Category Archives: history

Façadomy

Façadomy: A Critique of Capitalism and Its Assault on Mid-Century Modern Architecture by James Cornetet
Process Press, 2013
Hardcover or Paperback, 426 pages

The intriguing yet slightly naughty title of this self-titled book by Orlando-based architect James Cornetet (of Process Architecture) refers to what happens when mid-century modern buildings are covered with postmodern pastiche to create the perception of value. Yet as Cornetet argues in the first half of the book, value-driven architecture (as he calls it) does not depend on inexpensive details and shallow associations; it achieves the most (for the client) with the most economical of means. Cornetet embraces mid-modern architecture as the ideal of value-driven architecture, the label he gives for the direction architect should be heading if it wishes to remain relevant.

It is an appealing argument that is explained in equal parts theory, criticism, and as a guide to the mid-century buildings near where he lives. The book is basically split into two: the main argument followed by the "tour" of Orange County, Florida. The transition between the two is basically non-existent, but Cornetet does refer to a number of the mid-century buildings in the first half, though in most cases these are the gems "façadomized" by later generations. Looking at the buildings of Orange County is like looking at just about any city, given the popularity, if short-lived, of mid-modern architecture. In this vein the best buildings respond to the Florida context through screens and other means of filtering sunlight.

Cornetet uses mid-20th-century architecture as a lens to discover how to design now. This tactic—and his strong opinions on architecture and the economy, among other things—provides plenty to critique in his critique. While I found his diagrams of the ebbs and flows of revivalism, modern, postmodern, and what comes after thorough and logical—as one of the numerous strong points of the book—I'm not convinced that making money for a client is the ultimate goal of architects working in a capitalist society. Buildings are traditionally generated by a client fulfilling a larger societal need, so that need should take precedence, as should even greater concerns (the environment, place, poetry) than bottom-line considerations. Ideally, clients are making the most money through architecture that creates meaningful, enjoyable, and environmentally responsible places; thereby architects are creating good for more than just clients. Yet most architects know the difficulty in this alternative proposition.

In addition to the theory, critique, and guide, how Cornetet sees value-driven architecture for the 21st century is found in a number of short case studies by his firm. These are inserted in a few places in the first half of the book, confusing any categorization of Façadomy; is it a monograph as well as a piece of criticism and historical guide? They are decent, small-scale designs that could be described as mid-modern architecture for today. They are simple and modern, with nice touches (such as a tactile column on the bus stop for the visually impaired) that give each project some interest. Cornetet's projects, like some of the mid-century pieces in the latter half, might not sufficiently sway people toward his way of thinking, but the argument he's crafted—full of an awareness of history and understanding of economics—is very convincing and the strongest part of the book.

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Discovering Architecture

Discovering Architecture: How the World's Great Buildings Were Designed and Built by Philip Jodidio
Universe, 2013
Hardcover, 260 pages

In an average year Philip Jodidio seems to churn out about a dozen books, easily the most of any writer on architecture. With Taschen and other publishers he focuses on contemporary architecture (the Architecture Now! series, for example), but with this recent coffee table book for Universe he reaches all the way back to the year 537 in a presentation of 50 important masterpieces. Actually, only 19 of the 50 buildings come after the 19th century, and only two of the buildings (the Millau Viaduct by Norman Foster and the National Stadium in Beijing by Herzog & de Meuron) were completed this century. Jodidio moves from the Hagia Sophia and Chartres Cathedral to Angkor Wat, Ryoan-Ji, the Taj Mahal, and other historical treasures (UNESCO seems to be the most oft-used word in the book, after architecture), followed by the Eiffel Tower, the Glasgow School of Art, the Seagram Building, the Salk Institute, and other modern gems.

The selection parallels other general interest titles on architecture (immediately it recalls a Time magazine special issue, Great Buildings of the World), but what it lacks in the originality of the selection it makes up for in the cleverness of the presentation: Each building is documented with a full-page photograph that is explained through a die-cut page with captions (by Elizabeth Dowling) corresponding to each window onto the photo below it. The cover gives some indication of how this works, but imagine that the area around the small white rectangles is gray, so the photo is not fully revealed until one turns the page. It's an inventive way of teaching laypeople and students about architecture, but it's also a means of educating them about how to "read" architecture through photographs, the preferred means of presenting buildings these days. And it's a good deal of fun, as there's a good amount of surprise in store at each turn of the page.

