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Monday, March 07, 2011

Book Review: Two Books on Buildings

Raimund Abraham & the Austrian Cultural Forum New York edited by Andres Lepik and Andreas Stadler
Hatje Cantz, 2011
Hardcover, 128 pages

Flow: The Making of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living by Bob Berkebile, Stephen McDowell, Laura Lesniewski
ORO Editions, 2010
Paperback, 120 pages

As professed in an earlier review, I'm a big fan of books about individual buildings. Compared with magazines and blogs, books about specific buildings allow more study, attention, and visuals towards worthy designs, be they contemporary or historical. These two recent books on single buildings focus on Raimund Abraham's Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY) and BNIM's Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) in Rhinebeck, New York. The former was completed in 2002, and the latter was completed last year for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. Each building is being celebrated in book form for different reasons: the ACFNY is being appreciated after Abraham's death in a car accident last year, and the OCSL is being lauded as the first to earn both LEED Platinum and "Living" Status from the Living Building Challenge.

Even though the ACFNY's completion dates to 2002 -- making it the first post-9/11 skyscraper in Manhattan -- the competition for the narrow lot in Midtown was held in 1992. (In 1999 Architekturzentrum Wien published a now hard-to-find book on the competition, complete with illustrations of all the entries.) Those ten years illustrate how the future of the institution's new home was uncertain, even though Abraham's striking design was heralded immediately after completion, in the press and even with an exhibition at MoMA in 1993. Appreciation for the design then and now is rooted in the strong image of the facade, alluding to a mask (what Abraham actually called this part of the design) or a totem or even a guillotine, the last in reference to the way Abraham addressed New York City's well known zoning setback requirements. Combined with the narrow lot on which the building stands, Austria's presence in the U.S. and New York City is of its place (the design responds to zoning, instead of seeking a variance to do something different) yet is so far removed from any predecessors to be a complete anomaly. Aggressive to be sure, the building is a masterpiece, one that Manhattan has had a hard time topping in the nearly decade since.

So the reasons for this book are clear, given the building's innate qualities and the almost twenty years transpiring since the initial competition, as well as the unfortunate loss of its designer in 2010. The book is a celebration of the architecture, its architect, and the institution that commissioned such an extraordinary building. Alongside the numerous photographs and drawings are essays by the editors, an interview with Abraham and Gerald Matt in 2009, essays by Peter Engelmann and Peter Marboe, a remembrance by Lebbeus Woods, and an interview between the editors and Kenneth Frampton (who also headed the jury for the 1992 competition).

In the realm of green building, OCSL is in a position where the building can be an extreme version of sustainability because it acts as a demonstration tool for its enlightened client, similar to William McDonough's Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. Buildings like these that raise the bar for sustainable architecture, tend to exist to further their cause, not as results of, say, a private development, commercial building, or residence. At any rate, a book on OCSL exists mainly because of the Living Building Challenge, a certification program for green building that is more holistic than LEED and abandons that more popular rating's point system with its trade-offs. Even the name "Living Building" sets up way of thinking about architecture as it intersects with the greater landscape and the lives (human and otherwise) that inhabit them.

The book on BNIM's design is really two books in one: "the making of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living" and "in pursuit of a living building." The first is a case study of the design, from site analysis and early sketches to detailed aspects of the building and how it treats water. This last element is easily the most important consideration in the architecture, and the book too, given the name Flow; at the core of the building is the "Eco Machine," a system for naturally treating wastewater. The second half of the book lays out the sixteen prerequisites for the Living Building Challenge and how the designers addressed each. For architects interested in tackling the Challenge in one of their projects, this part of the book is most valuable. In concert with the first half, the book is a fitting document of an important building marking a potential paradigm shift in sustainable architecture, from a business-as-usual approach to something more holistic and responsible. Even the book itself -- literally two halves where each "book" is flipped relative to the other -- reinforces the importance of water as well as the building itself.

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