be said about Higgins Hall, the Sharp Centre for Design, and other buildings collected by Bollack when we look back on them in the future.

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Translucent Building Skins

Translucent Building Skins: Material Innovation in Modern and Contemporary Architecture by Scott Murray
Routledge, 2012
Paperback/Hardcover, 200 pages

The history of modern architecture can be written by its materials and effects, especially glass and transparency. From Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (1851) and Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion (1914) to Philip Johnson's Glass House and Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (1951), there was a direction toward more glass creating apparently invisible enclosures. Yet historians and others have questioned the transparency of even the clearest float glass as well as the preference for blurring the boundary between inside and outside through glass surfaces. That modern architects in the early to middle of the 20th century also designed buildings with translucent enclosures, something explored in this new book by University of Illinois' Scott Murray, is but one sign that modern architecture was varied in terms of motives and effects.

Murray's book is neither simply a history of modern architecture nor a collection of recent architecture; it could be seen as the latter framed by the former. Murray presents case studies of seven buildings completed within the last 15 years, pairing them with relevant buildings from 1903 to 1963. This tactic roots buildings like Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus Bregenz (1997) and Frank Gehry's IAC Headquarters (2007) with buildings that fit into a different strand of modernism—MoMA's 1939 building and the Johnson Wax Company Tower (1950), respectively. But more importantly, it allows Murray to explore seven effects in the pairs: Solidified Light, Art House Cinema, Crystallization, Compound Lens, Geology, Bioluminescence, and Fade to Black. Not surprisingly, given that translucent surfaces are notable for spreading light and blurring images, these effects are visual. But the variety of effects shows that, like transparency, translucency varies depending on a number of factors: design, material, orientation, lighting, etc.

Within each pair Murray gives equal weight (in terms of words, photos, and drawings) to the modern and contemporary case studies, though sometimes he starts with the older building and sometimes with the newer one. This fact may not seem important, but it helps to keep the book from following a formula for each chapter—modern case study, contemporary case study, discussion of relationships between the two, for example. Instead, each chapter is laid back in its structure, weaving the two projects together to some degree and inserting other buildings with similar effects into the mix. Like Murray's previous book on Contemporary Curtain Wall Architecture, axonometric details are especially helpful in understanding how the designs work as enclosures. By combining modern and contemporary precedents, Murray shows that today's popularity for translucent surfaces is hardly novel, even if materials allow for a greater range of effects. Murray's solid case studies and illustrations make a case for other explorations that pick up on trends but delve deeper into histories and ideas.

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Architecture: From Commission to Construction

Architecture: From Commission to Construction by Jennifer Hudson
Laurence King Publishers, 2012
Paperback, 240 pages

Books that collect works of contemporary architecture tend to present them in some fairly typical ways, particularly by building typology (houses, museums, public space, etc.) and as finished projects with highly polished photography. The former trait allows architects to examine precedents when pursuing a particular project, and the latter paints a building in as positive light as possible, for both other architects and potential clients. But what about the process of a project? Isn't that as important as the "final" building? Of course it is, given that the building is the result of successive steps, from concept design to construction documents to the actual construction, and all the steps in between. So it's refreshing to see Jennifer Hudson's survey of 25 buildings, of varying typologies, that traces them from, as the title says, commission to construction.

The book's format is pretty straightforward, and is consistent from project to project. The first two-page spread gives a view of the finished building alongside Hudson's descriptive text and the projects details—location, use, client, site and building area, dates of design and construction, and budget. The three or four spreads that follow visually document the project from early sketches and models through the subsequent steps to completion. It's refreshing that only one page of the six or eight pages is devoted to finished photography, with much of the rest featuring drawings and other documentation that isn't typically shared in books or online. The example accompanying this review is Peter Rich's Mapungubwe Interpretation Center in South Africa, a project that won the 2009 WAF Building of the Year. Additionally, this week's dose presents another project from the book—Écomusée du pays de Rennes in Rennes, France, by Guinée *Potin—and uses the opportunity to further examine how Hudson's book gives insight into parts of a project that are often overlooked.

