September 1, 2008
New and notable books on architecture, culture, and design
LE CORBUSIER: LE GRAND
DESIGNED BY Julia Hasting
Phaidon Press, 768 pp., $200
How much Corbu is too much? Probably this much: a 20-pound slab of more than 700 pages containing about 2,000 illustrations, plus a separate hardcover folio with English translations of hundreds of documents. One hesitates to call Le Grand a coffee-table book because it could crush many coffee tables. Still, that’s the right genre: the aim here is to assemble many, many images (including a photo of a nude Corbu, ack!) and omit, for the most part, things like explication and interpretation. (The fine introduction by Jean-Louis Cohen is the exception.) Yes, it’s overkill, but you kind of have to admire the sheer moxie of it all. Even next to Corbu’s monumental output as an architect, a planner, a painter, a sculptor, and a writer, this seems like an ex-travagant piece of work.
IRON FISTS: BRANDING THE 20TH-CENTURY TOTALITARIAN STATE
BY Steven Heller
DESIGNED BY Project Projects
Phaidon Press, 224 pp., $90
Heller’s new book is based on a simple, provocative premise: some of the most diabolical totalitarian regimes of the last century—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Communist China—were also masters of branding, astutely employing graphic-design devices to create a “core narrative” and sway public opinion. To support his point, Heller marshals a stunning array of propaganda, ranging from posters and photographs to mass-produced miscellany like Fascist exam booklets and a swastika crossword puzzle. He is particularly good on the way totalitarian leaders manipulated their personal iconography, deliberately emphasizing certain features: Hitler’s mustache, Mussolini’s baldness, Lenin’s goatee, Mao’s enigmatic smile.
PROCESS: 50 PRODUCT DESIGNS
FROM CONCEPT TO MANUFACTURE
BY Jennifer Hudson
Laurence King Publishing, 240 pp., $45
Process would be an excellent gift for any budding industrial designer in your life, but be warned that it may discourage less hardy souls. The processes documented here are long and often tortuous. Several of the designs took four or more years of tinkering, fine-tuning, and (probably) hair pulling to make it from initial concept to final product. (Satyendra Pakhalé’s B.M. Horse Chair was seven and a half years in the offing.) The author’s selections favor new technologies, innovative materials, and unorthodox production methods; as a result, the book is steeped in the rarified world of high-end and limited-edition furniture. Still, the lesson that young designers should take away is as basic as it gets: ideas are easy; bringing them to life is the hard part.
HISTORIES OF THE IMMEDIATE PRESENT: INVENTING ARCHITECTURAL MODERNISM
BY Anthony Vidler
The MIT Press, 239 pp., $23
The protagonists of this slim book are a group of historians who came to maturity after World War II and constructed narratives of Modernism that, Vidler argues, were “more or less overt programs for the theory and practice of design in their contemporary context.” In Vidler’s interpretation, Emil Kaufmann is the neoclassicist; Colin Rowe the mannerist; Reyner Banham the futurist; and Manfredo Tafuri the Renaissance Modernist. If you don’t know who these people are, then this is probably not the book for you. But, if you’re already familiar with the history, you’ll likely find the whole thing thrilling—particularly the last chapter, where Vidler asserts that architectural postmodernism, which supposedly embraced history where Modernism refused it, may have actually embraced a sham, an “ahistorical myth.” Ouch.
SEVEN STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS: THE FELIX CANDELA LECTURES
EDITED BY Guy Nordenson
DESIGNED BY Antony Drobinski, Emsworth Design
The Museum of Modern Art, 188 pp., $45
In the introduction, Nordenson quotes David P. Billington’s theory of structural engineering: that it is an art “parallel to but independent of architecture in the same way that photography…is parallel to but independent of painting.” This may come as a surprise to anyone who thinks that engineers merely build architects’ ideas. The seven lectures collected here—delivered at MoMA between 1998 and 2005—do a good job of dismantling that notion, and they’re often livelier reading than you might expect. Leslie E. Robertson recounts how structural analyses for the World Trade Center were performed by IBM punch cards on disk drives the size of washing machines. Heinz Isler tells of a “suffering phase” in his career that was resolved late one night when he realized that the solution to a seemingly impossible problem was contained, miraculously, in the pillow on his bed.
ARCHITECTURE OF CHANGE: SUSTAINABILITY AND HUMANITY IN THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
EDITED BY Kristin Feireiss and Lukas Feireiss
DESIGNED BY Birga Meyer
Die Gestalten Verlag, 304 pp., $79
There has been so much noteworthy sustainable architecture in recent years that assembling a book on the subject must be daunting. The editors here coped by grouping 38 projects into three broad categories: efficiency in the everyday, aesthetics of performance, and didactics of engagement. (The latter is, frankly, a meaningless catchall.) The selection of projects is excellent, and seeing so much green innovation in one volume may prompt speculation about how the “architecture of change” is itself changing. One encouraging trend: while many projects still wear their sustainability on their sleeves—with terraced wetlands, green roofs, solar chimneys, and a host of other highly visible interventions—just as many have found ways to incorporate ecological designs in invisible and ingenious ways.
OSCAR NIEMEYER: CURVES OF IRREVERENCE
BY Styliane Philippou
DESIGNED BY PennySoultani
Yale University Press, 414 pp., $65
Oscar Niemeyer is now 100 years old, with more than 600 buildings under his belt. He has received virtually every major international architecture award, he is held in high esteem by his peers, and he is a cult figure in his native Brazil. Yet critics and historians have, for the most part, dismissed his work. “Niemeyer’s architecture is still largely viewed as heretic and mannerist, socially irresponsible, exuberant but licentious,” Philippou writes. Curves of Irreverence is her ambitious attempt to rehabilitate Niemeyer’s reputation, and she executes the job with considerable aplomb. There are scads of photos, drawings, and plans, and the writing is both deeply informed and accessible. You’ve got to love an author who begins her chapter on Brasília—Niemeyer’s most famous work, and a monumental folly—with a brief history of bossa nova.