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10 Stories of Collective Housing

10 Stories of Collective Housing: Graphical Analysis of Inspiring Masterpieces by a+t research group
a+t, 2013
Paperback, 496 pages

Spain's a+t separates its output into magazines and books, with titles in each often fitting into series. The last of the books I reviewed was Density Is Home, which documents 37 contemporary housing projects through the usual high-quality presentations that a+t is known for. But where the drawings, photographs, and statistics help readers learn about the projects and compare and contrast them, the 10 or 12 pages per project mean that there is still room for more to be learned about the buildings. Enter 10 Stories of Collective Housing, which steps back some decades (projects span from ca. 1920 to 1980) to give in-depth case studies on "inspiring masterpieces."

Hillside Terrace, Fumihiko Maki, from 10 Stories of Collective Housing

The spreads collected here on Fumihiko Maki's Hillside Terrace give a sense of what is included for each project. Of course there are photos—both historical and contemporary—but also plenty of plans, axonometrics, diagrams, and other drawings that explain the projects but also how they developed over time. In this case the three authors of the a+t research group—Aurora Fernandez Per, Javier Mozas, and Alex S. Ollero—included information on Maki's ideas of collective form (below right) to help explain Hillside Terrace's theoretical basis and how the project was designed to change over time over phases. On the same spread are three projects/places that inspired Maki's design, indicative of the many projects—both inspiring and inspired by—included to give a greater context to the architectural solutions of collective housing.

Hillside Terrace, Fumihiko Maki, from 10 Stories of Collective Housing

Even though this book delves deeper into buildings than most a+t titles, the graphics, format, and layouts fit in with the publisher's larger oeuvre, even as the book doesn't directly resemble other titles. The consistency of these three pieces throughout the book allows the 10 projects to be compared with each other, though this aspect is not as valuable here as it is in a+t's relatively cursory studies of contemporary buildings.

What helps make 10 Stories so good is the selection of projects, which is not nearly as obvious as it could have been. Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation is not included, for example, nor are other projects that are easily masterpieces yet already studied extensively. I didn't know about most of the projects in these pages and was glad to learn especially about Michiel Brinkman's Justus Van Effen Complex (Rotterdam, 1919-22), Ignazio Gardella's Housing for Borsalino Employees (Alessandria, 1948-56), Ralph Erskine's Byker Regeneration (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1969-82), and Jean Renaudie's Jeanne Hachette Complex (Paris, 1970-75). This book offers something for everybody, with plenty to learn in the thorough case studies that many of the best ideas in housing have already happened.

Hillside Terrace, Fumihiko Maki, from 10 Stories of Collective Housing

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Building Seagram

Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert
Yale University Press, 2013
Hardcover, 320 pages

In lieu of one of the many iconic photos of the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue (between East 52nd and East 53rd Streets) in Midtown Manhattan, this book by Phyllis Lambert (the daughter of Seagram's founder Samuel Bronfman) is covered with a photo of the building's construction. The photo reveals four phases of the 35-story tower's construction—from open steel at the top to glass enclosure at the base—as well as the plaza that fronts the building on Park Avenue. Yet this account of the 1958 building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson is about so much more than the its physical realization.

Lambert goes into depth on how the Seagram company commissioned Mies (of course Lambert played the most important role in this) as well as Philip Johnson's contribution to the lighting and design of the interiors and landscape, the art housed inside the building, the impact the project had on the city, how the masterpiece has been preserved, and much more. Above all, Lambert emphasizes how the building and plaza are one; they are two interrelated parts of the project, not separate entities. As anybody who has experienced the building can attest, the space on Park Avenue practically makes the Seagram Building what it is.

On starting the book I knew it would be a rewarding read, having come to it after just about every publication—architecture and otherwise—reviewed it. But they didn't prepare me for how good the book actually is, how even the most apparently mundane details (fashioning the dies for the bronze curtain wall, the taxes levied on the building and eventual sale of the building 20 years after completion, for example) are fascinating. This arises from Lambert's thorough yet accessible writing but also the way she treats every detail as important, perhaps an inadvertent hommage to the architect who said, "God is in the details."

