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The Story of Post-Modernism

The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture by Charles Jencks
Wiley, 2011
Paperback, 272 pages

Charles Jencks is attributed with marking the death of Modernism with the precise time of the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis in 1972. Yes, Jencks did say as much in his influential book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, though he admits in his latest book on Post-Modern architecture that the time was a fabrication (to lend it a Modern precision) and that the repeated quotings turned the event into a social fact. Yet Modernism didn't so much die then as be transformed or displaced. Post-Modernism (or Postmodernism, or whatever other spelling; I'll use Jenck's preferred hyphenation here) prevailed, and architecture looked back to history and recompiled architectural elements in new and ironic ways. Or such is the oversimplified version that we learn in history and theory books. Jencks's take on the other hand, is more broad -- rooted in four-fold traits of pluralism, double-coding, complexity, and iconology/iconography -- and therefore encompasses much contemporary architecture that we may not associate with the term Post-Modernism.

If I dig into my library for books on Post-Modernism, the titles are drenched with projects by Michal Graves, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, and others practicing in the 1980s. But that chunk of production that we normally affiliate with Post-Modernism comprises only about a third of Jencks's Story. The rest is made up of what can best be described as pluralism, from Frank Gehry to Peter Zumthor, with most high-profile architects in between -- Peter Eisenman, Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Daniel Libeskind, UNStudio. This "Starchitect" list points to Jencks's trait of iconology, or the icons that are produced by these and other globe-trotting architects. Even though these architects' buildings make up a tiny extent of the built environment designed by architects (my biggest complaint with the book is he focuses only on big-name, high-profile architecture), this trait is important for Jencks because he sees it as the equivalent of early Post-Modernism's iconography. Where the re-appropriation of historical elements could express a particular meaning a couple decades ago, design in the age of globalization is more vague in terms of interpretation, so therefore icons refer to various things at once. In most icons (see Madelon Vriesendrop's cover for a sampling) Jencks finds metaphors in nature, therefore labeling them "cosmic icons."

Jencks's latest book, whose title makes it sound like it will be his last on the subject, comes at time when other outlets are reconsidering Post-Modernism, most notably the Victoria and Albert Museum with its Postmodern: Style and Subversion exhibition now on display and the recent Reconsidering Postmodern conference sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA). Both of these appear to approach Post-Modernism as a historic entity, not as something that permeates culture today, as Jencks sees it. Writing recently for the interior design website Houzz, I speculated that the liberation of form in Post-Modern architecture influenced today's architecture. Of course, at least two other influences can also be found: computer technology and Deconstructivist architecture; the first enables the "cosmic" forms of contemporary icons as well as 21st-century ornament, and the second (highlighted in a 1988 MoMA exhibition) offered an alternate route to historical reference. So my take is aligned more with Jencks than the ICAA, but it remains to be seen if this book will influence people to broaden their own definitions of Post-Modern architecture, perhaps removing the shackles that have made it a particular style rather than an "alternative to a mechanistic Modernism."

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The Embodied Image and Thinking About Architecture

The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture by Juhani Pallasmaa
Wiley, 2011
Hardcover or paperback, 152 pages

Thinking About Architecture: An Introduction to Architectural Theory by Colin Davies
Laurence King Publishing, 2011
Paperback, 160 pages

The Embodied Image is Finnish architect, educator, and writer Juhani Pallasmaa's third and final installment in his "study on the role of the senses, embodiment and imagination in architectural and artistic perception, thought and making."  It follows The Eyes of the Skin and The Thinking Hand, both also highly recommended titles. Those familiar with these and other titles by Pallasmaa will find Pallasmaa treading familiar ground: valuing architectural experience over intellectual conceit; seeing image as metaphor for structuring our lives over the aestheticizing of fetish forms and objects; and embracing art and architecture as ways of elevating life's experiences. This does not mean that Pallasmaa does not have anything new to say. If anything his arguments are so subtle, his dissection of imagery so nuanced that this essay adds to and reinforces his call for an architecture that balances newness and tradition with our experiences as embodied individuals.

