Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: Talk About Contemporary Architecture

Talk About Contemporary Architecture by Gilles De Bure
Flammarion, 2010
Paperback, 256 pages

French publishing house Flammarion features a series of "talk about" books geared to introducing readers to topics like contemporary architecture and design. This book by Gilles De Bure attempts to "provide the general public with the keys to understanding architecture" from this century and the late 20th, answering questions like What is contemporary architecture? When did it arise? and What is its purpose? Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi's New Directions in Contemporary Architecture is the only other recent book I can think of that tries the same thing, where most books on contempary architecture merely collect various projects (based on building types or thematic strands in architecture) or are geared to academics and/or fellow architects. Each of these books share a Euro-centric view of contemporary architecture, arising from the premise that what is new is derived from the Modernism of last century. Certainly a plethora of strands of contemporary architecture exist all over the world today, their origins as diverse as their own formal tendencies. So an incomplete story is told in each case, with De Bure's book further schewed towards his home country, its buildings and its architects.

Talk About marks the beginning of contemporary architecture in 1977, with the opening of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. Now an accepted part of the urban fabric, it was a controversial addition at the time, at odds with everything about Paris, from its high-tech style with exposed ducts and services to the large plaza mirroring the building's footprint. De Bure uses it as the beginning because of its style but he also cites it as "a symbol of the future of the cultural venue." I'm not sure if the beginning of contemporary architecture needs to be marked (won't the contemporary change and therefore shift its origin accordingly?) but the Pompidou is as good as any. It is an example of architecture at odds with history but more importantly a design whose expression is singular, not arising from canons or models of the past, like Modernism or to a lesser extent Postmodernism. A definition of contemporary architecture extending from this sees each design as unique, finding expression in the architect's imagination, the client's will and the city's openness.
Across ten chapters De Bure covers most bases, be it formal considerations (what came first, Torre Agbar or Swiss Re?), collective housing, public/private realms and urbanism. What permeates are the big names: Hadid, Foster, Gehry, Nouvel. The last chapter is devoted to thirty such big names, though some of the names included (Patrick Bouchain, Rudy Ricciotti) and excluded (Steven Holl, Paulo Mendes da Rocha) point to some of the shortcomings of De Bure's book, namely that a general guide to a global trend is geographically myopic. Nevertheless it is a welcome book for its take on the topic, allowing people outside the profession and academia to "talk about" contemporary architecture.