The most important parts of the book are Hudson's captions that accompany the numerous illustrations documenting each project's process. It's not enough to show, for example, drawings of the facade for LOT-EK's Weiner Townhouse without explaining how they were submitted to New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission so that windows made of truck bodies could be used in a historic district. The captions lead us through the drawings and other illustrations, like a narrator in a documentary explains the images that tumble before our eyes. Thankfully, the selection of projects is varied in many ways (if a bit heavy on projects in the UK and designed by UK architects): There are houses, formally extravagant cultural institutions, installations, a stadium, projects that have to deal with preservation, and so forth; about the only thing missing is a tower (a highly specialized typology that gets plenty of in-depth investigation elsewhere). It's a good book for architects to see how other practitioners work through a project, but it's more valuable for students to understand how a building makes its way from an idea to a reality in the world.

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Three Books About Architecture and Its Relationship to Landscape

Contemporary Follies by Keith Moskow and Robert Linn
The Monacelli Press, 2012
Hardcover, 240 pages

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes by Raymund Ryan
University of California Press, 2012
Hardcover, 120 pages

Wine and Architecture by Heinz-Gert Woschek, Denis Duhme, Katrin Friederichs
EDITION Detail, 2012
Paperback, 144 pages

Each of these three books collects a number of architecture projects—from a half dozen to over 50—that fit into particular typologies. One looks at follies, which one can argue are bound together through a certain purposelessness; another examines arts institutions; and the third presents wineries. While these three types don't have an immediate relationship to each other in terms of architectural program or function, they share an emphasis on how buildings fit into landscapes, be they relatively wild, designed, or cultivated. It would be difficult to consider follies that do not have a particular relationship to nature, for example, or near impossible to design a winery that does not have both a functional and aesthetic relationship to the acres of grapes feeding the process.

What is also shared in these three books is a dependance on tourism. It is most explicit in White Cube, Green Maze, given that many of the arts institutions featured in the book are intended to be cultural magnets for people from around the world and to therefore help bring money to rural populaces. Many of the projects in Contemporary Follies, as well, stem from a desire to provide adequate services for visitors in areas that lack them (Norway's National Tourist Routes are probably the most famous example these days). And then there's enotourism, which taps into the popularity of wine and a desire to get to its source; providing comfortable and architecturally significant appointments aids in raising a winery's stature. Yet even if we examine the commonality of tourism, the focus is still on architecture and landscape, as each uses the unique qualities of the surrounding nature to bring people to places well outside cities.

In Contemporary Follies Keith Moskow and Robert Linn (of Boston's Moskow Linn Architects) collect 51 recent projects that they consider follies. In his introduction Marc Kristal describes the term historically as "an ornamental structure intended to decorate or enhance a garden or landscape...typically fanciful or exotic in design." This last trait is pretty much intact centuries later, especially since follies offer architects a small canvas for exploring form, in some cases through some pretty innovative technologies. In most cases formal exploration responds directly to nature, be it the immediate slope of a site, distant views, or metaphorical qualities of a place.

Moskow and Linn launch into the projects directly after Kristal's introduction (no preface or general explanatory text by the authors), so they basically let each project stand on its own through their brief descriptions and photographs. The projects are partitioned into six chapters—observation, art, meditation, shelter, working, dwelling—that assign broad functions to each, but it's easy to imagine the almost full-deck of projects being tossed in the air and each one fitting comfortably into another chapter. One thing that the chapters do is to give the book a certain flow, even as the projects jump from forests to deserts to mountains, back and forth. It is ultimately a book made for browsing, witnessed by the fact the projects are not listed in the table of contents or the chapters, nor are they indexed. They exist within the book and on the page as calls to get out and get face to face with nature's drama.

Contemporary Follies:
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White Cube, Green Maze is an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center (September 22, 2012–January 13, 2013) curated by Raymund Ryan. As the subtitle of the exhibition and the companion book attests, the six "new art landscapes" examine the relationship between art, architecture, and landscape. Only one of the six projects (Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park) is in a dense urban context. The rest of the projects (Stiftung Insel Hombroich in Germany, Benesse Art Site in Japan, Inhotim in Brazil, Jardin Botanico de Culiacan in Mexio, and Grand Traiano Art Complex in Italy) are located in fairly remote sites, both in terms of proximity to large cities and in the global paths of art lovers—though often these are one and the same. These locations not only offer opportunities for curators, architects, and landscape architects to consider relationships between the various areas of focus, they give artists unconventional venues for creating and displaying art. Yes, the proverbial white cube exists many miles from the cities and its institutions, but so does the "green maze," as Ryan calls it.

