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Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: Key Urban Housing of the Twentieth Century

Key Urban Housing of the Twentieth Century: Plans, Sections and Elevations by Hilary French
W.W. Norton, 2008

In the introduction to her collection of urban housing projects from last century, architect and architectural historian Hilary French cites Roger Sherwood's Modern Housing Prototypes and Friederike Schneider's Floor Plan Manual as influences. The former's 1978 classic (also maintained as a web page) presents 32 projects in five typological categories, and the latter brings together over 100 multi-story and low-rise housing projects in a similar categorization. French continues the reliance upon two-dimensional drawing conventions as a means for exploring and presenting the evolution of multi-family apartment buildings and the individual units, but she departs slightly by presenting the nearly 90 projects in chronological order, grouped into six thematic chapters that touch upon the general trends at the time. Chapters like European Modernism and Contemporary Interpretations are prefaced with brief explanatory text, elucidating the concerns and notable examples (some not included here) of the respective periods.

While the book's title indicates plans, sections and elevations, the emphasis is clearly on the first, particularly the floor plans of the individual apartments. This further aligns the book with the two preceding titles, though one wishes that more effort was expended on the sections and elevations, as many of the projects are missing one or both, in some cases when they are necessary for fully understanding the designs. Other minor quibbles include the lack of interior photographs (present on less than ten projects, with additional shots in the chapter intros) and confusion that stems from unit plans being rotated from site plans (especially with the less distinctive rectangular plan shapes), something easily remedied by additional north arrows. Nevertheless, the floor plans -- drafted consistently from project to project and at the same scale -- allow for comparison across projects and time. One can track, for example, how bathrooms, bedrooms and overall apartments have increased in size over the years. The selection of projects, not surprisingly, overlaps the book's precursors, though the inclusion of contemporary buildings makes it more appealing than Sherwood's for those with such an interest.

One aspect that sets this book apart from not only the two books mentioned above, but many architectural books today, is the inclusion of a CD-ROM with .dwg and .eps file formats for the 87 projects featured (like Key Contemporary Buildings). One is privy to the content that went into the making of the book, in a format that is typically not found or shared. With the proliferation of photographs on the internet, particularly of completed buildings, having access to CAD files on major architectural works is a rarity one gains with this book.

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