Given that Lambert worked on the project for five decades, she tells a story that nobody else can. Along the way my appreciation for the building (one I've always liked but never to the extent of, say, Herbert Muschamp, who called it "the millennium's most important building") expanded greatly. Every building is the result of choices being made and forces acting upon it by a litany of people and entities (not to mention nature itself), but that the Seagram Building and plaza achieved a sort of mid-20th-century perfection is astounding. Lambert calls the project the result of "unlikely convergences, extraordinary coincidences, and ironic turns," and we are better off for her ability in conveying these events in such an eloquent manner.

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Instigations

Instigations: Engaging Architecture, Landscape, and the City edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Peter Christensen
Lars Müller Publishers, 2012
Paperback, 560 pages

How does a school celebrate its 75th anniversary? With a historical timeline? With an archive? With a presentation of important milestones? For the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the answer is "all of the above, and more." Instigations is an appropriately large book that covers the first 75 years of the GSD across six thematic chapters: Design as Research, Design as Critique, City and Environment as Process, City and Environment as Form, The Continuous Institution, and The Shifting Institution. As these labels make clear, there is a further tripartite division into three contexts: architecture/design, city/nature, and the school itself. It's also clear that the book is not a simple timeline, archive, or presentation; it is a mix of these inserted into the various chapters.

With 75 years of student work, publications, books, lectures, symposia, exhibitions, professors, and research (not to mention syllabi and other internal paperwork), assembling the book must have been a daunting task. What is included? How much of is shown (a mention or a full transcript)? How is the content laid out? Many of these questions were answered through Peter Christensen's organization of the GSD's 75th anniversary exhibition, which he admits in his introductory essay "provided much of the early material for this volume." He describes also how the heterogeneous nature of the objects under consideration became "the theoretical and conceptual linchpin" of the exhibition and book. And not having read Christensen's essay until after taking a number of passes through the book, I was convinced that the text accompanying the objects (not artifacts, per his essay) was source material, not reportage that was actually added by him to give everything a present tense, a means of making the past closer to us in the present.

This flattening of time goes hand in hand with the way the book is split into thematic chapters and the way their contents jump around in time. Each chapter is split into two sections or types of content: the historical objects with present-tense reportage (most objects are given one page), and longer essays, interviews, lecture transcripts and other materials that tend to be fairly recent. The former section is nearly chronological, but the occasional jumps back and forth in time deny a cause-and-effect evolution of the school; it prioritizes a reading where the impact of something may not be felt until much later. The latter section works to get across ideas more than to reveal things that happened at, or were produced by, the school; a highlight, for example, is Richard Sennett's 2012 lecture, "The Architecture of Cooperation" in the Design as Critique chapter.

So what is the reader to make of the GSD through, as Christensen describes, "an array of objects that contain contradictions, idiosyncrasies, and auras"? Given that the book is comprised of historical documents layered over with new text that attempts to describe the publications, exhibitions, lectures, and projects as they were at the time, it can't help but be an expression of the school as it is now (2012) as well as its desired trajectory. Dean Mohsen Mostafavi states in his introduction that "the sense of a future time is always bound with, anchored in, the present." By flattening the carefully selected objects of the last 75 years into one present, the book becomes the starting point for an optimistic future. What that could be is as varied as the materials found in the 560 pages, but the book's tripartite structure signals that the problems of the city and nature will be addressed via architecture and design through the efforts of the institution. Overly ambitious? Perhaps, but the impressive book illustrates that if any school is geared up to the task it is the GSD.

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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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Encounters 1 & 2 – Architectural Essays

Encounters 1 - Architectural Essays by Juhani Pallasmaa, edited by Peter MacKeith
Rakennustieto Publishing, 2013 (second edition)
Paperback, 384 pages

Encounters 2 - Architectural Essays by Juhani Pallasmaa, edited by Peter MacKeith
Rakennustieto Publishing, 2013
Paperback, 366 pages

Finnish architect, educator, and author Juhani Pallasmaa's most well known book is The Eyes of the Skin, an argument against the privileging of sight over the other senses, and of visual imagery over other ways of experiencing architecture. His case is a strong one that has rightfully made the book a standard text in architecture schools. It is actually the first part of a trilogy of books focused on the "study on the role of the senses, embodiment and imagination in architectural and artistic perception, thought and making"—the other two are The Thinking Hand and The Embodied Image.

