Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book Review: Key Contemporary Buildings

Key Contemporary Buildings: Plans, Sections and Elevations (2008) by Rob Gregory
W. W. Norton
Paperback, 240 pages

This third volume of the Plans, Sections and Elevations series follows Richard Weston's Key Buildings of the Twentieth Century and Colin Davies' Key Houses of the Twentieth Century. Gregory's contribution looks at buildings built primarily in the first six years of this still nascent century. His selection is not as predetermined as the first two, given their focus and hindsight, and given the wide range of designs that fall under the monicker contemporary, but Gregory does a fine job of choosing buildings that whose analysis via plan, section and elevation is rewarding.

The book arranges the 95 projects in eight sections, based on plan (centralized, linear) or context (cityscape, infill). These categories, like any, somewhat arbitrarily segregate buildings that otherwise share certain characteristics, but this allows comparison of, for example, the various ways that architects approach centralized plans, from the orthogonal to the organic. These and other comparisons add a layer to a book focused on analyzing a building by itself, separated from almost everything but the land it sits upon. In this sense, this book is clearly aimed at architects who wish to see the projects in the same way they create their own.

The focus on the contemporary raises some issues, particulary the role of plans, sections and elevations in architectural design. Surely most architects still rely on these 2-dimensional conventions to express their designs to builders, and to generate their designs. But some architects, those who steal the spotlight from the majority, abandon plan, section and elevation in favor of complex forms that can't be caputured in such conventions. Here, computer software allows for the designs of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Greg Lynn, and the like. So it's interesting to see plans and sections of the Walt Disney Concert Hall (one can do so in this book), but it's obvious that a greater understanidng would be gleaned via models instead.

As the title implies, the most imporant element of the book are the drawings, but unfortunately many tend to be too small on the page. The CD-ROM included with the book makes up for this deficiency, for those able to open .dwg or .eps files, that is. Even with this focus on the drawings, Gregory's text is a valuable part of the book, giving explanation where it is needed, with information the drawings can't convey, from history and extended context to construction and details. The result is a successful blend of drawing and text that is easily replicable, making a fourth volume almost a certainty.