September 19, 2007
New and notable books on architecture, culture, and design
Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design
BY Michael Bierut
Princeton Architectural Press, 240 pp., $25
All but 12 of these essays were first published on Design Observer, the blog Bierut cofounded in 2003. There his writing comes across as lucid, thoughtful, and wonky in a likable way. But as collected here, the chatty informality and here’s-something-I-thought-of tone that works well in small doses grows tiring, and even obnoxious. It doesn’t help that some of these pieces hardly seem worthy of collection. (A rumination on the novelist Vladimir Nabokov as a “father of hypertext,” for example, should never have left the blogosphere.) In the preface Bierut admits (or warns us?) that he considers himself a designer, not a writer. But this is a collection of essays. The writing counts.
The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years
BY Richard W. Hayes
FOREWORD BY Robert A. M. Stern
Yale University Press, 272 pp., $45
Each spring since 1967, first-year graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture have worked with a community-based client to build—wait for it— an actual building. This may not sound like an unusual project for budding architects, but in fact Yale’s program was one of the first of its kind and has since served as a model for similar university design-build initiatives around the country. It was the brainchild of Charles Moore, who became chairman of Yale’s architecture department (now its own school) in 1965, and believed that architects should be willing to get their hands dirty. “To teach architecture simply as the composition of shapes is out of the question,” he wrote.
Architecture of Authority
BY John MacArthur
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Richard Ross
Aperture, 144 pp., $40
The sites of authority in Ross’s book include prison cells, soldiers’ barracks, interrogation rooms, and a lethal-injection chamber—but also places of worship, a school classroom, and a chic hotel hallway. (All are pretty menacing-looking.) In the afterword Ross explains his success in gaining access to such strictly controlled sites as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. “Most people were disarmed by my interest in photographing architecture rather than people,” he writes. “They felt this was more benign.” They were wrong, of course: Ross is adept at capturing the claustrophobia and depersonalization that this architecture seems designed to foster, and the resulting photos are quietly damning.
New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg
EDITED BY Marshall Berman and Brian Berger
Reaktion, 368 pp., $25
New York Calling collects 28 essays about the city and the ways it has changed since reaching an all-time nadir with the 1977 blackout. In the introduction Berman does an excellent job narrating the spectacular decline and just as spectacular resurgence of his hometown (he grew up in the Bronx), and the subsequent essays, mostly by fellow New Yorkers, grapple with the many contradictions inherent in this story. The dirty, drug-addled, debt-ridden Gotham of 30 years ago is gone—thankfully—but in its place is a city that feels a little less vital, a little more ordinary, and a lot more expensive.
BY Paul Oliver
Phaidon, 288 pp., $30
This book could be subtitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Yurts but Were Afraid to Ask.” Based on years of field research, and illustrated with hundreds of photos (most of them taken by the author), Dwellings surveys domestic buildings by indigenous groups—in other words, architecture by the people, not by architects. (This accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s buildings.) The extensive, detailed text is not exactly beach reading, but for anyone who wants to know the precise differences between a yurt, a hogan, and a bungalow—and how each is constructed—this is the place to look.
Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design
BY Kira Gould and Lance Hosey
ECOtone, 233 pp., $25
Why a book about women and sustainability? The authors are up-front about their own early doubts regarding the enterprise and the criticisms they received from some of the women they approached. But they found fruitful connections to explore. After all, the modern environmental movement was launched by a book written by a woman—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—and it’s her combination of sharp thinking, lyricism, and activism that exemplifies today’s best efforts, many of them by women, to address questions of sustainability, community, and human health in architecture and design.
Goings on About Town: Photographs for The New Yorker
BY Sylvia Plachy
Aperture/The New Yorker, 104 pp., $30
For more than a year Plachy’s photos appeared on the opening page of the New Yorker’s weekly cultural-event listings. This book collects all 80 of them, which could be roughly divided into two categories. Action photos—of dancers, musicians, athletes, tourists, and others in blurry motion—look how you always hope your own snapshots of city life will: taut, packed with life, and effortlessly artful. The other photos are more contemplative. When Plachy’s New Yorkers pause, they don’t look lost, as you might expect, but rather insulated by the city’s novelty and noisy, unbuttoned charm.
Living Systems: Innovative Materials and Technologies for Landscape Architecture
BY Liat Margolis and Alexander Robinson
Birkhäuser, 191 pp., $90
Knowledge of material technologies has become an essential part of any architecture practice, and landscape architecture is certainly no exception. The authors of this richly informative book selected 36 case studies to illustrate conceptual and technical ideas at a range of scales. The chapter titles alone are impressive: “Water-Cleansing Biotope,” “Fiber Optic Marsh,” “Hedge-Trimming Armature.” In the back, an illustrated guide to 23 products and technologies helps make this a practical reference for landscape architects as well as a source of gee-whiz inspiration.
Hand Job: A Catalog of Type
BY Michael Perry
Princeton Architectural Press, 256 pp., $35
“Hand type may not always be the right answer or the most time-effective solution,” Perry writes in the preface, “but it is definitely the most fun.” It’s hard to argue with that. Of the 55 practitioners of hand-drawn typography represented here—each given between two and six pages to show his or her stuff—none creates work that is remotely ordinary. As for the practical application of these typefaces, well, it seems largely beside the point—although it’s worth noting that not all of the contributions are by unknowns scribbling in sketchbooks. Also included is Stefan Sagmeister’s infamous 1999 AIGA poster, for which he had an intern carve the type into his naked torso. Wait, that doesn’t sound like fun at all!
Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists
BY Leslie Umberger
Princeton Architectural Press, 416 pp., $65
In the late 1970s a divorced, down-on-his-luck Mississippian named Loy Allen Bowlin decided to reinvent himself as the Original Rhinestone Cowboy. Inspired by the 1976 Glen Campbell hit, he began hand-sewing and gluing rhinestones to an orange satin suit. He installed a sparkling pair of longhorns on the hood of his slate blue 1967 Cadillac. And over the next two decades he transformed his small ramshackle bungalow into the “Beautiful Holy Jewel Home,” a lavish, glittering tribute to his adopted persona. Bowlin’s home is but one of the “visionary worlds” documented by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This, the center’s first book, presents 21 others from around the United States—each as weird, charming, and inscrutable as Bowlin’s.
The Modern Japanese Tea Room
BY Michael Freeman
Damiani, 240 pp., $50
In the fifteenth century, elaborate formal tea ceremonies became an essential ritual for members of the Japanese elite. A proper ceremony required a chashitsu—a small room with tatami mats, a sunken hearth, separate entrances for the host and guests, and an alcove for a flower and a painted scroll. In recent years Japanese architects and designers have revisited the chashitsu; the 37 projects included here reinterpret the tea-ceremony room in a variety of ways, some understated (new materials, contemporary architecture), others more radical. The standout example is Terunobu Fujimori’s 2004 Takasugian (“Too-High Tea Room”), a quirky, asymmetrical hut perched on stilts among the trees.