Pallasmaa discusses imagery in architecture, art, poetry, and literature across five chapters. The majority is expended on "the many faces of the image" in the middle of the book, where the author distinguishes between the unconscious image, the iconic image, the collaged image, and many other types. It is not until the last chapter that he goes into depth on the architectural image, but coming after the previous exposition the direction is clear. Nevertheless his call for "the fragile image" is an intriguingly worded direction that can be found today in the architecture of Peter Salter, Sarah Wigglesworth and others, but is exemplified in the buildings of Carlo Scarpa and Alvar Aalto. Pallasmaa values architecture that responds to context over architecture that strives for concept and strong images. His call may be drowned out by the plethora of publications, both print and online, that continue to focus on the latest iconic forms, but every action has a reaction. In this sense Pallasmaa's well-formed arguments provide a strong basis for reconsidering image based on experience rather than image based on novelty.

Common ground between Pallasmaa's triumvirate and British architect, professor, and writer Colin Davies' introduction to architectural theory can be found in the latter elevating the importance of the embodied individual in architectural thought. The first chapter in his book that focuses "on the ideas rather than the theorists and philosophers behind them" makes this clear: Representation in architecture arises from humans being creatures that have evolved to stand between the ground and the sky; columns do the same, and Davies describes it in a way that "we have hit upon something fundamental in the nature of architecture." Over the next seven chapters -- Language, Form, Space, Truth, Nature, History, The City -- a similar conversational tone prevails, making the book ideal for students in architecture but also for professionals with an interest in theory but not its dense presentation. (His quote from a JAE article humorously runs this point home.) Also, like Pallasmaa, Davies ends on a note of response, in this case towards reality and away from the virtual. He finds it interesting that people populate Second Life with buildings, even though the rules of the world (gravity, shelter, etc.) don't exist. In this he finds that people want to grasp onto what makes them human, something found in the "physical, spatial, enduring, human architecture."

The Embodied Image:
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Thinking About Architecture:
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Urban Design Since 1945

Urban Design Since 1945: A Global Perspective by David Grahame Shane
Wiley, 2011
Paperback, 360 pages

In David Grahame Shane's previous book, Recombinant Urbanism, the reader learns about the three constituent elements of urban design: enclaves, armatures, and heterotopias. To put it basically, in a city enclaves are buildings (or groups of buildings, in the case of places like Rockefeller Center), armatures are streets, and heterotopias are places of difference that change the city over time. These three elements are also found in Shane's more expansive follow-up, a history of urban design since World War II that looks towards the future and how urban designers today can tackle the ever-expanding urban realm. Yet while these elements rose to the top of the Recombinant Urbanism, here it is Shane's four models of the city in the last 60 years that prevail: the Metropolis, the Megalopolis, the Fractured Metropolis, and the Megacity/Metacity.

The book starts with the introduction of the three urban elements that Shane detailed at length in the previous book; here they are treated rather cursorily as he traces their evolution since 1945. I must admit I was not optimistic during that chapter about the rest of the book, even with the multitude of illustrations of the various enclaves, armatures, and heterotopias; the evolution seemed incomplete. Yet what follows steadily improves, culminating in the Asian megacities that are but one example of the "global perspective" that Shane presents. Each urban model is treated with two chapters: the first defines the characteristics of the model and the circumstances for its evolution; the second presents numerous case studies with plenty of accompanying photos, drawings, and diagrams. While a rough chronology can be drawn from the metropolis in the early 20th century (and even earlier) to the megalopolis today, they are not models that displace the others; some or all co-exist depending on the time, place, and circumstances.

Needless to say, energy sources have and continue to shape the urban environment, and Shane does an excellent job of explaining the power and politics around mainly oil that have helped (for lack of a better word) create the situation we face today. Climate change, rising waters, and other problems arising from a dependence on a nonrenewable resource that is at or past its peak reserves, they are the crises that urban designers face. These problems seem insurmountable, especially when seen in relation to the global urban population and the percentage living in informal settlements with substandard conditions, but nevertheless they are a major part of the 21st century canvas. Things are not futile; think that each generation faces problems that seem worse then what came before, but here it is rooted in a problem of our own making. Shane offers some direction on moving forward, in the context of each model, grounded in built or in-progress examples. It's a view that is optimistic, a quality every urban designer tackling these challenges should have.

