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Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: Beyond Shelter and Testify!

Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity edited by Marie J. Aquilino
Metropolis Books, 2011
Paperback, 304 pages

Testify!: The Consequences of Architecture edited by Lukas Feireiss
NAi Publishers, 2011
Paperback, 240 pages

One consequence of trends is that their popularity begets a renewed interest in their opposite or the things they displace. The current trend of digitizing just about everything shows signs of appreciating, among many other things, well-crafted books, handwritten letters and, in the realm of architecture, hand drawings and models built by hand. While these things still pale in comparison, in terms of attention and quantity, to their digital counterparts (ebooks, emails/texts, digital renderings), the important thing is that they are not displaced; they retain their potential as important means of thought and expression.

In physical buildings this trend/opposite trait can be found in the number of highly tactile pieces of architecture that stand in stark contrast with the sleek glass skins that can be found all over the world. Perhaps more important is the fact that iconic, form-based architecture for rich individuals and institutions -- that which steals the pages of magazines and blog posts -- is met with architecture that focuses on the underserved through process- and community-based design. The latter of these two poles does not receive as much attention in the media or architectural education as the former, but that is changing with title like Architecture in Times of Need, Design Like You Give A Damn (a sequel will be released next Spring), Expanding Architecture, The Power of Pro Bono, Small Scale, Big Change, and these two recent books.

Beyond Shelter focuses on architects' responses to disasters, providing case studies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The book argues that architects have a lot to offer in the rebuilding efforts after disasters (and in preventative building), but that their training and their profession, among other things, keep them out of contributing towards making marginalized communities safer, stronger, and more enjoyable. Therefore the case studies provide lessons for architects interested in such efforts by highlighting designers already doing work in the realm of disaster recovery.

Most of the projects -- many of which fall outside of conventional architecture, often focusing on infrastructure or other constructions, not just buildings -- are new to me, perhaps since the focus is on process over form. To be fair, product is important in the presented projects, but in more ways than just architectural form; social, environmental, and other factors must be addressed. Familiar projects include Dan Rockhill/Studio 804's Arts Center in Greensburg, Kansas, built after a tornado destroyed much of the small town; Teddy Cruz's ongoing work on the US/Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana; Urban Think Tank's attempts to bring infrastructure to Caracas's informal housing; Arup's Lotus School in Ladakh, India; and the Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan by Studio Tam Associati; most of these are buildings with strong formal characteristics. (This week's dose shows I'm guilty of falling for similar social- and need-based projects.)

Highlights among the projects new to me are difficult to single out, since, as mentioned, they focus on the how over the what. The in-depth text by the architects on each project gives readers background on the project but also specifics on how they worked with organizations (government and NGOs), the local community, and others in developing designs and realizing them. In the case of realization, a commonality is the role residents play in construction, something that allows costs to come down, reiterates a focus on local culture and materials, and gives them strong connections to the houses or other structures.  All of the projects, regardless of form, embody a strong ethical stance that is lacking in architecture; but optimistically that is changing.

In comparison Testify! is broader in scope; it and the NAi exhibition of the same name that the book accompanies present wide-ranging architectural projects that are examined in terms of their transformative power. It is also a book that comes closer to other collections of contemporary architecture through its visual documentation of buildings, but many of the projects do not fit the mold of architecture; each represents an appropriate response to social needs. The important role of the architect in managing the input of many stakeholders and giving form to those needs is also important, as in Beyond Shelter. But one element that makes Testify! unique is the inclusion of short interviews with clients, users, and other people outside of the architect. This, as the book's title attests, points to the importance of consequences over intentions. While so much literature on architecture focuses on the latter, here what architecture has done to improve places and people after construction is most important.

Many standouts in the projects, separated into four thematic chapters, can be found, especially ones that creatively insert new uses into cities and other contexts. These include the Open Air Library by Karo* with Architektur+Netzwerk, which creates a courtyard on a small triangular site in Salbke-Magdeburg, Germany; Raumlabor's transformation of an old subway station into Eichbaumoper; Atelier D'Architecture Autogeree's (aaa) Le 56/Eco-Interstice, a self-managed infill space in Paris, France; the Bridge School by Li Xiaodong Atelier; and the Old Market Library in Thailand by Tyin Tegnestue with Kasama Yamtree. The list could easily go on, such is the quality group of projects that editor Lukas Feireiss has assembled.

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