Book Review: Two Monographs

Inside Outside by Petra Blaisse
The Monacelli Press, 2009
Hardcover, 504 pages

Ken Smith: Landscape Architect by Ken Smith
The Monacelli Press, 2009
Hardcover, 256 pages

According to the website of her firm Inside Outside, Dutch Designer Petra Blaisse "works in a multitude of creative areas, including textiles, landscape and exhibition design." Regardless she is known for one thing more than any other: curtains. Blaisse not only considers curtains in a number of ways (light control, audio control, flexible barriers between inside and outside) she treats them like they are more important than the buildings they inhabit. Blaisse may not explicitly say this (and working with architects on many commissions, they might like to share credit with her on the success of her designs) but it comes across in the amazingly beautiful effects created when installed. Her designs are not just variations on color, translucency and pattern. They exploit the ways in which they are made to become unimaginable creations, like the "stitched rows of holes" at IIT's McCormick Center that allows sunlight to define tightly spaced verticals within the organic pattern.
This monograph (originally published by NAi Publishers in 2007) presents a ton of Blaisse's varied output. Seven projects receive in-depth treatment, going into particular detail into the design and construction process, thankfully never boring the way Blaisse describes them. Images of other projects are interspersed, all broken into seven thematic chapters (Invisible Presence, Undoing Boundaries, Curtain as Architecture, etc.). A section at the end of the book presents thumbnail images moving through the process of about thirty projects. So much care and effort was obviously put into the book by Blaisse and others that it goes so far beyond other design monographs in terms of what can be learned about the designer, her process and the relationship between her pieces (textiles, landscapes, exhibitions) and their larger context. Even the colored stripes of the fore-edge help make the book a crafted thing of beauty in its own right.

A previous monograph of sorts on New York-based landscape architect Ken Smith presented only three of his designs. This more robust proper monograph includes nearly 20 projects since Smith left a partnership with Martha Schwartz (he also previously worked with Peter Walker) to set off on his own. The projects range from a hotel room and a community garden to plazas, rooftops and a 1,347-acre "Great Park" in Orange County, California. In all of his designs, regardless of scale, Smith explores the increasingly blurred boundary between natural and artificial, particularly the latter's representation of the former. Some projects exhibit this tendency more than others (installations incorporating plastic flowers, the totally artificial, maintenance free rooftop gardens atop MoMA), but most share an affinity for clear boundaries. Be it the painted dots on the playground of P.S. 19 in Queens, the bordered rectangles in the courtyard on Central Park South, or the circles and lines of the Great Park, Smith seems to favor a graphic approach to composing landscapes. This theme surely isn't unique or the only defining characteristic of his designs, but it allows visitors to clearly perceive the spaces he creates. As Smith describes one of his projects, multiple perspectives (above, inside, adjacent) yield understanding, not just one or another.