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The Post-Modern Reader

The Post-Modern Reader edited by Charles Jencks
Wiley, 2nd Edition, 2011
Paperback, 352 pages

The third title in Wiley's AD Reader series* is the second edition of 1992's The Post-Modern Reader, edited by Charles Jencks, a writer and landscape designer living in Scotland. Jencks is known most for articulating post-modernism in architecture through his books, penning or editing a few titles on the topic since 1977's The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. An essay from the seventh edition of that book can be found in this reader covering the post-modern in various arenas: architecture, literature, sociology, economics, feminism, and science. It is obvious from the selection of essays, excerpts, and new writings that the permeation of post-modernism across just about all areas of culture is the focus here, not just the formal appropriation of it in architecture. A new essay by Jencks, "What Then Is Post-Modernism?," commendably argues that post-modernism was not just a passing fad, illustrating how it has hybridized or paired with modernism to define much of the world today.

The reader is split into three sections: defining the post-modern, literature and architecture, and sociology and other areas. The first collects primarily classic texts by Jean-Francois Lyotard, Andreas Huyssen, and Margaret A. Rose. Within the second are excerpts by writers like John Barth and Umberto Eco, ones by Jane Jacobs, Robert Venturi, and Paolo Portoghesi, and a couple new essays. The last section also has a couple new essays alongside excerpts by Zygmunt Bauman, David Harvey, David Bohm, and others. Not surprisingly, given the topic at hand and the names involved, the collection is academic and at times quite dense. But unlike trudging through books like Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity or Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (two titles in my "unfinished" pile), this collection highlights various strands that are more bite-size, allowing readers to discover what resonates. For me, Bauman's take on post-modern sociology is most intriguing, focusing on consumerism and culture. For others, standouts will vary, but the diverse texts do a good job of signaling where the post-modern stands today and how it got here.

*Space Reader and The Diagrams of Architecture preceded this book.

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The Thinking Hand

The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture by Juhani Pallasmaa
Wiley, 2009
Paperback, 160 pages

Finnish architect and professor Juhani Pallasmaa is a prolific writer, probably known more for his words than his designs. His pint-sized book The Eyes of the Skin is considered a classic, a call for architecture to go beyond the visual and consider the haptic, the sense of touch that is the root of all senses. The Architecture of Image studies five pieces of cinema to see how they reflect "the inherent ephemeral architecture of the human mind, thought and emotion." Constant throughout his writings -- even including one- or two-page contributions like his afterword to Hands On -- is an emphasis on experience in body and mind, two interconnected entities that make up our being in the world, our existential predicament. This latest book by Pallasmaa compiles ideas from lectures given over the last ten or fifteen years, culminating in a succint effort to remedy the ramifications that arise from divorcing our thoughts from our hands, evident in a lot of contemporary society, from the technologies we use to the buildings we inhabit.

Pallasmaa focuses on the hand as the link between our experiences and our imagination. He starts the book outlining its general thesis, and over the next seven essays he moves from the physical to the abstract, from the hand itself to emotion and theory. So many strong ideas, references, and fodder for a semester-long class on these essays alone follow that it's difficult to single out even one or two things to discuss. Pallasmaa's writing comes across as if the paragraph that you are reading is the most important paragraph you'll ever read; this isn't to say the words are self-important, they are just so concisely meaningful that it's a wonder if if they next paragrph could say anything more. Of course this makes for a book that ideally is devoured slowly; a quick read yields great insight, but also a desire to go back and focus on certain paragraphs or essays until they sink into the subconscious.

To take a stab at discussing one idea, potentially the most controversial or unpopular notion in this book, is the overarching importance of the hand as a tool, negating the use of the computer as a replacement for hand drawing or the like. Examples abound of the connection between the movements of the hand and the development of the mind and the role of the imagination, from the development of man to contemporary artists, musicians, and writers who insist upon developing ideas with the hand, even though the final result may require the computer in some way. Such is the case with architecture, or the way it should be according to Pallasmaa. Removing sketching and other investigations of the hand is detrimental to architecture because it denies the well-established link between our hands and our experiences. In other words, when we're using our hands as tools (for pencil to paper, not finger to left-mouse button) we are imbuing each stroke with our experiences and potential experiences based on our imagination, something that does not happen as naturally with the computer. And buildings that are not based on the experiences of the body are devoid of "sensuous experiential and existential qualities." Yes, those are fighting words, and I think it's time for architects to react.

