Tag Archives: phaidon

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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20th-Century World Architecture

20th-Century World Architecture: The Phaidon Atlas by the Editors of Phaidon
Phaidon, 2012
Hardcover, 824 pages

In 2004 Phaidon released the aptly named Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, a volume featuring over 1,000 projects on 824 pages, a super-sized snapshot of architecture since 1998. Four years later the publisher released The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture and a thousand more projects on 800 pages. Even with the all-in-one-place international selection of top-notch architecture, the overriding impact is that the books are a cumbersome pair, even provoking Zaha Hadid to exclaim, "Now we need to reinforce the shelving!" Sure, Phaidon came out with pocket-sized travel guides for both titles, but with websites like ArchDaily filling people's inboxes with a dozen projects a day (an Atlas-worth every few months) the important question may not have been, "should the atlases be smaller?" but instead, "should we make the atlases at all?" Given the spread of contemporary architecture online, accessible via laptops, tablets, and smartphones, the heft of the atlases is easy to question. But what has arrived four years after the second title is a look back at 20th-century architecture rather than another collection of contemporary buildings.

The decision to look back at the 20th century with the latest in the Atlas series was a surprise to me when I learned about it, but upon considering what I mention above, it makes sense. People are discovering new buildings every day because they are being documented like never before in history, at least in terms of the number of projects photographed and shared. Yet as we move ahead with a constant stream of new projects, history gets lost behind. With this in mind the virtue of the third installment isn't the sheer number of projects included (more than 750) but the international scope, which equates with lots of new discoveries for everybody but the most seasoned architectural historians. The densest areas of discovery for me area in Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, though each part of the book includes something new. Of course, novelty is not the point, but the editors should be commended for such a wide-ranging selection of notable buildings.

With 750 buildings spanning ten decades, there are bound to be omissions. A few missing buildings that I realized at first glance were the Academy of Art and Architecture by Wiel Arets (who surprisingly is not included at all in the Atlas), Bernard Khoury's B018 (also an architect without any buildings included), and Mario Botta's Chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli (he has two buildings in the book). Yes, I'm partial to these three buildings because I featured them in the early days of my weekly web page, but they are indicative of the fact that everybody will have a list of buildings that should have been included but weren't. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if space denotes significance then the most important 20th-century buildings according to the editors at Phaidon (single buildings, not groupings of buildings like Brasilia, Chandigarh, or the Vitra complex) are the ones receiving two-page spreads: the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon, St. Mary's Cathedral by Kenzo Tange, Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, and Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Given that the book relies heavily upon photographs, illustrations, and page design, it's worth discussing these aspects. People who are familiar with the first two books will notice similarities in regards to the last two, without the maps, layout, colors, and other elements being repeated verbatim. There is a language happening—colored blocks for continents and architect references, maps created by modular shapes, etc.—that creates a consistency across the atlases. The big difference in the 20th-Century World Architecture is the photography, which tends to be contemporary with a building's completion. This means that a good deal of the photos are black-and-white, and that they don't exhibit the reproduction quality of the digital photos that make up the first two books. I find the old photos appealing, and to specially photograph 750 buildings would have probably meant a 2016 release. Whatever the case, the book documents a time of remarkable architectural change when the seeds for the 2,000 buildings in the other Atlases were planted. Then to not have this installment is unimaginable.

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Living in the Endless City

Living in the Endless City edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic
Phaidon, 2011
Hardcover, 512 pages

For those who digested 2008's The Endless City -- a product of the Urban Age conferences organized by the London School of Economics and the Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society -- this follow-up will tread familiar territory. The cover of Living in the Endless City even extends the data mining of the first book, yet this time around it opts for a visual approach over merely numbers (the center of each cover actually says exactly the same thing, one numerically, one graphically; to me the latter approach sinks in harder). Nine cities were the subject of the Urban Age conferences and six were collected in the 2008 tome; this book, almost as big, features the other three cities -- Mumbai, Istanbul, São Paulo -- alongside a lengthy introduction, lots of data, and "reflections" by conference participants, most academics.


In addition to essays by editors Burdett and Sudjic (and a great one by Saskia Sassen that shatters some well-regarded beliefs on the economies of cities today) the introduction includes a series of global views that statistically map human density, the human footprint (above), transportation, growth, and other characteristics that effectively convince readers that this book -- and its conference backbone -- are necessary. The whole is predicated on the fact that for the first in human history, more people live in urban than rural areas. That number is expected to increase well beyond roughly 50/50 to 75/25 in less than 40 years. The serious toll that such an increase will (continue to) have on the earth and people requires a multi-pronged look at urbanism in places of extreme density. Each chapter on Mumbai, Istanbul, and São Paulo includes full-page photos, stats, and essays on the physical, the political, the social, the economic, and the cultural. As is life, overlaps in these areas exist in the essays, but the idea is to take into account a multiple of viewpoints and strategies for analyzing the city, not prioritizing any over the other.


The data section of the book presents all nine Urban Age cities (New York City, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Berlin return from the first book) together and at an equal scale. Most of the maps and charts are at a small scale, using color gradients to aid in understanding, but each city is given a spread with a hybrid map/graph for density and a Nolli-esque figure/ground map of a one-kilometer square. These illustrations are good at showing extremes (comparing Mumbai and London is especially jarring), but Justin McGuirk's essay "Understanding the Numbers" is an extremely helpful addition for doing what the title says, while also inserting a dose of skepticism about what data actually tells us.


Rounding out the book are eleven "reflections" by names like Richard Sennett, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Alejandro Aravena, and others. The essays by these three are particularly relevant for architects reading this book, directing attention towards, respectively, physical and social borders, the implications of "cheapness" in architecture and building, and making housing affordable. The whole undertaking ends with the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Awards, which range from "the ordinary [to] the spectacular" and include toilets in Mumbai that were improved by putting a classroom over them (this function made people want to keep the toilets clean, where before they ignored them after use). These awards illustrate that the answers to problems represented with big numbers on a global scale are actually small and local. Change will not be quick and widespread, but it will arise from interventions that creatively address the physical, the social, and the economic.

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Massive Change

Massive Change by Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries
Phaidon, 2004
Hardcover, 240 pages

Massive Change is an ambitious project by graphic designer (among other potential titles) Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries (a 12-month interdisciplinary postgraduate program) that aims to "evolve a global society that has the capacity to direct and control the emerging forces in order to achieve the most positive outcome." Found in book form here, Massive Change is also a traveling exhibition (coming to Chicago in September 2006), radio show, online forum, and line of products. As a book, the project successfully conveys the notion that design is all-encompassing, though that knowledge must be tempered by the foresight to know what should -- and should not -- be done with that power. This book takes an extremely positive view of design, seeing it as the way to solve many contemporary problems: poverty, energy shortage, and war, to name a few. While the uncritical way the book presents most of the ideas may be its biggest shortcoming, the extraordinary wealth of ideas and voices contained within its pages is its greatest, acting as a starting point into realms of science, technology, and other fields that offer a great deal of hope. Under the right circumstances, much of what's presented could realize its full potential. And that's the crux of Massive Change: for its ideas to have effect, the problems and solutions it proposes must reach the right people. After reading this book, you just might think that's possible.