Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: Extreme Architecture

Extreme Architecture: Building in Challenging Environments by Ruth Slavid
Laurence King Publishers, 2009
Hardcover, 208 pages

The term "extreme architecture" immediately brings to mind architecture that is formally aggressive, such as Deconstructivist architecture by the likes of Coop Himmelb(l)au. But for author Ruth Slavid it equals "extreme environments" and the architecture that responds to them. Her survey of close to fifty projects is divided into five sections (Hot, Cold, High, Wet, Space) that delineate the extremes architects must respond to. The selection ranges from variations on the vernacular to far-fetched proposals that seem to exist only to push the envelope by pushing the limits of human existence. What is constant is Slavid's exemplary writing, descriptive and informative to be sure, but also able to hold the reader's interest project after project. Be it a school for a poor community, a ski jump, a floating house, or even a dirigible, Slavid's perspective on how the architecture responds to its conditions is consistent, not seduced by the fastastical nature of the most extreme of the extreme.

A few projects in the book that have been featured on my web pages include the Primary School in Burkina Faso by Diébédo Francis Kéré (Hot), the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway by Peter W. Søderman/Barlindhaug Consult (Cold), and the SkiBox Portillo in Chile by Del Río-Núñez Architects (High). At the beginning of these and the other entries, Slavid provides consistent data (height above sea level, average annual rainfall, average high and low temperatures) as a means of comparison. One can see, for example, that the SkiBox is about 8,500 feet higher than the school in Burkina Faso, with over 20 feet more precipitation annually. So even though the environments of these buildings are extreme relative to mid-range places like Western Europe or the American Midwest, they are even more extreme compared each other. It's certainly not surprising to see such different approaches to building for these two examples, and many others. Materials, openings, forms, functions and other defining factors vary dramatically from pole to pole, be it hot to cold or underwater to outer space.