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Monday, November 16, 2009

Book Review: The Atlas of American Architecture

The Atlas of American Architecture: 2000 Years of Architecture, City Planning, Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering by Tom Martinson
Rizzoli, 2009
Hardcover, 544 pages

Any book that calls itself an atlas will by virtue of that word's most familiar association be BIG. This book does not disappoint in that regard. Lying one foot by a foot and a half when open, this survey of American architecture in the last 2,000 years deserves to be perused in the manner of atlases with maps. This is certainly not a portable guide, even though author and city planner Tom Martinson calls it such. He admits the 544-page book is a hybrid, a syllabus and guide, yet unconventional in each sense. Approaching the book in both ways, as a syllabus The Atlas of American Architecture excels, though as a guide it raises concerns about the categorization of its contents, as he eschews geography in favor of style and discipline.
The book is split into seven chapters, with four focused on architecture and one each on planning, landscape architecture, and civil engineering. The inclusion of these other disciplines in an atlas of architecture acknowledges the impact of everything from Jefferson's 1785 U.S. Land Ordinance to dams and bridges. It broadens the definition of architecture to include structures, landscapes, and so forth that fall outside capital-A architecture. Therefore vernacular buildings are found in abundance, as are follies, indigenous dwellings, ruins, etc. Yet pieces of Architecture prevail quantitatively, comprising most of the pages and a good chunk of the 1,100+ illustrations. The chapters on architectural buildings include two historical chapters on pre-Columbian and Colonial times, with a survey of American architecture in the last 225 years and a survey of building types (rural, industrial, resorts, etc.). Ironically what retained my interest the most were the entries falling outside Architecture, as many have been previously covered in other architectural history books. Martinson acknowledges this state of affairs, and therefore smartly chooses to include more information on lesser-known gems and only a few words on masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright and other well-documented architects.
Martinson's selections are broad in geography, typology, time, scale, just about any factor that describes a work of architecture and allows it to be categorized. That said, his decision to categorize chronologically, stylistically, typologically, and by discipline, while enabling the inclusion of many works on a variety of scales -- from the Long Island Duck to the Land Ordinance -- leads to the isolation of buildings from one another. This is a fairly common occurrence in guides which aim to accompany a person on his or her travels. Here it is a symptom of Martinson's ambition and decision to eschew geography as a factor for grouping buildings (a helpful state-by-state index is included). It's hard to say if an alternate, more conventional approach to the guide would make the book better, but the desire to find something that binds the buildings together, gives them context, raises the importance of the chapters on planning, landscapes and civil engineering. The last can be seen as the binding force upon the American landscape, enabling movement and energy production across the 48-states, doing as much damage to the land as help to its people. These three chapters are the ones I'll return to in depth as I attempt to structure the diversity and variety of American architecture in all its forms.

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