Book Review: Two Monographs

The Miller|Hull Partnership: Public Works by The Miller|Hull Partnership
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Hardcover, 256 pages

Pugh + Scarpa: Report 2005 edited by Bruce Q. Lan
China Architecture and Building Press, 2005
Hardcover, 190 pages

The buildings of Seattle's Miller|Hull Partnership would hardly, if ever, be mistaken as the buildings of Los Angeles firm Pugh + Scarpa, and vice-versa. Yet the two firms share certain characteristics: a deep-rooted (not greenwashed) sustainability, socially responsible design, a regional emphasis, and a mix of public and private building types. These two monographs exhibit these strengths of each office, as well as their respective unique working process and formal vocabulary.

The Miller|Hull Partnership began in 1977, but the firm's output for most of its first decade was comprised of residential projects and cabins, two types that continue to this day in an office known for public commissions. The latter are the focus in this second monograph on the firm produced by Princeton Architectural Press -- Architects of the Pacific Northwest is the 2001 predecessor. The quality of the dozen buildings featured in the latest book is phenomenal, particularly so when one realizes they are just a sampling of the firm's larger public oeuvre. Various building types are presented (office buildings, infrastructure, educational, multi-family residential, etc.), and all are treated with care, exhibiting the engineered aesthetic that combines exposed structural steel with glass, concrete and wood. The last aesthetically roots the buildings in their Pacific Northwest context, though it is how the designs deal with siting and topography that indicate how skilled the architects have become at navigating the area they call home. Not surprisingly, the one project outside this region -- Chicago's 156 West Superior Street -- basically regurgitates one of the firm's earlier buildings for Seattle, appropriately refining its steel sections and details for the land of Mies van der Rohe and the glass curtain wall.

Down the Pacific coast in Los Angeles, Pugh + Scarpa creates architecture that is as rooted in its milieu as Miller|Hull's tectonic regionalism. This handsome, bilingual monograph -- part of a series on contemporary US architects from the China Architecture and Building Press -- captures the Santa Monica-based office's creative ways of interacting with the various landscapes of the metropolis, be it the streets, the hillsides, the single-family sprawl, office building interiors, or sites of industrial reuse. Known most for the solar panel-clad Colorado Court Apartments -- included here with a Lawrence Scarpa interview -- Pugh + Scarpa's veer from the formal simplicity of that project to a couple sculptural gems in Culver City and Silverlake, a conversion of warehouse buildings to creative office space and a hillside residence, respectively. Interspersed among these projects in these pages are more single-family houses, a number of interiors and some unbuilt works. What's missing are dates for each project, but the ordering appears arbitrary, jumping around in time without any clear notion of why one project comes after another; any progression of ideas that comes with chronological ordering is lost. Instead, and maybe more appropriately, the book reads like LA itself, like driving down a street and confronting building and building without any apparent relationship to each other. The office embodies the pluralistic attitude of the city, refusing to put a "Pugh + Scarpa" stamp on what they create.