Three essays preface the visual and textual exploration of the six projects: Brian "White Cube" O'Doherty discovers "a new museum ecology" in the projects; Ryan lays out broader contexts and discusses how the six projects fit into them; and Marc Treib theorizes on some of the blurring between the realms of art, architecture, and landscape. The presentations of the six projects (color coded and keyed from Ryan's introductory essay) are very solid, with words from Ryan, Iwan Baan's aerial and on-the-ground photographs, and two-page spreads with credits, site plans, and a historical photo or two. While the color-coded backgrounds don't work readability-wise in all cases and Baan's full-bleed photos compete with them on the page edge (making the keying less than ideal), the overall design is a benefit to the presentations and the arguments that Ryan sets forth. Yes, something new is happening, even as these and other new art landscapes have been taking shape for a while. A combination of abandoned industrial landscapes, art tourism, and the desire to break outside of the white cube is helping to create places where the experience of art is strengthened through architecture and nature.

White Cube, Green Maze:

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Of the three titles Wine and Architecture is the least interested in taking a hard look at the relationship between architecture and landscape, even though the link is stronger with wineries than with follies or arts institutions. This stems from a desire on the part of the publisher and authors (who work in the world of wine rather than architecture) to create a practical guide to wine and architecture in Europe. Yet the unique relationships between building and landscape are still evident in photographs, drawings, and descriptions of how climate and topography inform grape growing, for example.

Two introductory essays look at the long history of wine architecture (most of it before the 20th century) and "winemaking and facility design." Twenty-two projects follow, spread across six countries—Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain—Europe's biggest wine producers. It's a solid selection with a few notable omissions, but this fact is addressed in the "country guide to wine and architecture in Europe," which includes briefer descriptions of another 40 projects. While the ideal target audience—those designing and building a winery in continental Europe—is a small one, the book's appeal is broader, thanks to an emphasis on wine production. It's a book for architects and wine lovers, and when the two meet the book is a great invitation to Europe and its wonders of wine.

Wine and Architecture (German edition):

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Architecture in the Netherlands: Yearbook 2011-12

Architecture in the Netherlands: Yearbook 2011-12 edited by Samir Bantal, JaapJan Berg, Kees van der Hoeven, Anne Luijten
NAi Publishers, 2012
Paperback, 272 pages

The annual Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook started in 1987/88, making the most recent one the 25th installment. Accordingly it is treated as a special edition, much bigger than previous yearbooks and further taking a look back to its origins. In addition to the usual 30 projects highlighting the best buildings in the Netherlands realized in the last ten months, number 25 features 10 projects from the previous 24 issues and an essay by one of the first editors.

An important inclusion is a chart of all of the Dutch architects with more than two projects in the 25 issues, accompanied by an essay that gives context and helps make more sense of the year-by-year tally. The architects with the most appearances are no surprise: Erick van Egeraat (22), Claus en Kaan (21), Jo Coenen (16), Francine Houben/Mecanoo (15), as well as Weil Arets and a handful of others at 14. Ultimately the books, and therefore the list, are editorial and therefore subjective; the yearbook has been helmed by six editors for various timeframes. But the list of architects, places, and typologies manages to capture the important qualities of Dutch architecture at a time when paradoxically its influence has been great but its most well known architects (OMA, MVRDV) have shifted focus to other countries.

There are a number of highlights in the 30 2011/12 projects — Claus en Kaan's NIOO-KNAW, Erick van Egeraat's Drents Museum, NL Architects' Nieuw Welgelegen Gymnasium, Soeters van Eldonk's Zaanstad Town Hall, and Koen van Velsen's Paleis Het Loo entrance building — but the 10 buildings from the previous issues are the highlight of the book. The six editors worked together to determine which buildings made the cut, only a few of which are obvious: Rem Koolhaas's Kunsthal, UNStudio's Moebius House, and Wiel Arets' Utrecht University Library. Given the speed at which buildings are published today and forgotten tomorrow, it's refreshing to see a recap of notable buildings that are still thoroughly contemporary (not limited to the last few years in a more literal sense of the term). Accordingly, the essays accompanying the photos and drawings on the ten buildings focus on the use and evolution of each building, not just its formal properties. With the 25th issue of the yearbook, the current editors step down, making way for some new blood and potentially a new direction for the next quarter century.

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The Sky’s the Limit

The Sky's the Limit: Applying Radical Architecture edited by Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann, Sofia Borges
Gestalten, 2012
Hardcover, 288 pages

What is the state of architectural icons in the 21st century, post-2008? Frank Gehry's design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is the marker for icons in the decade leading up to the economic collapse of 2008, but do later attention-getting pieces of architecture offer something different? Sofia Borges asks as much in her introduction to this collection of "radical architecture." Pointing out that icons date back to ancient civilizations, the only thing separating today's crop from historical icons is the sources of power. No longer directed by governments or other public figures, corporations and other private institutions lead the way, fighting for attention in cities that are more than open to being host to the latest and greatest.

