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Monday, August 09, 2010

Book Review: Two Books About Facades

Building Envelopes: An Integrated Approach by Jenny Lovell
Princeton Architectural Press, 2010
Paperback, 144 pages

Contemporary Curtain Wall Architecture by Scott Murray
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Hardcover, 264 pages

These two books by publisher Princeton Architectural Press target the importance of building facades in terms of performance linked to sustainability, and of course architectural expression. Jenny Lovell's contribution to the publisher's "Architecture Briefs" series presents an integrated approach, where technical, aesthetic, and other concerns are considered together, usually in teams that go beyond the architects to include engineers, fabricators, and builders. Scott Murry focuses on curtain walls, the primarily glass facades hung in front of a building's structural frame. In both cases complexity is the order of the day, be it construction, performance, and/or appearance. 
Lovell's book explains an integrated approach through photos, diagrams, and a text that is thorough but not overly technical, making it an ideal primer for students and young architects. Even though the book is short and well ordered, an index would have been helpful for reference after completing the book. Regardless, it is the diagrams that anchor the book. Some are contributed by environmental engineers like Buro Happold, but many were made especially for the book and therefore have a formal consistency that makes them easy to decipher (aided by descriptive captions) and compare with each other. What results from an integrated approach is saved for the end, where six case studies are presented, a handful from the UK and one from New York City. The last is SHoP Architects' 290 Mulberry Street project, which features two walls of undulating brick set into precast panels. Responding to contextual cues and landmark requirements, the facades illustrate that creative interpretations of masonry can occur alongside today's predilection for all-glass enclosures. It is also an indication of how Lovell's book does not promote a singular aesthetic (outside of being contemporary) but a process where expression is just one aspect of many.
Where Lovell's title is a small enough size to make the Architecture Briefs more appealing to add to one's library, Scott Murray's book would be at home on a coffee table. Its large format allows big photos of the 24 curtain wall case studies he presents, but more importantly it allows for the drawings that are necessary to explain how each facade works. The book includes a history that traces curtain walls from the late 19th century to today, and a couple essays on performance and technique, but it is the case studies that comprise its bulk and make it valuable. Many of the projects are very high-profile, iconic pieces of architecture, like Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar in Barcelona and OMA's Seattle Public Library. Each case study has a consistent format: photos, basic information, description, partial elevation, plan, and wall section. The last three are included on a two-page spread, with the same scale and technique for each project. This allows their comparison, but small-scale snippets grouped together on a fold-out spread (six to a page) would have been even more helpful for doing such.
This last point gets at what makes books like this superior to the information disseminated online. The inclusion of diagrams and technical drawings specially made for the books enable more information and understanding to occur, but their presence in book form also allows for cross referencing. Yet the cost to include a fold-out spread, for example, to position certain information together on the projects doesn't happen for cost reasons. Will touches that take advantage of book formats like this start to happen, to make books appealing enough for purchase, or will people investigate ways of making that work online instead? It's probably not an easy either-or question, but one that publishers certainly have to confront as cover prices get higher and consumers increasingly opt for digital over print.

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