Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Five North American Architects

Five North American Architects: An Anthology by Kenneth Frampton
Columbia University GSAPP and Lars Müller Publishers, 2012
Paperback, 136 pages

The architectural historian Kenneth Frampton started his tenure at Columbia University GSAPP in 1972, meaning that he has been a presence at the school for almost half of his life. To celebrate his 80th birthday, in November 2010 Frampton curated a conference at the GSAPP, Five Architects: A North American Anthology, which, like most GSAPP events, has been made into a publication. This compact book is a fine presentation of the two Canadian and three US architects that assembled two years ago -- Stanley Saitowitz, Shim-Sutcliffe, Rick Joy, Patkau Architects, Steven Holl -- but it begs the question: Do we really need a publication highlighting the work of these five esteemed architects?

The 2010 celebration reads like most educational events that stretch over a day: coffee, welcome by the dean, introduction, presentations, discussion, reception. The first and last obviously don't apply, but the book omits Dean Mark Wigley's welcome and the discussion after the presentation; it includes Frampton's intro and the architects' presentation, structured in the book in the same order as the event. This last aspect basically makes the book a record of the event. Yet in this regard the omission of the discussion is most unfortunate. I did not attend the event, so I can't say for sure that it was a fruitful discussion, but it would have been the only place for off-the-cuff remarks. Instead we are treated to prepared statements and glossy photos of admittedly remarkable architecture.

Ultimately the value of the book lies in the bringing together of architects with unique bodies of work that nevertheless share traits appreciated by Frampton. As he says in his introduction, "all of these practices manifest a common concern for emphasizing the following expressive tropes...; namely, landscape, material, structure, craft, space, light." [emphasis in original] Later he also mentions "their propensity for typological invention" and "a penchant for certain tactile effects," all of which were influenced by Frampton's admitted preoccupation with "the concept of critical regionalism...first formulated by Alex Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre" in 1981. Most of the projects are familiar, and only Steven Holl's library in Long Island City looks forward, but there's still plenty here for admirers of these architects to discover, particularly in the insight they afford the different projects. Heck, some people may even pay the price of admission for the chapter on Rick Joy, whose monograph came out ten years ago and whose website is perpetually "coming soon."

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