Yet Borges argues that the glut of icons following on the heels of Gehry's Guggenheim have given way to "spatial experiences that enhance and correspond with their sculptural forms." Or to put it another way, decorated sheds have been superseded by ducks with accessible innards, thanks to computer technology's influence on design and fabrication. The Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain, designed by J. Mayer H., is an ideal example of this experiential shift (it is also the first project in the book). Yet the argument does not hold up for the entire book, given that many projects, like Jean Nouvel's 100 11th Avenue, are private, with interiors off limits to everybody but the fortunate few (or unfortunate, depending on who you listen to) buying units in the building.

The 135 projects are split into five chapters -- organic flow, sharp structures, smarter surface, internal affairs, point of view (oddly, these chapters are not laid out in a table of contents). There is an obvious focus on form, meaning "radical" is related to geometry and its effect on space rather than social concerns. This is fine, considering that each project is highlighted with a number of photos and very little text; there is no room to explore how form relates to other radical impacts. Within the book's pages, projects are located relative to other ones with similar forms (a few scalloped forms in chapter one are grouped together, some Japanese houses sit side-by-side in chapter two, etc.), giving the book a nice flow that is missing from the websites where most of these projects can be found. One could see this book as a "greatest hits" of 21st-century cutting-edge architecture (or, more accurately, the last five years), as if the editors culled projects from the websites that feed us these projects alongside ones not-so-radical. This book will not replace those websites, but it will give people a snapshot of today's international icons vying for our attention.

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a+t 38: Strategy and Tactics in Public Space

a+t 38: Strategies and Tactics in Public Space edited by Aurora Fernández Per, Javier Mozas
a+t, 2012
Paperback, 176 pages

The third installment in a+t's Strategy series takes aim at an increasingly popular subset of architectural design: tactical urbanism, D.I.Y. urbanism, provisional urbanism, whatever one wants to call it. As I also mention in this week's dose, a trio of actions in Brussel's Red Light District by Alive Architecture, it can be defined as the localized, bottom-up approaches and subsequent interventions for small pockets of urban space around the world. Proof of its popularity lies in books like this one, which document and theorize the fairly uneven terrain of tactical urbanism (the preferred term I'll use here).

As the name of a+t 38 implies, the issue is split between strategies (space-based landscape urbanism) and tactics (time-based interventions). This split arises from Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, which articulates tactics as "actions which take place on enemy territory" while strategy "is always enacted on home ground" (quotes from the editorial). Javier Mozas explains the strategies, tactics, and their differences in his introductory essay, ultimately trying to explain how tactical urbanism acts on public space; not an easy feat. While I'll admit my reading on tactical urbanism is lacking, I think it is an area that by its nature abhors theorization, outside of the basic structure of bottom-up, designer-generated plans responding to an immediate need. Attempts will be made to provide a theoretical framework for tactical urbanism, but one if its defining characteristics is that it is localized and therefore unique.

One particular gray area within tactical urbanism though is the legality of interventions. For example, Mozas's essay points out Jugaad urbanism as an influential yet questionable method for pragmatic solutions with minimal means. But in the context of Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic, which I've been reading lately, the same phrase is synonymous with bribery. In a sense, improvisatory and corrupt methods both respond to a government that is not fulfilling the needs of all of its citizens. Yet what is the result of interventions that skirt the larger participatory process? Or does tactical urbanism call the process into question, pointing out the deficiencies of governments in addressing the needs of the underserved?

One complication of tactical urbanism is that its presentation differs noticeably from traditional architecture. One look at the strategies and the tactics in this issue of a+t makes it more than apparent. The photos, plans, and other documentation of projects like Interboro Partners' Lent Space and Rural Studio's Lions Park are more immediately appealing than the project lumped under "Tactics". Exceptions to this can be found, but the general idea is that tactical urbanism is more persuasive when experienced, its qualities often harder to convey through traditional means of architectural photography, for example, which focuses on form and surface.

The cover of this issue of a+t is a great exception to this commentary. The project, a temporary amusement park in Lima, Peru, latches onto an unfinished elevated railway, using tires and other cheap or free materials. As the photo attests, the results are a successful place of fun. It is also a suitable alternative to strategies like the High Line, which are out of reach for many cities because of cost and maintenance. By showing the activity generated by the tactics, the qualities of the intervention becomes tangible, making a strong case for tactical urbanism in its various guises.

