Book Review: Surface/Subsurface

Surface/Subsurface by Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. (Amazon)

New York-based architects Weiss/Manfredi are defined by the Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism description, one that could be said to be embraced by many architects today, by many who see these other realms as part of the architect's purview. It's a tricky notion, where one hopes that the apparent incorporation of landscape goes beyond green roofs, and that urbanism is more than just bigness. Each of these are not only separate disciplines with practitioners, professors and unique viewpoints and working relationships, but they are complex concepts that imply natural and social processes, respectively. That being said, the practice of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi are one of the few that understand these implications while also blurring the distinctions between each, something that makes one question the distinctions and the knowledge base that each uses to traditionally separate itself as a discipline.

The project that best illustrates this synthesis is the Seattle Art Museum's recent Olympic Sculpture Park, an 8.5-acre former industrial site where the architects stitched the city to the water via a continuous constructed landscape. The blurring of distinctions between architecture, landscape, and urbanism is abundantly clear at only a single glance, with the zigzagging lawn and paths physically connecting areas previously separated by both a roadway and train tracks. (If anything, the architectural component of the project -- a small pavilion at the high point of the site -- is downplayed in favor of the last two.) Even though (and most likely because) the project's strengths are clear, the design receives the most attention in this monograph on 11 of the firm's recent built and unbuilt projects. The coverage -- including the requisite sketches, renderings, drawings, and photographs -- features diagrams, such as a timeline, that help the reader further understand the design but also explain the creative process. The timeline shows how the architects see the Sculpture Park's current state as part of a continuum, as a part of something larger both in time and space. This is refreshing but not a surprise, coming as it is from the architects of the geologically-inspired Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, also featured in the monograph.

The eleven projects are grouped into three sections (Recovering Infrastructure, Inhabiting Topographies, Leveraging Movement) that are each prefaced by interviews with Detlef Martins. These informative sessions give great insight into the firm's general attitudes towards sustainability, for example. The three sections don't separate the different projects from each so much as they articulate the larger concerns that transcend the sometimes arbitrary, yet nevertheless entrenched, distinctions between architecture, landscape, and urbanism. Certain projects more clearly represent the different concerns, hence the plaza and interior circulation of the Barnard College Nexus fits into the section on movement. What one probably notices is that the keywords of infrastructure, topography, and movement veer slightly from the typical formal concerns of architects, pointing to an emphasis on those aspects that have the potential to unite the three disparate fields. Ultimately it's about the output of the firm, and the quality that arises from a practice geared to cross-disciplinary work provides a good model for other architects with the same interests.