Book Review: Two Actar Titles

Verb Natures edited by Albert Ferré, Irene Hwang, Tomoko Sakamoto, Ramon Prat, Michael Kubo, Mario Ballesteros & Anna Tetas
Desert America edited by Ramon Prat, Jaime Salazar, Michael Kubo & Irene Hwang

According to the publisher's web site, "Verb™ is ACTAR’s main tool for the investigation of current architectural production," consisting of boogazines, monographs, and the yet-to-be-released minigraphs. The first and last are reconsiderations of the typical architecture books, be they monographs, case studies, or writings in the realms of history and theory. A boogazine is obviously a merging of a book and a magazine, with the former's comprehensiveness, heft and price tag and the latter's frequency of publication and visual and editorial consistency. Verb Natures is the fifth installment of the boogazine, "the end of a positive, optimistic exploration that has sought to find potential in new forces and technologies," that will "confront the realities of what the technologies of globalization have produced" in future issues.

The pages of the fifth issue, focusing on the fusion of natural and artificial matter afforded by digital and other new technologies, clearly exhibit various explorations of architecture available by the computer, from the formal and structural possibilities afforded by parametric modeling to the modification of nature via genetic engineering. What most, if not all, of the design and research projects presented have in common is what is essential to computers algorithms. Repetitive computations performed by computers allow the complex designs of PTW's watercube, Aranda/Lasch's unbuilt "grotto" proposal for PS1, and others here that are indicative of a move away from Rhino-generated blogs towards designs that take construction into account. These are projects that are being built or are meant to exist in the physical realm, not just on a computer screen.

Given what fills these pages, the boogazine's title (Natures) and the desire for a new definition of the organic is a bit problematic. It is a technocratic view that embraces the potentials of technology without a thorough questioning of this basic, though unspoken, assertion. In some cases, nature is seen as a resource; in other cases it is something to be manipulated towards human ends or containing lessons that can influence how we build architecture or organize our cities. Perhaps this questioning of technological uses and ends will follow in the next boogazine, though reading and absorbing the text and images in this issue gives one the impression that the use of the computer in architectural practice is an ongoing pursuit that has still only scratched the surface of possibility, but it is something that must be tempered by a careful consideration of the environment of which we are an integral and increasingly important part.

The intersection of nature and technology is also explored in Desert America, the latest monograph in the Verb series. It is an exploration of the amazing and surprising variety of ways that Americans use the driest, hottest, and most expansive area of the 48 states, from the obvious (Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and other methods of harnessing energy, astronomy, Burning Man, Phoenix's sprawl) to the not-so obvious (the Salton Sea, anti-terrorism training in Playa, New Mexico, military graveyards, and Quartzsite). It is, as the title suggests, a narrative of the various conditions of paradox found in the desert, what many people perceive as an area free of life and unable to support life but one teeming with the activities that can't take place anywhere else. It is an alternative guidebook to the place, with page after page of the strange human presence in what's also seen as the last vestige of nature, perhaps not unspoiled but not transformed as much as other parts of the US. Lastly, it is a must for anybody who thinks they really know the desert in all its intricacies, as there's something new to be found in this coverage of the vast desert.