Students and architects are better off with the books and numerous essays Pallasmaa has been writing for the last few decades. His honest explorations of architecture through the lens of a practicing architect in Finland, a worldly educator, and a voracious reader of literature, philosophy, science, sociology, psychology, and other "non-architectural" subjects are a sane alternative to the shallow and easily digestible architectural media that prevails these days. Pallasmaa's calls for meaning, poetry, and heightened experience run counter to an emphasis on form and novelty today, but they're also refreshing for not being wedded to stylistic tendencies or theories; allegiances are not as important as strong conceptual frameworks that orient themselves to "the defense of the authenticity of human experience," what Pallasmaa sees as one task of architecture.

The two volumes of Encounters (#1 was released in 2005 and reissued on the 2013 release of #2) collect approximately 50 essays in total, culled from articles and lectures, some not previously published (none of the content has been published in other Pallasmaa collections, it should be noted). Like Pallasmaa's books I've featured previously—be it the trio on the senses, The Architecture of the Image, or Understanding Architecture, which he wrote with Robert McCarter—these collections are highly recommended. The consistency of Pallasmaa's ideas and quality of writing is phenomenal. This is not to say they are static; rather they evolve slowly and subtly.

This evolution is not explicit, since the essays are organized thematically rather than chronologically. The first volume spans a larger time frame—about 25 years, from 1977 to 2003—and puts the essays into one-word sections that will seem "right" to followers (like me) of Pallasmaa: Sounding, Sensing, Inhabiting, Observing, Learning, Reflecting, and Time. Volume 2's essays fill about the same number of pages but span from only 1998 to 2011; the five sections will also seem right: Architectural Essences, Artistic Portraits, Meaning in Architecture, Architectural Portraits, Boundaries, and Architecture of the Arts. Each collection is introduced by interviews between Pallasmaa and editor Peter MacKeith that lend understanding to Pallasmaa's background and the continued evolution of his writing.

Reading the essays in these collections—be it in order, by themed section, or randomly—many ideas recur, reinforcing how Pallasmaa is using his writing to explore ideas and establish positions. For example, he articulates various ways of defining the "task of architecture" without repeating the same thing. His definitions do not contradict each other; rather, they expand upon it and frame it in the context of the particular essay, itself a working out of ideas. So, it is equally valid that the task is "the defense of the authenticity of human experience," as noted above, "to create, maintain, and protect silence," and "the mediation between the world and ourselves, history, present, and future, human institutions and individuals, and between the material and the spiritual." These statements are not simply true or false, nor do they negate each other; like many of the ideas Pallasmaa promotes, they exist somewhere between subject and object, a place of truth that is in the interaction between things rather than the things themselves.

What I really appreciate about these and other statements by Pallasmaa is the way he is able to make the sentence the reader is taking in at any given moment the most important statement of all. This stems from his manner of making assertions but also in the way he crafts sentences, something I'd trace to his imbibing of literature. It would be hard to argue that most architectural writing is pretty boring, focused on saying something but not necessarily how. Sentences are the means by which a writer can hold a reader's interest and make ideas both understandable and pleasurable; Pallasmaa excels in this regard. (It is like comparing a non-fiction account of Frank Lloyd Wright with T.C. Boyle's The Women—the literary account is certainly more pleasurable.)

Another area where repetition occurs in Pallasmaa's essays is with the sources that continue to influence and infiltrate his writing. Followers will no doubt recall the way Borges, Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Rilke, Tarkovsky, Brodsky, Blomstedt, and Kundera are quoted in his essays, sometimes at length. Very rarely does an architect occupy such a central position in Pallasmaa's writing—only Aalto and more recently Steven Holl come to mind. It's not surprising to hear Pallasmaa say, "I recommend literature to my students rather than books on and by architects and designers," and, "I find that the rejection of the book as well as the lack of interest in the deep narratives of culture have catastrophic consequences for education today."

Like this last quote, much of Pallasmaa's writing is in response to some sort of bad situation today, be it in our schools, in our cities, in books, or in our minds. It's hard to choose essays that best summarize his positions, but one that is worth highlighting is "On Atmosphere: Peripheral Perception and Existential Experiences" from Encounters 2. It fuses Pallasmaa's ideas of existential experience, neuroscience, art, and literature, and takes them into a new direction: "Our capacity to grasp qualitative atmospheric entities of complex environmental situations ... could well be named our sixth sense, and it likely to be our most important sense in terms of our existence and survival." The essay makes me excited to see how Pallamsaa's writing will continue to evolve.

