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Monday, January 14, 2008

Book Review: The Evolution of 20th Century Architecture

The Evolution of 20th Century Architecture: A Synoptic Account by Kenneth Frampton

In this compact book by the most well-known historian of 20th-century architecture, Kenneth Frampton presents what he calls a genealogy rather than a history on the evolution of architecture last century. This genealogy is traced in four chapters: the Avante-Garde and Continuity, the Vicissitudes of the Organic, Universal Civilization and National Cultures, and Production, Place and Reality. Each chapter traces these general concepts on the relationships of Modernism to tradition, place and technology, without acting as a chronological regurgitation of "the usual suspects" of architectural history in the period from the late 19th century to the dawn of the new millennium.
Those familiar with Frampton's writings and his critical take on history will not find anything surprising in these pages. At a lecture in Spring 2007 Frampton articulated many consistencies in his lifelong studies that are reiterated here: a preference for the horizontal over the vertical, a disdain for the "intuitive" designs of Frank Gehry (a no-show here), and a reliance on construction technology as the means for architectural expression and meaning. What makes the book valuable is the condensing of Frampton's ideas into a short (150 pages) and heavily illustrated (primarily with drawings) book that is accessible, without eschewing the intellectual depth and rigor of previous books like Modern Architecture: A Critical History and Studies in Tectonic Culture.
What perhaps holds more value is Frampton's presentation at the end of the book of projects on an urban scale, like Roland Rainer's high-density housing in Puchenau, Austria. These and a few other projects illustrate that the focus on "the one-off object as the only viable concern for architectural culture" is no longer tenable. With environmental concerns placing an importance on context and relationships, the urban scale becomes the contested ground for architects to influence towards the better. While Frampton ends the book on a less-than-optimistic note, his faith in modern architecture is unwavering, as the larger projects that he presents illustrate. One could conclude from reading this book that the relationships between tradition, place and technology of importance in the last century will continue to be important factors as architects tackle the problems of the 21st century.

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