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Recombinant Urbanism

Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modeling in Architecture, Urban Design, and City Theory by David Grahame Shane
Wiley, 2005
Paperback, 344 pages

This history and manifesto of urban-modeling techniques is all about threes. It starts with the three stage sets of Sebastian Serlio (the Noble, the Comic, and the Satyric) from his Mannerist treatise The Five Books of Architecture. It continues with Kevin Lynch's three "normative" models (the City of Faith, the City as a Machine, and the Organic City), in many ways the basis for Shane's book. Variations on Lynch's three are also found in Cedric Price's "The City as an Egg" (boiled, fried, scrambled) and the Young Planners' three urban patterns (Archi Città, Cine Città, and Tele Città). Each of these groupings of three basically tell the same story, the evolutionary stages of urban form: the compact pre-industrial city with a highly defined center, the sprawling industrial city with its logic of production and consumption, and contemporary cities characterized by multiple centers acting as attractors (of people and goods).

Shane further breaks down cities into three constituent elements: enclaves, armatures, and heterotopias (the last was originally postulated by Michel Foucault but not entirely worked out as its development was interrupted by his death). Enclaves are simply buildings or groups of buildings that contain individuals and functions. Armatures are the circulation networks that connect enclaves and move people and goods. Heterotopias are "the other", those things that cannot be contained within the normative enclaves of societies. Shane further explains that each stage of urban form is characterized by one element being stronger than the rest, so the City of Faith stresses enclaves, the Machine City stresses armatures, and the Organic City stresses heterotopias. That is not to say that the other elements are not present. Rather they exist in a subsidiary state to the dominant urban element, due to many factors, such as power structures and technology.

More threes are injected when Shane even further breaks down the urban elements into three different types, relating to the normative urban models. Without going into detail on these, the three heterotopias that close the book are the most complex concepts but also the most important to Shane in terms of looking at the city. Ultimately he breaks free from the bounds of three in his proposal of an emerging city form and the future evolution of the city. Shane arrives at this via a lucid analysis of city theory, urban design, and architecture that instills the reader with a fresh vocabulary, a new way of thinking about the city, and henceforth its future.

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The Philosophy of Symbiosis

The Philosophy of Symbiosis by Kisho Kurokawa
Wiley, 1994
Paperback, 293 pages

The expression of my own will is...the transformation of Western domination and logos.

This quote comes in the last chapter of Kurokawa's philosophical treatise, though by this time the reader is well aware of the author's will. His philosophy is not merely a reaction to western dualism as much as it is a proponent of the symbiotic ideals: pluralism, cultural diversity and appreciation, ecology, and what Kurokawa calls a shift to the age of life principle. This symbiosis is based on the philosophy of Consciousness Only, a major support of Mahayana Buddhism which occupies an important place for Japan, and naturally for the author. Basically the book looks at Western dualism - based on Christian beliefs that break the world into opposites (light/dark, good/evil) - and says that since life and nature are not black and white, our actions shouldn't be either. Instead of our choices being broken into one of two dialectics, a symbiosis of elements from opposites can create something new, a third choice that still appreciates both sides. It's a positive view of the world that is rooted in Japanese life but can find application in other parts of the world, according to the author.

The Skyscaper Bioclimatically Considered

The Skyscraper Bioclimatically Considered by Ken Yeang
Wiley, 1996
Paperback, 269 pages

Billed as a design primer, Yeang touches on each step in the process to design a skyscraper with an emphasis on the bioclimatic aspects of this building type. Each of the ten chapters focuses on a different component of a skyscraper, from vertical circulation to mechanical and electrical services and everything in-between. Graphically the vertically-oriented book uses a tripartite structure across each page to loosely break up the main text from additional information, such as charts, graphs, sketches, and case studies from the author's practice in Malaysia. Layering of images, text and color helps to liven the overall tone of the book, which otherwise would resemble a quarterly report with its profusion of bullet points and charts & graphs. Definitely required reading, though, for anyone pursuing a sustainable approach to skyscraper design.