Encounters 1:
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Encounters 2:
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A note on the book design: Publisher Rakennustieto and its designers should be commended for carefully crafting two tactile and well-designed books. The covers have an almost leathery texture that is sensual to touch and inviting to behold. Within, the page layout benefits from a rational yet flexible design that gives equal weight and propinquity to the text and images. These two aspects make for a pleasurable means of taking in Pallasmaa's words and ideas.

Candide No. 6

Candide No. 6 edited by Susanne Schindler, Andres Lepik, Axel Sowa
Hatje Cantz, 2012
Paperback, 144 pages

Since its first issue in 2009, Candide - Journal for Architectural Knowledge has followed a format with five distinct sections: "'Analysis' investigates forms of the built environment, looking for the knowledge invested in them. 'Essay' offers space for a personal exploration of one of the grand themes of architecture. 'Project' serves as a forum for practicing architects and their works. 'Encounter' highlights the wealth of experience of famous or unjustly forgotten architects. 'Fiction' appeals to the power of the imagination, which occasionally transports more knowledge than does empirical research." Rather than asking authors to respond to a theme (as is the norm in a number of architectural publications these days), Candide uses the sections as means of exploring architectural knowledge through different means of expression and investigation; writing an analysis is much different than writing fiction, for example, so undertaking one or the other relative to a certain topic should yield unique results.

Issue no. 6 begins with the Essay on architectural acoustics in the first two decades of the 20th century. Sabine von Fischer discusses how Adolf Loos, Herman Sörgel and Siegfried Ebeling approached technology, aesthetics, and metaphysics through sound in architecture. It's the most academic of the five contributions in the issue, and the parallel struggles of architects 100 years later is obvious, though it's not clear if the three articles are offered up as examples of what not to do, or if they were the only voices tackling the issue at the time.

Tanja Herdt's Analysis of Cedric Price's McAppy Project follows. Like many people I am familiar with Price's Fun Palace and the Potteries Thinkbelt, but not his research and design for Robert Alistair McAlpine. Price looked at the social conditions of various job sites and made proposals aimed at improving working conditions. Herdt appropriately paints Price as an ahead-of-his-time designer that looked beyond formal solutions and incorporated a variety of inputs in his proposals. It is a thorough analysis and a very interesting overlooked project to learn about.

Of the remaining three contributions two are interviews—with artists Anne and Patrick Poirier, and with architect Anna Heringer—and they are excellent pieces focused on ruins and earth architecture, respectively. The fifth piece is a work of Fiction, a somewhat disjointed radio play that tackles the demolition of a public housing development outside Paris. It is probably much better as an actual performance, but as words on the page it fails to hold interest (as good fiction does) as it attempts to convey the voices of the different players in the demolition (residents, architects, workers).

It's worth noting that the five-section format also extends to the journal as an artifact. The design of the first five issues was consistent, and starting with issue six the journal has a new designer (Benjamin "E.P.i.M.H.i.P.F." Critton) and a new look, though one that maintains some details—paper size, exposed spine, a mix of papers. So Candide will change its design every five issues, but it remains to be seen how far it will take the number five: Will it have a planned shelf life of five times five issue, perhaps? The sixth issue shows that there is plenty of good topics to help inform readers' architectural knowledge.

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Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives

Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives by John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton
W. W. Norton, 2012 (reissue)
Hardcover, 240 pages

On February 2 Grand Central Terminal celebrated its 100th birthday. The building looks a lot better than any people or other buildings from 1913, thanks to the restoration that was completed in 1998. For those who never saw the terminal before that year (like me), the building looks like what it must have been when it first opened. But the restoration—like any work of preservation—is equal parts creativity and cleaning. It removed the clutter that blocked windows, made spaces cramped, and otherwise detracted from the Beaux Arts architecture, but it also added elements and reconfigured others to give the terminal hopefully another 100 years of use.

This book—originally published in 2000 but recently reissued by W. W. Norton—is authored by John Belle, architect of the restoration (with Beyer Blinder Belle), and Maxinne R. Leighton, currently with Parson Brinckerhoff. Not surprisingly, the book devotes a good chunk to the restoration work and the documentation of its subsequent splendor. The book starts with the threats to Grand Central from the middle of last century, when even landmark status did not guarantee its protection. A Supreme Court ruling in 1978 in favor of the city's landmarking of the building owed much to Jackie O. and other celebrities that championed the cause in the decade after Penn Station was knocked down. Yet even though it was saved by the wrecking ball, the realities of the economy and train travel meant that advertising and other means of revenue reshaped people's experience of the main hall and other spaces. Such a situation survives to this day in the renting out of the original waiting room for events and pop-up stores, but at least those are temporary and can be avoided by using other entrances (and thankfully Apple's insertion into the main hall is fairly well done).

