Building London: The Making of a Modern Metropolis (2008) by Bruce Marshall
Hardcover, 304 pages
Paris 2000+: New Architecture (2007) by Sam Lubell
Hardcover, 240 pages
These two image-drenched coffee table books focus on what can be seen as Europe's two most cosmopolitan cities, using photographs to tell the story of London and Paris, each in its own way.
Bruce Marshall's visual history of London, as retold with photographs from the Getty Images, will be disappointing for those looking for a history that is more than fragmentary or skin-deep. But for those content with lots and lots of beautiful black-and-white images of a London today and yesterday, this book brings home the goods. Marshall's text accompanies the myriad photos, but his role as author should be seen more in the editing capacity, in selecting and organizing the images for the book. It's difficult to argue with the selections, but the organization -- via thematic "chapters" of a few pages each -- creates not only the fragmentary and only roughly chronological history of the city, it makes the book resemble an over-sized travel souvenir, rather than a serious inquiry into the physical evolution of one of the world's most important cities. Of course I'm doubting Marshall -- of Reader's Digest fame -- had this last in mind. Regardless, the book shows it full potential when it presents images of London in the making, from views of public works under construction to the London Eye sitting in the Thames before it was hoisted into place. These are the photos that most photo books omit, something Marshall obviously had in mind given the book's title. Even more of these pics would have made made the book even more focused, and it might have inspired the author to create something exceptional, beyond sheer size and numbers alone.
Sam Lubell takes a familiar approach in the realm of contemporary architecture collections, by compiling just over 30 projects completed in the City of Light since 2000. This is history in the making, instead of a retelling of a familiar topic, namely how Paris became the canvas on which these architects work. In what is considered by many to be Europe's most beautiful big city, a work of art in many ways, contemporary architecture stands out more than many other cities. But since Mitterrand's Grand Projets at the end of last century, the city's new buildings do not receive the attention of other European urban centers. The projects here certainly illustrate that this is changing, as buildings like Jean Nouvel's Musée du Quai Branly, Michael Saee's Publicis Drugstore, and Francis Soler's Ministry of Culture attest. Lubell's capable, if not lively descriptions do not fully make up for the omission of architectural drawings for the projects or a map locating the buildings in the urban fabric. Like Marshall's book on London, Lubell's journey around Paris is all about the photographs, but instead of the occasional shot of construction we are overwhelmed with the usual professional architectural photography. Like Lubell's presentation, the images are surely capable but lacking the life and vitality of the buildings, its users, and the cities of which they are a part.