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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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New SubUrbanisms

New SubUrbanisms by Judith K. De Jong
Routledge, 2013
Paperback, 256 pages

Back in August I attended a book talk by Vishaan Chakrabarti on his book A Country of Cities. In both the talk and book the former NYC planner and current SHoP partner spells out his argument for density, envisioning for the United States what the title clearly states. Implicit within this hypothetical yet potentially great migration from rural and suburban areas to cities is the distinction between the former and the latter. For Chakrabarti cities are defined as places with a high enough population density for subways, something not many U.S. cities can boast of, much less their suburbs. A different tack is taken by Chicago-based architect and UIC assistant professor Judith De Jong in New SubUrbanisms, where she sees a "flattening" of the long-held distinctions between cities and suburbs, and she calls for creative responses to this condition. Compared to Chakrabarti's book, De Jong's approach is certainly more practical, even as it calls for a move away from "business as usual" approaches in metropolitan areas.

What De Jong calls flattening and defines as "suburbs becoming more similar to their central cities, and cities more similar to their suburbs," is investigated through a mix of firsthand accounts in primarily two cities (Houston and Chicago, where she has spent a good chunk of her career) and loads of demographic data; some of the latter is illustrated but most of it is found within the text to convey the extent of flattening while arguing for architects and urban designers to address it accordingly. The firsthand accounts consist of buildings and public spaces that serve as examples of the urban infiltrating the suburban, and vice-versa. These examples fall into five categories, each given a chapter: car space, domestic space, public space, retail space, and mix and match.

A couple projects, in the domestic space chapter, should serve to elucidate De Jong's stance. She discusses the ongoing Lakeshore East development in Chicago as "reflective of the ongoing hybridization between urban and suburban in contemporary inner city developments," while Optima Old Orchard Woods in Skokie, about 20 miles north of Chicago, is indicative of "suburban municipalities with urbanizing characteristics," namely proximity to transportation and retail developments. Lakeshore East is primarily residential towers around a park (the most notable tower is Studio Gang's Aqua hotel/residential high-rise), but its more traditionally suburban aspects include large unit sizes (preferring families over singles and couples) and townhouses that directly front the park and shield parking on the rear. Similarly, Old Orchard Woods provides plenty of parking below the mid-rise buildings with fairly large apartments.

So both Lakeshore East and Old Orchard Woods exhibits traits of their context but also the other – they are urban and suburban at the same time: sub/urban. But De Jong does not see this as a brand new, contemporary condition; the histories she provides as a framework for her argument in the first chapter, and in places throughout the other chapters, are some of the strongest parts of the book. In the case of these domestic spaces, and Lakeshore East in particular, she sees Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City as a precedent for adding residential density to the city while providing something required in the suburbs: a place for the car. Ironically, the mix of residential, commercial, retail and entertainment in Marina City meant residents could live day to day without ever leaving their city block. But the parking podium that raised those same units higher into the sky meant they could come and go (to the suburbs, if they liked and now might in the case of reverse commuting) via car just as easily.

Those following urban studies and urban design will not be surprised by the effects of flattening, which are apparent in the form of buildings in cities and suburbs but also in the codes that dictate, for examples, a certain number of parking spaces per residential unit in inner cities (an impediment to truly walkable/bikeable cities). But De Jong's embrace of flattening through creative architecture ekes out a unique spot in the myriad of literature on urbanism – sitting somewhere between Chakrabarti's siren song for the city and the call of June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones to retrofit suburbia.

De Jong gives people a vocabulary for the conditions of sub/urban flattening (such as the four types of parking: surface, layer, lift and mix, and fill) while spurring them to think beyond those for new ways of intervening. And while the author's entry (with David Ruffing) for the Build a Better Burb competition (selected as a "noteworthy scheme" and part of the book Designing Suburban Futures) is included at the end of the book as an example of hybridizing the sub/urban context, New SubUrbanisms could have used more projects that illustrate the creative potential for responding to flattening. Yet this is only one flaw in a well researched and highly readable book on one part of the American condition today.

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Inside Piano

Inside Piano by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine
BêkaPartners, 2013
Book: Hardcover, 144 pages
DVD: All-Region PAL, 99 minutes

In the vein of their earlier documentaries on the use and maintenance of buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, and Frank Gehry, Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine examine three buildings designed by Renzo Piano: B&B Italia Offices, IRCAM, and the Beyeler Foundation. While the previous titles clocked in at just shy of an hour, the three mini-documentaries add up to just over an hour-and-a-half – over two hours if we take the Renzo Piano interview into account. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the other three "Living Architectures" documentaries (of five, with one more to go), there was something to these three bite-sized films that made them even more enjoyable, each one making me anticipate the next one.