As valuable as the chapters on Grand Central's preservation and restoration are, the best ones tell the story of the terminal's coming into being. People may see the 100-year-old stone edifice and think that is everything, but the tracks, platforms and other infrastructure that the building serves extend well beyond its footprint, sitting under many of the buildings to the north. These buildings, Park Avenue, and Midtown east of 5th Avenue owe their existence to Grand Central, which was not the first train station on its site (it follows Grand Central Station and Depot) but is the most important, for it submerged the newly electrified rails to allow for building above them. The terminal acted like a magnet and attracted development, especially hotels and offices.

As Grand Central turns 100, its role in the "invention" of Midtown and the area's subsequent transformation is coming to the fore. Two events are underway that will reshape the area around the terminal: First is the LIRR East Side Access, which will deliver trains from Long Island to the east side of Midtown by 2016 (currently they end at Penn Station). Second is the city's proposed rezoning of Midtown East, which aims to boost development around Grand Central, particularly along Park Avenue to the north. These two undertakings illustrate how infrastructure and private development are linked; destroying Grand Central would have adversely affected the former (as the destruction of Penn Station did to the underground maze that New Yorkers inherited), but the days of either/or have given way to a symbiotic appreciation of urban complexity. While this book predates these newest developments, it gives a great background on Grand Central's solid foundations that make it an ideal hub for commuters and the ever-changing Midtown surrounding it.

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Understanding Architecture

Understanding Architecture by Juhani Pallasmaa and Robert McCarter
Phaidon, 2012
Hardcover, 448 pages

Readers of this website probably know I'm a big fan of Juhani Pallasmaa's books. They theorize architecture primarily in terms of how buildings shape embodied experiences. While his writings can be lumped into a phenomenological approach, they defy easy categorization in terms of style and other means. He is for architecture that creates meaning through the prioritization of human experience; he is not for modern architecture, or traditional architecture, or this or that strand in between. That variety can be found in the selection of 72 buildings that make up this architectural primer he wrote with Robert McCarter, an architect, professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and a capable author in his own right.

When I received the book late last year I immediately included it in my Notable Books of 2012 list at Designers & Books. There I described that Pallasmaa and McCarter "contend that experience 'is the only valid means of evaluating a work of architecture.' Of course, a book’s reliance on photographs means that the visual takes precedence in one’s appreciation of buildings and spaces. To help overcome this predilection, each of the 72 works in this sweeping view of architecture spanning millennia is accompanied by a floor plan that locates the photographs and traces the body’s movement through the spaces. Photos are also keyed within the texts, which are rich in description and analysis, going well beyond the simple formal descriptions in Phaidon’s contemporaneous 20th Century World Architecture atlas."

Each of the 72 projects—ranging from the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt (ca. 2500 B.C.), to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (2001)—are fit into one of 12 chapters: space, time, matter, gravity, light, silence, dwelling, room, ritual, memory, landscape, place. Of course, the buildings could fit into just about any chapter; the Pyramids may immediately make one think of "gravity," but the authors put it into the Silence chapter, stating, "The profound silence of their presence immediately affects us, eliciting the deepest of emotions, reminding us of our fundamental relationship with the world." The Folk Art Museum, on the other hand, falls into the Memory chapter, and the authors see the building as capable of "allowing the inhabitants to enter the spaces of memory opened up by the art." It's clear from these brief quotes how the book prioritizes human experience, both in terms of the body and our interconnected minds.

As I mentioned in the D&B write-up, one of the most commendable aspects of the book is the way each building's photos are keyed to a floor plan where a red path traces the body's movement through the spaces. I can't stress how important these illustrations are, both as an educational tool for orienting one's gaze in space, and as a means of re-grounding architectural photos in their realities at a time when the image of a building takes precedence over what it represents. In terms of the thematic chapters, the writing approach, and the means of illustrating the buildings, this book stands in stark contrast to standard architectural histories that emphasize form and material through photos and the occasional drawing. There are not enough buildings to make it a comprehensive architectural history for students, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in its commendable approach to truly understanding architecture.

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