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Monday, November 04, 2013

Book Review: Façadomy

Façadomy: A Critique of Capitalism and Its Assault on Mid-Century Modern Architecture by James Cornetet
Process Press, 2013
Hardcover or Paperback, 426 pages

The intriguing yet slightly naughty title of this self-titled book by Orlando-based architect James Cornetet (of Process Architecture) refers to what happens when mid-century modern buildings are covered with postmodern pastiche to create the perception of value. Yet as Cornetet argues in the first half of the book, value-driven architecture (as he calls it) does not depend on inexpensive details and shallow associations; it achieves the most (for the client) with the most economical of means. Cornetet embraces mid-modern architecture as the ideal of value-driven architecture, the label he gives for the direction architect should be heading if it wishes to remain relevant.

It is an appealing argument that is explained in equal parts theory, criticism, and as a guide to the mid-century buildings near where he lives. The book is basically split into two: the main argument followed by the "tour" of Orange County, Florida. The transition between the two is basically non-existent, but Cornetet does refer to a number of the mid-century buildings in the first half, though in most cases these are the gems "façadomized" by later generations. Looking at the buildings of Orange County is like looking at just about any city, given the popularity, if short-lived, of mid-modern architecture. In this vein the best buildings respond to the Florida context through screens and other means of filtering sunlight.

Cornetet uses mid-20th-century architecture as a lens to discover how to design now. This tactic—and his strong opinions on architecture and the economy, among other things—provides plenty to critique in his critique. While I found his diagrams of the ebbs and flows of revivalism, modern, postmodern, and what comes after thorough and logical—as one of the numerous strong points of the book—I'm not convinced that making money for a client is the ultimate goal of architects working in a capitalist society. Buildings are traditionally generated by a client fulfilling a larger societal need, so that need should take precedence, as should even greater concerns (the environment, place, poetry) than bottom-line considerations. Ideally, clients are making the most money through architecture that creates meaningful, enjoyable, and environmentally responsible places; thereby architects are creating good for more than just clients. Yet most architects know the difficulty in this alternative proposition.

In addition to the theory, critique, and guide, how Cornetet sees value-driven architecture for the 21st century is found in a number of short case studies by his firm. These are inserted in a few places in the first half of the book, confusing any categorization of Façadomy; is it a monograph as well as a piece of criticism and historical guide? They are decent, small-scale designs that could be described as mid-modern architecture for today. They are simple and modern, with nice touches (such as a tactile column on the bus stop for the visually impaired) that give each project some interest. Cornetet's projects, like some of the mid-century pieces in the latter half, might not sufficiently sway people toward his way of thinking, but the argument he's crafted—full of an awareness of history and understanding of economics—is very convincing and the strongest part of the book.

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