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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: Territory

Territory: Architecture Beyond Environment: Architectural Design edited by David Gissen
Wiley, 2010
Paperback, 136 pages

Last year's Subnature by David Gissen asked architects to broaden how they see and react to nature, acknowledging environmental forces like dust, smoke, debris, and others that arise from interactions with our surroundings. He presented projects by contemporary architects embodying his ideas, and he does the same here as guest editor of an issue of AD. But Gissen's nuanced approach to human-nature interaction is different here: Territory looks at projects that simultaneously produce "architectural objects and the environment surrounding them." Granted, all buildings come close to this production -- impacting their surroundings through the creation of micro-climates influenced wind currents, heat given off from materials and systems, and the reflection of the sun, to name a few -- but the projects and texts Gissen collects take a more active approach to this exchange. This AD issue theorizes that environment is not an external state that buildings can only respond to; the environment can be "tinkered" with via architectural design.
A practice that embodies the theories in both of Gissen's explorations is R&Sie(n), whose "I'm Lost in Paris" is discussed in Territory by Javier Arbona. Located in a Parisian courtyard, the "house" appears like a building taken over by vegetation, like kudzu in the Deep South. But the installation is actually an armature for the proliferation of the fern that covers the structure, fed beautifully by hand-made glass bulbs that appear floral-like but eventually disappear beneath the vegetation. It's an extreme case of creating a green facade that few designers are willing to take, here extending to a strict set of operations that must be followed by the inhabitants to maintain the coating of ferns. In Territory the project is a highlight, partly because it's actually been realized. Many of the projects that Gissen includes are conceptual in nature, making the book as much about new techniques for architectural production as it is the exploration of a particular idea. In this view Territory certainly is at home with the rest of the AD oeuvre, though it stands out from the pack in going beyond merely formal concerns and staking out another unique viewpoint in today's discussions of architecture and the environment.

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