[B&B Italia Offices, Studio Piano and Rogers]

While it's hard for me to say exactly why these three short films were so appealing to me when watching them, I think part of it stems from the need to look at more than one Piano building since he is an architect that tackles each project anew (minus some recurring details and themes that show up in low-slung museums like the Beyeler all these years later). The B&B Italia Offices come from the years when Piano was designing with Richard Rogers – the filmmakers actually call the building in the film and companion book "the little Beaubourg," after their most famous commission. IRCAM moves to the site just next to Beaubourg/Pompidou in Paris, for a primarily below-grade project that bridges Piano's work with Rogers and on his own through its various phases. Lastly, the Beyeler Foundation sees Piano creating one of his masterpieces, one of the buildings that makes his numerous museum commissions understandable.

[IRCAM, Studio Piano and Rogers]

But like the documentaries on Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, and Gehry, Bêka and Lemoine could care less about platitudes and other high praise. They want to see how a building really functions – by following a postal worker through the offices (B&B), talking to sound technicians in their windowless offices (IRCAM), and heading up into the gap between lower and upper roofs to change a light bulb (Beyeler). For the filmmakers, there are two groups of people that use a building: on the one hand the office workers, artists, museum-goers and other people who inhabit the building; and on the other hand the engineers and facility managers who exist to make sure the building continues to operate effectively. In the case of these three Piano commissions, the latter is of the most interest, both for us and the filmmakers. This makes sense, given the technology of both the programs and the building designs themselves. Those able to contemplate hiring Piano for a building would do well to watch these films to get an idea of what might be in store for them.

[Beyeler Foundation, Renzo Piano Building Workshop]

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Design for an Empathic World

Design for an Empathic World: Reconecting People, Nature and Self by Sim Van der Ryn
Island Press, 2013
Hardcover, 164 pages

Fifteen years after the creation of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building rating system, it seems that sustainable principles are fairly well entrenched in architectural practice. What used to be considered a costly alternative to the usual materials and systems have become the norm in approaching the design of buildings. But do things like low-flow toilets, green roofs, and other elements within a point-based trade-off system really add up to truly green architecture? Are buildings meeting LEED Silver, Gold, or even Platinum really sustainable? The answer is increasingly "no," not only because the system is flawed but because terms like "sustainability" and "green building" have been co-opted by manufacturers, marketers, and others focused on the bottom line, to the detriment of really changing our ways and our built landscape.

Architect, author, teacher and self-described visionary Sim Van der Ryn's latest book exists to steer architects away from sustainable thinking based on things like LEED (he embraces the Living Building Challenge over all other rating systems), which paint an incomplete picture of our role in the environment, so they can foster a more holistic view toward what he calls human-centered and nature-centered design. Empathy is the operative idea in his argument (it is a highly critical book), and it is something that needs to be increasingly taught to children and even students in architecture schools to enable a greater shift than what has transpired in the last decade-and-half. It is easy to see that curiosity and understanding toward other people and the environment we are part of is lacking, given the dismal nature of much of our cities and suburbs, and the carbon we expand at an ever-more-increasing rate into the atmosphere, dire predictions or not.

Van der Ryn tries to convince readers that a turn to the inner self is required to foster empathy and to make greater connections with nature. He does this through a memoir tracing some of his experiences since he moved with his family from the Netherlands to the United States before his fifth birthday. These experiences are recounted in the book's six short chapters, primarily Lifetime Learning Design. But it's the two chapters – Human-Centered Design and Nature-Centered Design – that offer the most potential. In these chapters Van der Ryn recounts some of the projects he undertook as an architect, educator, and even State Architect (to Governor Jerry Brown) in California, where he lives to this day. Through these projects and the research based around them, the reader gains an understanding of how empathy relates to design, how an architect can embrace how the outcome of a building can positively impact people and nature. Not everybody willing to change their inner self will have the same path as Sim Van der Ryn, but by sharing his story he's given them something enjoyable to read (and look at, with his watercolors that are sprinkled throughout the book) while they search for their own paths.

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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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How Architecture Works

How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit by Witold Rybczynski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Hardcover, 368 pages

A sketch by Louis I. Kahn of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, graces the cover of Witold Rybczynski's 18th book—a number I knew was high but hadn't nailed down until reading an interview at Designers & Books. It is a telling image, for it straddles tradition and modernity, something that Rybczynski does throughout the book, eventually asserting his appreciation for a variety of design approaches. It's hard to think that Kahn was shunned by many modernists for bringing mass and echoes of traditional forms into his architecture in the 1950s and 60s. The Kimbell's vaults recall Roman buildings, yet the strip of light at their apex, and the gap between the concrete structure and the infill walls, subtly signals modern construction underlying the whole thing. Very few architects have been able to achieve such a unique synthesis of the modern and the past, so it's fitting that Kahn's sketch signals "how architecture works."

