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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Review: New Directions in Contemporary Architecture

New Directions in Contemporary Architecture: Evolutions and Revolutions in Building Design Since 1988 by Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi
Wiley, 2008
Paperback, 240 pages

The year 1988 marks the beginning of Italian writer and critic Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi’s exploration of architecture in the last two decades. This date at first glance seems questionable, arbitrarily based on the book’s publication date, but it coincides with the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. That show compiled primarily unbuilt work by the now household names Coop Himmelb(l)au, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard Tschumi. Like Johnson’s much earlier International Style exhibition at the same venue, Deconstructivist Architecture was style over substance, image masquerading as shared values. Nevertheless it denotes a shift from postmodern architecture’s ersatz classicism towards a chaotic dynamism supposedly representative of its time. The following twenty years saw an unbridled expansion of architectural expression and diversity, an “unruly architectural landscape” that Puglisi attempts to make sense of here.

In four chapters the author traces the new directions, masterpieces and current trends that followed Deconstructivism. Like the book’s starting point, each chapter break coincides primarily with an event internal to architecture: 1993’s publication of Architectural Design’s “Folding in Architecture” issue; the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain by Frank Gehry four years later. Only the attacks of September 11, 2001 are external to architecture, though the master plan competition for Ground Zero comprises the start of the last chapter. These architecture mileposts exhibit a tendency by Puglisi to stay confined to the world of architectural theory and media, especially European magazines. This tendency means the formal aspects of architecture are of the utmost, at the expense of any exploration of the social, the political, or other influences on building.

But as somebody in undergraduate architectural school in the heyday of Deconstructivism, I was more than willing to be swept away on Puglisi’s ride through the movement and beyond. His writing is a readable mix of description and critique, where the latter is subtle yet sharp, and the former is accompanied by numerous illustrations and even more footnotes; the last could be described as half the book, occupying a third or more of each page’s space and highlighting more than just references. The hindsight afforded Puglisi is used to his advantage when describing and critiquing the theories of the time, but without being dismissive of original intentions. His solid critique of Deconstructivism takes aim at its parallels with postmodernism and modernism before it—as just another Capitalist style—yet without extinguishing his obvious excitement over the shaping of space in the architectural production of this period.

The second chapter focuses on the new directions of “Blobitecture” and Minimalism, two very different yet coincidental styles. The first is most intimately linked with Greg Lynn’s editing of “Folding in Architecture” and his integration of computers into the architectural process, while the second can be seen as a response to Deconstructivism and the explosive buildings of Zaha Hadid and her contemporaries. While not overt, Puglisi takes a stand on his style of preference, clear in his dismissal of Minimalism as generic and skin-deep and explicit in his chagrin for Yoshio Taniguchi’s winning design for the MoMA expansion.

The third and fourth chapters deal respectively with a “season of masterpieces” and post-9/11 trends in architecture. The former adds buildings by fellow Deconstructivists Koolhaas and Libeskind to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, as well as ones by Jean Nouvel, UNStudio and a spate of Dutch architects. Landscape is the key word in this chapter, as various lines of thought influence the relationship between architecture and the environment. After a discussion of the WTC proposals at the start of the last chapter, Puglisi focuses on the role of media in the production of “starchitects” and the accompanying crisis of architectural criticism. A subsequent exploration of ten notable projects and their stylish strands leads Puglisi to ask, “What direction will architecture take in the near future?” He develops three new directions, but their brevity and general nature make them incomplete thoughts. It is the immediate history of contemporary architecture that takes precedent in Puglisi's text, not predictions about its future.

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