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Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang and Architecture 11

Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang edited by Philipp Meuser
DOM Publishers, 2012
Paperback, 2 volumes w/slipcase, 368 pages

Architecture 11: RIBA Buildings of the Year by Tony Chapman
Merrell Publishers, 2012
Hardcover, 273 pages

These two books focusing on architecture halfway around the globe from each other may seem like an odd pairing for a book review, but each book -- unconventional guides, if you will -- shares the trait of boosting national identity through the presentation of architecture. One is a guidebook to a place that most people cannot or would not visit anytime soon (Pyongyang, North Korea), and the other is a collection of awards given out last year by a professional body (Royal Institute of British Architects -- RIBA) of an island country (Great Britain). In architecture, the similarities end there.

Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang from DOM Publishers is actually made up of two guides: Volume 1 is a guide from the Pyongyang Foreign Languages Publishing House, published without comment; Volume 2 features illustrated essays by editor Philip Meuser and other contributors, focusing on urban and architectural history, propaganda, spatial production, and an outsider's experience of the city of 3 million. The former is clearly a means of propaganda by the North Korean government (the guide's publication date coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth, aka "Year 1 of the new era," can also be read in this way), but one that functions differently than other guidebooks: Instead of existing as a companion to a visit, it is a substitute for seeing the city in person, even as the country appears to be opening its borders to more foreigners recently (journalists, mainly). Volume 1 is laid out similarly to other architecture guides, broken down into chapters by building type: Urban Planning, Residential Buildings, Cultural Venues, Education and Sport, Hotels/Department Stores, Transport Infrastructure, Monuments. Of course these are not typologies exclusive to North Korea, but their expression and cohesion in a Socialist utopia (or nightmare) is what makes the city and the book so unique.

Volume 2 breaks through the official language and photography of Volume 1 to present first-hand accounts and researched histories of Pyongyang. Meuser's introduction for "The Illicit Guidebook" lays out both the second volume's essays and the city itself; the latter via helpful aerial views from the Juche Tower, a blazing monument to the "state's ideology scripted by Kim Il Sung," as the Volume 1 description reads. The essays that follow the introduction can be fairly academic, yet they are highlighted by Meuser's first-person stroll through the city and his highlighting of the state's propaganda posters and artwork. More propaganda occurs in the excerpted text "On Architecture" (1991) by Kim Jong-il, which paints architecture as the expression of national character. Yet it is the abundant illustrations throughout the two volumes that are the most illuminating and valuable pieces in the guide; they give a broad and colorful insight into a place that is portrayed in a particular light depending on one's locale.

Pyongyang is a city that appears stuck in mid-20th-century socialist modernism (minus the glass-skinned Ryugyong Hotel), but then there is Architecture 11: RIBA Buildings of the Year, a celebration of contemporary architecture in all of its pluralism. RIBA's recap of recent architecture in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland presents what seems like hundreds of award-winning buildings. Winners, and in some cases runners-up, are grouped by prizes: Sterling Prize, Lubetkin Prize, International Awards, Manser Medal, Stephen Lawrence Prize, etc. Most fall under the RIBA Awards, which are organized by geography; not surprisingly, a great number are located in London. Tony Chapman's introductory "snapshot of the profession" paints a fairly negative picture of things -- "such is the profession's current state" -- but the wealth of good buildings found within the handsome book (I particularly like the chip board cover in Merrell's design) is for this reader a positive sign.

Returning to the thesis of this book review, what does Architecture 11 express about Britain's national identity, besides the fact it is obviously much more diverse than North Korea? For one, it shows that the public sector is an important client for buildings. The book also illustrates that contemporary trends like sustainability are important, a reflection of the architects but also the clients, be they public or private. In the way RIBA judges -- all shortlisted buildings are visited by juror -- it's evident that the awards are based on first-hand experience rather than merely form as presented in photographs. Ultimately the book illustrates that architects living and working in Britain (and many of them born and raised there) are skilled at creating quality architecture, a source of pride for the country. Even detached from notions of national identity, the book is testament to great architecture being produced in Britain during a time of economic crisis. Tightened purse strings mean fewer icons like Hadid's Stirling winner, but there is still plenty to admire in these pages.

Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang:
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Architecture 11:
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