The title makes it clear that Rybczynski has crafted a book for a general audience, for those who appreciate architecture but probably can't speak about it critically beyond "I like that" or "I don't like that." In this vein, the inclusion of a glossary is hardly surprising, though the author fills it primarily with words that reference the Classical tradition of architecture. He acknowledges as much in some sentences prefacing the glossary (pointing out that modern architecture has not existed long enough to build up its own vocabulary), but what comes before across ten chapters is much heavier on contemporary architecture than anything even preceding modern architecture. This makes sense, for after all Rybczynski is a critic, and what critic (outside of one) spends his time discussing glories of the past rather than the new forms (literally and metaphorically) that architecture is taking? Therefore, Rybczynski doesn't promote one approach over another, meaning people honing their skills on architecture come away with a more personal and nuanced appreciation of architecture akin to the author's.

The first time I read one of Rybczynski's books was in college for a class on environment and behavior. The book was Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture (his sixth, per the author's website), a collection of essays and lectures. While I haven't looked through it since that class (though I still have it, in anticipation of that happening again...perhaps sooner now that I've read his latest) a few essays have stuck with me. One of them is on the design of chairs and what it means when they are transplanted from homes or offices or classrooms and put on display in museums. They can't be sat on or touched in museums, only appreciated visually and historically through placards. So if a chair can no longer be sat upon, is it still serving its purpose? The same can be asked of various entities, but it clearly elevates experience (and in turn design for experience) above other means of appreciation. It also aligns Rybczynski's ideas—consistent two decades later—as firmly humanist, just as the subtitle of his new book attests.

How Architecture Works has a clear trajectory in its chapters, both from the general to the detailed in terms of subject, and from the broad to the personal in terms of Rybczynski's writing. In the case of the former, the reader ventures from the realm of "ideas" to "the setting" and eventually to "details," at which time enough basics have been covered to delve into "style," "the past" and "taste." These last few chapters see Rybczynski revealing more and more about his own preference, but just when it seems like the first 2/3 of the book and its focus on contemporary architecture is going to be knocked down he reveals his openness to various styles and approaches to design.

This doesn't mean that certain architects and buildings don't bubble to the fore throughout the book; Frank Gehry, Mies van der Rohe, Renzo Piano, Frank Lloyd Wright, and cover man Louis Kahn receive the most ink, based on memory and the size of their index entries. Yet it's probably Paul Cret, close behind these five architects in how much he's discussed, that embodies Rybczynski's ongoing search for what he calls the "essence of architecture." Cret's epigraph is the first thing confronted inside the book, and like Kahn's sketch the words prompt the reader to keep an open mind, looking beyond function and construction to that "something that makes architecture a think apart."

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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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“Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind”

"Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind": Contemporary Planning in New York City by Scott Larson
Temple University Press, 2013
Paperback, 198 pages

In a little less than three months New Yorkers will go to the polls to elect the successor to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who will complete his third term at the end of the year. In Bloomberg's 12 years in office he has had a major impact on the physical state of the city, from the completion of 2/3 of the elevated High Line park in West Chelsea and the continued transformation of formerly industrial waterfronts into parks and residential uses, to the rezoning of parts of the city (such as that around the High Line) to allow more bulk and the start of large-scale projects he's steered, such as Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, and Columbia's expansion in Manhattanville. Some may argue that Bloomberg's achievements have only improved NYC for the better, but others, including scholar Scott Larson, would take the opposite stance and argue that he has focused his efforts on the upper classes at the expense of the lower and middle classes.

How was Mayor Bloomberg able to foster developments targeted at the upper classes, create parks in adjacent areas, and pedestrianize streets in primarily tourist areas (among other significant accomplishments)? The answer, according to Larson, lies in the administration's championing of two historically oppositional forces: Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. The influence of both on the city is undeniable: Moses modernized the city through the construction of parkways, parks, playgrounds, public housing, cultural centers, and much, much more; Jacobs embraced diversity, history, small blocks, and the human aspects of neighborhoods, in the process fighting off Moses as he tried to bulldoze highways through parts of Manhattan that are now cherished for their history, scale, and architecture.

Bloomberg and his compatriots (most notably City Planning Director Amanda Burden and Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff) pushed a development agenda that embraced the large-scale, top-down projects of Moses as well as the small-scale, bottom-up qualities of Jacobs, what Burden called "building like Moses with Jacobs in mind." In this quote, Moses receives top billing, pointing to what is really going on: the administration imposed a particular view of the city on the public. Even PlaNYC, which was promoted as a plan developed with the public through community meetings in 2007, was basically completed as a plan before it was ever presented to the public; the meetings (one of which I attended) were basically informational, without any room for incorporating comments. So Moses represented a way of getting things done, while Jacobs was merely a way of softening the edges of various schemes—the public doesn't want a stadium in Hudson Yards? Add some public green space around it.

