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Monday, September 08, 2008

Book Review: Crucial Words

Crucial Words: Conditions for Contemporary Architecture edited by Gert Wingårdh and Rasmus Wærn
Birkhäuser, 2008

The language of architecture is an ever-changing assemblage of words that guide architects' thoughts and actions. The days of "firmness, commodity, and delight" have long been supplanted by other words that have shifted the course of architecture alongside the rest of the world. Today's architectural language is as much about landscape, ecology, and other realms that until recently have been considered separately. With the influence and concerns of building extending to the larger environment, words like proportion and scale have given way to nature and landscape. These last are two of 31 "crucial words" chosen by Gert Wingårdh and Rasmus Wærn of Sweden. While their choices do not focus solely on sustainability, like my introduction, they give an accurate snapshot of concerns of architects today, be it tehory, technology, urbanism, etc.

The editors contend that "the conditions in which present-day architecture is produced are partly local ... and partly global, [and] understanding contemporary architecture means understanding all of these aspects." The book exhibits the local via the inclusion of words like Europe and Nordic, and the choice of voices for the various words. A number of architects and educators from Sweden and other Scandinavian countries are accompanied by some well-known names from Europe and the United States, such as Massimiliano Fuksas, Denise Scott Brown, Hans Ulbrich Obrist, and Joseph Rykwert. With these and other personalities, the collection is certainly a Euro- and American-centric one, which makes one wonder if the words chosen and the responses are also limited to Western concerns. The simple answer is probably a yes, but the variety of those words and responses is nevertheless refreshing.

It's hard to single out one or more favorites, as each short essay has a unique take on its term, not your Penguin Dictionary of Architecture type of answer. Most essays are accompanied by images that relate to the term covered, sometimes directly, but other times less so. The images make for a layered reading of the book, primarily through the layer of history, as most of the images predate the contemporary and call the very notion of contemporary into question.

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