Monday, February 08, 2010

Book Review: Urbanisms

Urbanisms: Working with Doubt by Steven Holl
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Hardcover, 240 pages

In the foreword to what seems like his umpteenth book for Princeton Architectural Press, architect Steven Holl describes Urbanisms as an accompaniment to the previous House: Black Swan Theory, with a focus on the macro scale where the predecessor dealt with the microscale. These books present the buildings and unbuilt projects of Holl's office back to the days of Anchoring and Intertwining, his first two PAPress monographs and examples of chronological coverage. Urbanisms and House become more summary than the architect's early monographs, though many of the themes that Holl discusses in his latest can be found in his early texts; his conceptual consistency is without refute.
Thinking of Holl's projects on the macro scale, a few projects spring to mind, all in China: Beijing's Linked Hybrid, Shenzhen's Vanke Center and Chengdu's Sliced Porosity Block. The three "cities-within-cities" -- two recently completed -- dramatically surpass other Holl projects in scale and ambition. Their distinctive combinations of forms, massings and mixed-uses make them influential if impossible to replicate. They also embody the eleven tenets Holl outlines at the beginning of the book, all stemming from the theme of the book: working with doubt. For example "urban porosity" recalls the dynamic and varied spaces of traditional neighborhoods in Naples, Paris and Greenwich Village more than megaprojects, but Holl attempts to reconcile the two in how the twelve buildings in the Linked Hybrid relate to each other; a repetitive exterior is balanced by bridges, pavilion and in-between spaces of distinct character. "Sectional cities" obviously also applies to this project, albeit quite literally and exclusively. With these tenets Holl describes the essence of urbanism today, what architects need to realize as they undergo larger and larger projects. In China he is creating the embodiment of his thinking on this macro scale. How successful they are at "working with doubt" will surely be scrutinized in the months and years to come.

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