Larson brilliantly dissects Bloomberg's tenure as Mayor of New York (particularly the first two terms), focusing on how the administration used the prevailing legacies of Moses and Jacobs to get what they wanted done. (Bloomberg's successful repeal of terms limits to give himself more time to implement his objectives reiterates this strategy.) After some history on Moses and Jacob and the way they have come to represent oppositional means of planning, Larson discusses the mayor's large-scale plans (2012 Olympics bid, Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, and Columbia University in Manhattanville) relative to a synthesis of the two personalities. Next are analyses of the exhibitions and books that reappraised the legacy of Robert Moses (I wrote about those for NYFA Current in 2007), as well as reactions on the part of Jacobs advocates, like the Municipal Art Society. Outside of a chapter devoted to the Regional Plan Association's Region at Risk report from 1996 (an influential document for the Bloomberg administration), and one on the work of Moses and Jacobs outside of New York City, the rest of the book focuses on just how Bloomberg used the tactic of "building like Moses with Jacobs in mind." One focused on Burden and her means of rolling design into the agenda is of particular interest to architects and urban designers.

Considering how easy it can be to get carried along with the positive aspects of what has happened in the last dozen years (the last 5-6 years, really, if we focus on what the administration started and completed), it's good—no, imperative—to have critical voices like Larson questioning the motives of those in power. The parks and other public spaces that Bloomberg has spearheaded have given the public plenty to appreciate, but even the High Line became a means of rezoning a desirable area, making it even further out of reach for most of us. Accomplishments like these overshadow what Bloomberg hasn't done for those who cannot afford million-dollar condos. His legacy as Mayor of New York is hardly etched in stone, and this book raises a flag as to what that legacy should be, as well as to what his successor should really focus on.

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The Images of Architects

The Images of Architects: The Visible Origin of Architecture edited by Valerio Olgiati
Quart Architektur, 2013
Hardcover, 424 pages

How does one "read" a book entirely of images? It may not be such a hard question when it comes to an artist's monograph or a photographic essay, but this book of "44 collections by unique architects" does not offer similar formulas for interpretation. With typically 10 images per architect, there isn't enough information to make conclusions about each architect or see a consistent strand in the images selected. But this does not stop the book from becoming a joy to look at and attempt to understand.

Even though images are everywhere these days, the ones collected here are, at their heart, images of inspiration, not those devoted to marketing or advertising; which, if you think about it, is what the architectural imagery in publications (print and online) are ultimately about: selling a building and/or architect as something of value. Valerio Olgiati, the Swiss architect who asked the 44 architects to contribute "important images that show the basis of their work" for last year's Venice Biennale, taps into this realm of architecture culture through the selection of architects (being included is some sort of status symbol), but we do not see (in most cases) their work. This focus on the inspirational images of respected architects means that every page-turn leads to a surprise, and that every image holds some weight in at least one architect's imagination, prompting us to find what is of value in each image.

Given the roughly 44x10 images included in the book, a thorough reading of each and every image is only recommended for those who think of the book as seriously as a Bible, taking in the whole thing over the course of a year. My more rapid pace of ingestion led to the discovery of certain thematic consistencies in the 44 collections:

  • Whole > Sum of Its Parts (Preston Scott Cohen, Atelier Bow-Wow, J. Mayer H., Junya Ishigami): It's about the 10 images together rather than individual images. Cohen documents one bridge in 10 photos, and Atelier Bow-Wow present buildings and landscapes full of people, for example.
  • A Sense of Place (David Adjaye, Miroslav Sik): The images document a particular place (Adjaye looks at the architecture and landscapes of Africa) to gain an understanding in the architect's mind.
  • Drawing Inspiration (Alejandro Aravena, Alvaro Siza, Richard Meier): Inspiration and understanding comes about through the architect's sketches of the outside world. Meier's collages border on the egotistical, since they are the only example of an architect's work in the whole book.

Most of the collections defy such categorization, but of course there is a lot of architectural imagery, be it photos of old buildings, 20th-century masterpieces, or the vernacular. There is the occasional dichotomy between architecture and nature, but only Sou Fujimoto and Hans Kolhoff make this explicit by pairing up cities and landscapes. Ultimately, the above categories and interpretations are secondary to one's enjoyment of the book, since each image is an open-ended question that can be ignored completely or savored to become another person's inspiration.

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