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Is No Problem Too Big for Architects to Tackle?

A new book, “The World as an Architectural Project,” dives into 50 planet-scale proposals from some of the most interesting architectural thinkers of the 20th century.

THE WORLD AS AN ARCHITECTURAL PROJECT Hashim Sarkis and Roi Salgueiro Barrio with Gabriel Kozlowski MIT Press, 576 pp., $50.Courtesy MIT Press

To the bien-pensant commentator (the political stripe hardly matters), contemporary architecture is an implacable force of banalization, and The World as an Architectural Project (MIT Press, 2020) would seem to play right into this characterization: Not content with despoiling cities and landscapes alone, architects would claim the entirety of the planet as their sandbox!

Needless to say, the selfsame commentator is not the book’s target. The product of a six-yearlong research drive, this sturdy volume compiles 50 architectural and urban projects that proposed to reorder modes of collective living along planetary lines. The case studies are wide-ranging (if, as the authors perfunctorily note, often restricted to the global North) so the book, according to authors Hashim Sarkis and Roi Salgueiro Barrio (with Gabriel Kozlowski), derives its cohesion from two prompts: “What does architecture do for the world? And, conversely, what does the world do for architecture?” It turns out that exploring these interrelated questions is, in fact, a useful frame for recovering architecture’s unique ability to enable new perspectives on global problems.

It soon becomes clear in the text just how clever the authors were in their formulation of the schema: Once the issue of scale has been broached, the two questions cannot be easily prised apart and must be taken together. “In order to introduce propositions about the planet, architecture had to reconsider and expand its own methodological store,” they write in the prologue.

The presentation of works as diverse as Kiyonori Kikutake’s marine cities (1958–75) and Takis Zenetos’s Electronic Urbanism (1962–74) is commendable, and Sarkis and Salgueiro Barrio highlight certain shared features and family resemblances—an affinity for the microcosm chief among them. The manner in which they do so grows unwieldy (to take one sample thematic ordering: “Decentralization. Geography. Geopolitics. Human-Earth System.”), but this can hardly have been avoided, given how encompassing the objective is. After all, making a world is a messy affair.

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