Monday, April 04, 2011

Book Review: Immaterial World and a+t 36

Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture by Marc Kristal
Monacelli Press, 2011
Hardcover, 216 pages

a+t 36: Strategy Public edited by Javier Mozas & Aurora Fernandez Per
a+t, 2010
Paperback, 320 pages

As I've mentioned on my web pages numerous times when reviewing books, collections of contemporary architecture need some sort of conceptual reason for choosing and presenting the projects in their pages. Gathering buildings by typology (houses, offices, retail spaces, hotels, etc.), on the other hand, are good for architects hoping to gain some inspiration and knowledge on a narrow field of vision, the one pertaining to their project at hand. Collections based on type range from cursory presentations with a paragraph or two from the architect and some color photos to in-depth case studies that highlight the unique aspects of the designs, from the general to the detail in photos and drawings. The same range basically applies to collections based not on type but on something else, be it sustainability, materials, geography, or some other conceptual thread. These two books stake out different territories in their contemporary collections, though each should be commended for conceptual clarity as well as quality architecture.

Mark Kristal's previous book, Re:Crafted, looked at contemporary notions of craft in a wide range of primarily residential projects, from the traditional to the quizzical. In Immaterial World the first impression is a subtle translucency, as evidenced by Thomas Phifer's Salt Point House that graces the cover. Yet this is not the case, Kristal is not aiming to present projects that seem to dematerialize themselves and the boundaries between inside and outside (even though a number of the projects inside do just that). His conceptual backbone is more nuanced; he presents a number of again varied projects in terms of transparency. Trying to find a building's essence, he contends that "transparency has enabled me to find my way into even the most resistant designs." So while the projects do not all share a predilection for perforated metal facades or super-clear glass, for example, their explanation is aided by Kristal's approach. In this sense the book is aimed at a more general audience, not directly at practicing architects like collections based on building type.

So how do Kristal's analyses in terms of transparency hold up? A few examples might help, one transparent, one translucent, and one primarily opaque. In the case of the first, he explains that SANAA's Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art uses physical transparency to achieve programmatic transparency, so views across galleries are present as are views of the workshops, places normally closed off from the public gaze. For the second and Phifer's Salt Point House, Kristal talks as much about the skylights and glass flooring as the perforated steel exterior that acts as a "thermal envelope" while giving the house an ethereal quality. Lastly, from certain angles UNI's XSmall House appears to be three solid wood boxes, but the windows are strategically placed to maintain privacy for its residents and the nearby buildings in a "residential compound" by the architects. In these cases transparency is respectively literal yet linked to program and history; varied in terms of percentage and exposure; and minimized to control views in and out. To me, this works quite well.

Strategy Public is Spanish publisher a+t's first issue in the new Strategy series, coming on the heels of Hybrids, and before that Civilities. As publisher and editor of magazines and books on contemporary architecture, a+t appears to value organization and categorization in their efforts to present buildings and landscapes. Their themes respond to what is happening in architecture and urbanism, without catering the different series so certain buildings can be included. For example, the Hybrids series presented urban developments that combined different programs in various ways. Sure it featured Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid and some other high-profile architecture, but the theme was rooted in observations on the urban condition and architects' attempts to integrate mixed-uses and vitality into large projects. Strategy is, like Kristal's collection, a means of analysis. It is a way of backtracking from a building's finished product to its genesis, finding important design strategies in this reverse chronology that are then cross-referenced with other projects. The result is a matrix that is focused on landscape urbanism (small letters, not the capitalized words and its semi-controversial movement) in its first issue.

Before getting to the projects, the reader is presented with the various landscape urbanism strategies. These range from abstractions like "connecting" and "integrating" to physical ones like "managing rain water" and "regenerating waterfronts." Each of the 22 projects is found in more than strategy, and these are highlighted in a matrix on the project page; the matrix is gridded with scale across the top (territory, site, objects) and approach down the side (environmental, social, formal). The combination of strategies and scale/approach matrix can be a bit overwhelming at times, but a designer utilizing the book as a tool for finding examples of, let's say, reusing parts of the site will find the book quite helpful. Likewise, if an individual project sparks one's interest, the matrix illustrates the various strategies, so exploration based on particular aspects of the design is aided. The project documentation follows the trend of other a+t titles, meaning its fantastic in its combination of photos and drawings. Here the strategies are layered across this content...literally, as the strategies are also placed next to relevant photos. As somebody who absorbs plenty of contemporary collections, I'm again impressed with a+t; as an architect I'll be even more happier if the next issue focuses on buildings.