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Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Review: Two Monographs

Think/Make: Della Valle Bernheimer by Andrew Bernheimer and Jared Della Valle
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Paperback, 192 pages

Expanded Practice: Höweler + Yoon Architecture / MY Studio by J. Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Paperback, 208 pages

By architecture's standards the offices that are the subjects of these two monographs published by Princeton Architectural Press are babies. Adding together the office's years of existence brings one close to 25 years, a point at which many architects hit their stride. That these two offices have monographs devoted to them at a point in their careers that can easily inspire jealousy illustrates a few traits of young firms today: the opportunities afforded architects at earlier ages, the role of computers in architectural design, and the creative (re)definition of architectural practice today, in many cases where buildings aren't the primary focus. I'll discuss each monograph in relation to these three traits.

Started in 1996 after winning a competition for a plaza redesign at 450 Golden Gate Plaza in San Francisco, Brooklyn-based Della Valle Bernheimer (D-BD) have since built an impressive range of different types and size of buildings; the competition did not pigeonhole them as shapers of public spaces in front of modern office buildings. Their initial competition win, like Maya Lin's even more youthful success with the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, has given confidence to young architects looking for that breakout opportunity to launch a practice. For many it does not come, but for D-BD and others it has more importantly been an opportunity to develop ideas that still inform their work. While it may not seem like the folded surfaces of the plaza relate to their single- and multi-family residences of late, the importance of relating to site, program and client is clear. And of course the importance of realizing ideas is clear in the monograph's title but also in their decision to act as developer on a number of projects. This expansion of their role as designers enables them to drive projects, not just shape them. As a collection of their most important buildings, including two recent condo buildings near The High Line, this monograph excellently documents the process and results of each design, from early sketches to details and the usual finished photography. It should be commended particularly for its clear and concise text, which includes contributions from Aaron Betsky, Guy Nordenson and ARO.

Founded in 2000, Boston's Höweler + Yoon Architecture / My Studio (HYA) stakes out much different territory than D-BD. Sure, the usual single-family residences that are many young architects' means of survival are here, but so are installations, interactive displays, books, exhibition designs, and even dresses. More than D-BD, whose use of computers is present but not pervasive, HYA use technology to explore the effects of such on the human condition and social interaction. Their "expanded practice" that embraces design from the scale of the body to large buildings and urban spaces is the result of what Andrew Payne and Rodolphe el-Khoury in their essay here call, "the new plastic freedom afforded by the digitalization of the design process." Yet the human body, its movements, sensations and experiences are at the forefront, not forgotten in a whirl of bits and bytes. The way visitors to the Olympics in Athens interacted with their White Noise / White Light installation below the Acropolis illustrates the strong conceptual underpinnings of projects that are still easy to understand and appreciate at the level of experience. But what is striking about the over 25 projects collected in this monograph is how notions of beauty play a role in their designs, if not admitted by Yoon and Höweler. Aesthetic considerations extend from the process drawings to the renderings, the built product and the monograph itself. The diagrams in the last that diagram the various themes used to structure the book -- they gloss the book's cover, too -- have a certain beauty that is born from the representation of the objective and subjective traits of the contents; a fitting expression for a studio working at the intersection of technology and experience.

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