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Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Review: S AM 11 / Lookout

S AM 11 / Lookout. Architecture with a View by Hubertus Adam
Christoph Merian Verlag, 2013
Paperback, 120 pages



A lookout, as defined in the 2013 exhibition and catalog of the same name at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, is a particular archetype that provides a "purpose-free view of the surroundings." Thereby not associated with military or other functions, lookouts didn't really come about until the late 18th century, undergoing something of a boom as towers in the following century, at least per the introductory and historical essay by Hubertus Adam. Lookouts in the 21st century are booming as well, often giving views of particular landscapes or urban sections, rather than of one's property as was the case over 100 years ago. Of course, there are precedents for today's predilection for embracing a natural or urban view, most notably the Eiffel Tower. But the 34 projects (32 of them built) assembled in these pages are not nearly as grand, selected for their architectural merits and how they are inserted into their respective landscapes.

Mill Race Park Observation Tower (1990) in Columbus, Indiana, by Stanley Saitowitz
Mill Race Park Observation Tower (1990) in Columbus, Indiana, by Stanley Saitowitz

Of the 32 projects completed, I've been up in zilch of them. Regardless, I can attest to the power of lookouts, both in the views they give of the surroundings and the journey that it takes to reach them. One such lookout that springs to mind is the tower that is part of Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana. Designed by Stanley Saitowitz above a landscape by Michael van Valkenburgh, the tower is quite inelegant, resembling a structure a local fire department would use for training rather than something at home in the one of the most notable places in America for the quality of its modern architecture. Situated just west of downtown, the tower is on axis with 5th Street, giving a view of Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church (1942) and other town structures dotting the flat Midwestern landscape. The journey to the top is either via a hoistway-like external elevator or a stair that gives screened views at each landing; an unencumbered view is not gained until reaching the cantilevered top platform.

Saitowitz's tower, at nearly 25 years old, is not recent enough for consideration in S AM 11, but one project that is missing is The Ledge at Skydeck Chicago, which SOM added to its own Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in 2009. Its omission is most likely due to the fact the retractable ledges are appended to a 110-story office tower, adding that layer of purpose that the other lookouts are free of. Nevertheless, the vertiginous view through the shallow glazed floor excels in providing a novel view of the city, one that is being repeated more in more, from the Grand Canyon to China. But the admittedly Euro-centric (24 of 34 projects) collection is also about what a lookout looks like as well as what it looks at. So the selection is solid, if at times predictable. The Norway Tourist Routes and Ruta del Peregrino projects, which comprise one-third of the book, are flatter than most lookouts but understandably included for being parts of a chain of lookouts traversing their respective landscapes. Some of the surprises include the latest addition to the Höhenrausch in Linz, Austria, and Kirchspitz's treetop research tower in Germany's Palatinate Forest. More surprises would have made the book even more of a treat, but as is the book is still a good survey of a small subset of architecture that can experiment without worrying about function.

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