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Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: European Architecture Since 1890

European Architecture Since 1890 by Hans Ibelings
SUN Architecture, 2011
Paperback, 240 pages

Hans Ibelings, editor of A10 new European Architecture asserts in his latest book that histories of modern European architecture are actually history of Western European architecture. Even without Mr. Ibelings' extensive background, it's safe to agree with this assertion, as this predilection for the architecture of Western Europe permeates even general or international histories. It's also easy to agree that an all-encompassing history of the continent's architecture is therefore needed, to give exposure to buildings of the East and South that have been left out of the spotlight and to remedy polemical histories that trace Modernism directly from pockets of Western Europe to the United States and elsewhere. But even a quick flip through this book's lavishly illustrated (735 photos) account of 120 years of architectural production in Europe reveals stylistic strains that span East and West. Or to put it another way, Russian Constructivism was not the only modern architecture of note in the East before the end of the Cold War.

Ibelings structures the book into roughly two halves: The first takes a thematic view in chapters on the city, the role of the state, and the connections and parallels across various countries and their "cultural portion" of architectural production (the book ignores private residences and other types not fitting this mold); the second takes a chronological look at the 12 decades across four chapter separated by the World Wars and the end of the Cold War. In between these two ways of presenting European architecture, Ibelings discusses "history and historiography," or what can be seen as the main arguments for this book's existence. (I felt like the chapter should have come at the beginning of the book, but in its place it makes a transition between the two halves.) In this chapter he discusses the prevailing historical narratives of modern architecture, as well as alternatives, to show that they are fragmented and incomplete.

His book is not posed as a history of European architecture, but "as an idea of a transnational history of that European architecture." This bridging of borders, as I mentioned, comes across in the illustrations as well as the text. The photos can actually be seen as a parallel narrative to Ibelings' writing, since most of the illustrated buildings are not discussed. Therefore they stand as markers of a century of great change on numerous fronts and as precursors to today's architecture. In the case of the last, I was impressed by fresh-looking buildings from decades ago, unknown to me because they are from parts of Europe long left out books I've read. If anything, Ibelings' book makes old buildings new again by making them part of his presentation of European architecture.

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