June 1, 2008
New and notable books on architecture, culture, and design
OTTO NEURATH: THE LANGUAGE OF THE GLOBAL POLIS
BY Nader Vossoughian
DESIGNED BY Joseph Plateau
NAi Publishers, 175 pp., $45
Neurath is perhaps best known as the creator of the International System of Typographic Picture Education, or ISOTYPE, a pictorial language intended to make scientific facts and statistical data accessible to the masses. But he was more than a graphic designer. A sociologist and museum administrator, Neurath (1882–1945) was influential in architecture, art, economics, and particularly urban planning. As Vossoughian writes, “He engaged the city with a degree of sophistication, ambition, and rigor that has hardly been matched since.” The book, based on Vossoughian’s PhD thesis, gives an overview of Neurath’s major preoccupations and, in an epilogue, offers some ideas for how his work can provide pragmatic strategies for today’s artists, architects, and urban planners to engage the political sphere.
STUDIO OLAFUR ELIASSON: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA
BY Philip Ursprung
Taschen, 528 pp., $150
With this massive tome, Taschen gives the doorstop treatment to Iceland’s hottest cultural export since Björk. As befits an encyclopedia, it’s organized alphabetically, which provides opportunity for some amusing contrivances (F is for Fog, X is for Xenophile), even if it seems largely arbitrary—any number of these projects could fit under “Color,” for example. In any case, the point of books like this is to provide a good, thorough retina-soaking, and there is enough eye candy here to last one for days. That the nature of Eliasson’s work makes it almost impossible to capture in photographs—it is all about in-person temporal visual experiences, after all—isn’t quite bothersome enough to spoil the fun.
AVANT GARDENERS: 50 VISIONARIES OF
THE CONTEMPORARY LANDSCAPE
BY Tim Richardson
DESIGNED BY Myfanwy Vernon-Hunt
Thames & Hudson, 352 pp., $60
In 1979 Martha Schwartz created what the author considers the first conceptualist landscape: the Bagel Garden, which featured dozens of shellacked bagels arrayed on a purple gravel walkway surrounding the box hedges in her front yard. Schwartz and her followers went on to make work that was, Richardson writes, “characterized by the use of colour, artificial materials, and witty commentary on a site’s history and culture.” Here he presents illustrated profiles of 50 such landscape visionaries, plus seven essays on garden-design concepts and theory. Disappointingly, “Maxims Towards a Conceptualist Attitude to Landscape Design” is mostly platitudes and bad jokes (“Ask not what you can do for a landscape, ask what the landscape can do for you,” etc.).
THE ESSENTIAL FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: CRITICAL WRITINGS ON ARCHITECTURE
EDITED BY Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer
Princeton University Press, 453 pp., $50
Could Frank Lloyd Wright write? He was certainly prolific: over seven decades he produced 16 books and hundreds of lectures, a fraction of which are included here. To sample them is to step into a different era of architectural discourse, one in which it is not unusual, say, to end an essay on kiln-fired materials with a reflection on “Man’s endeavor to be and to remain beautiful.” If Wright’s prose can be florid and even a little nutty—there is a lot of foreboding talk of “the Machine”—this is preferable to the impenetrable jargon-laced writing of many contemporary architects. You often get the sense that Wright is having fun. As he asks in a celebration of Louis Sullivan, “Is it not true that individuality is the supreme entertainment of life?”
JOSEF PAUL KLEIHUES: WORKS 1966–1980
EDITED BY Thorsten Scheer
DESIGNED BY Josef Paul Kleihues
Hatje Cantz, 288 pp., $100
This is the first book of a planned three-volume set on the German architect, whom Scheer calls “one of the most important architectural personalities of the second half of the twentieth century.” So why isn’t Kleihues more famous? One reason could be that his rationalist approach resulted in coolly pragmatic, context-sensitive buildings rather than recognizable icons. Moreover, his most lasting contribution may have been as a professor and patron. The linchpin of Kleihues’s career in the 14-year period covered here is the “Dortmund Architecture Days,” a series of conferences he organized for an international group of architects and scientists, which became the era’s crucial forum for architectural discussion in the German-speaking world.
GRAPHIC DESIGN: THE NEW BASICS
WRITTEN AND DESIGNED BY Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips
Princeton Architectural Press, 248 pp., $35
For this concise guide to two-dimensional design, Lupton and Phillips go back to the basics—first way back, with a brief history lesson on the legacy of the Bauhaus; then with generously illustrated chapters on point, line, plane, rhythm, balance, scale, color, and other foundational principles of the field. So what are the new basics? Lupton defines them as the “new universals” now emerging thanks to the ascension of computer-software tools. These include conditions like transparency and layering, which while always part of visual media, were never before so easily accessible and manipulated by graphic designers. By placing the new basics alongside the old, the authors hope to bridge “the gap between software and visual thinking.”
EDITED BY Cornel Windlin and Rolf Fehlbaum
DESIGN CONCEPT BY Cornel Windlin
Birkhaüser, 396 pp., $50
In 1987 Vitra launched an advertising campaign that posed luminaries from the arts on its chairs; by 1997 the ads had included such cultural heavyweights (and unlikely models) as Jean-Luc Godard, Jasper Johns, Patricia Highsmith, Merce Cunningham, and Miles Davis. Of course, for design nerds Vitra has always been associated with big names. The company was founded in 1957 to produce furniture by Charles and Ray Eames and, in the years since, has collaborated with virtually every important designer of its time. The book lovingly documents decades’ worth of famous home and office furniture, the extensive collections of the Vitra Design Museum, and the architecture of Vitra’s campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Beautiful photography and an engaging design saves it from feeling like a mere corporate brochure.