Book Review: Two Books from PAPress

Installations by Architects: Experiments in Building Design by Sarah Bonnemaison and Ronit Eisenbach, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. Paperback, 192 pages. (Amazon)
Provisional: Emerging Modes of Architectural Practice USA by Elite Kedan , F. Jonathan Dreyfous and Craig Mutter, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. Paperback, 288 pages. (Amazon)

These two books by publisher Princeton Architectural Press tread into the margins of architectural practice. One looks at creations by architects that eschew the defining traits of architecture: function and permanence. The second investigates practices that are pushing the boundaries of not only building design but how architectural practices function in doing so.
Installations by Architects by Nova Scotia-based Bonnemaison and Maryland-based Eisenbach collects over forty projects by primarily North American architects. Many familiar names can be found, such as John Hedjuk, Diller + Scofidio, Kennedy & Violich, but most of them are not so familiar. (I can't remember the last time I learned about so many designers not known to me in a collection of contemporary architecture!) The projects are split into five thematic sections (Tectonics, Body, Nature, Memory, Public Space) that follow the broad ideas architects have tackled over the last decade or two. Unconventionally each chapter separates the text descriptions from the photo documentation, allowing the book to be read in a number of ways, depending on how much the reader wants to delve into the subject of installations by architects.
I'm amazed it has taken so long for a book on this specific topic to be realized, given how many contemporary architects now see installations as stepping stones towards larger commissions, in some cases taking the place of small residential and interiors jobs. I'm reminded of shows like Fabrications -- held simultaneously at MoMA, SFMOMA and the Wexner Center in 1998 -- where the potential for architects to respond to site via materials was exploited. Many of the installations in this book exist outside of conventional museum settings, and the most important chapter might be the last one on public space. It is in that realm where installations -- which can be seen as ways of exploring how architecture can change not only space but attitudes towards it -- should have the greatest potential.
Provisional features interviews with nine firms practicing architecture in the United States: Front, Gehry Technologies, Chris Hoxie, LTL Architects, MY Studio, nARCHITECTS, Servo, SHoP and George Yu Architects. A few are consultants and many produce buildings of their own design, but none of them resemble traditional architectural firms. These offices can be seen as architecture firms of the not-too-distant future, on the forefront of production and building design in the profession. Naturally technology and its incorporation into design and practice plays a large role, as does research, diversity of work and other approaches. It's not hard to find consistencies among the nine practices in these areas, but it's difficult to find commonalities in design; each office is idiosyncratic, arising from the human interaction with technology, among other things.
The interviews do a very good job in expressing the focus of each firm and how their working processes follow from them. Interspersed among the nine interviews are images of completed projects, diagrams, mock-ups and renderings, construction documents, and construction photos. Essays by participating architects and others bookend the whole package. (At the end are some kind words by Neil Denari on the late George Yu.) The book's structure mimics online hyperlinks, with text and images keyed to each other like an index to an atlas, gridded coordinates and all, an unnecessary extra that leads to errors arising from lack of coordination. Nevertheless the grouped images extend the reach of the interviews, and they help greatly in sections like onsite photos where the two L's from LTL actually construct some of their interior designs. The book ultimately finds a common denominator in technology's application to architectural practice, though the diversity of its use is refreshing, pointing to even more potential with other individuals and firms. A potential homogenization of design and practice arising from the computer appears here to be unfounded. Or as the authors find, "a unifying theory is not what's called for, but rather the capacity to navigate a multivalent and expending network of approaches that generates a relevant architecture now."