Book Review: Imperfect Health

Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture edited by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, published by CCA/Lars Müller Publishers, 2012. Hardcover, 376 pages. (Amazon)

This book accompanies the exhibition Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture, which ran at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal from October 2011 to April 2012. While CCA is one of the best architectural institutions in the world, not everybody can make it to Montreal for its exhibitions. So companion books like this become particularly valuable, as they broaden the reach of CCA's programs. Yet the inclusion of ancillary essays, interspersed among the catalog of artifacts on display, create a book that goes beyond this value; the book becomes a tool that explores its topic beyond the limitations of the visual exhibition material. In this regard, the book reminds me of Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, a 2008 exhibition at the Walker Art Center (that I also didn't see) that was accompanied in book form with some great additional content.

The theoretical backbone of the show is laid out in the introductory essay, "Demedicalizing Architecture", by editors/curators Borasi and Zardini; the essay can be found in its entirety at Design Observer. They argue that the medicalization of many aspects of society (obesity is an obvious example) should not be applied to architecture and cities; they should be demedicalized, moving from cure to care, in one example they cite. One need not even agree with their argument, much less acknowledge it, to take in the essays and exhibition materials that follow it. The book alternates chunks of each, following themes that are apparent but not overly so. For example, detailed drawings of trees, a pollen calendar, vertically "green" buildings, and the analysis of toxins in Chile are grouped together, followed by essays on "allergic landscapes" and pollution.

Imperfect Health does what any good book should do: it bridges multiple audiences through its content and layout. With lots of visual information (including the essays themselves), the book is suitable for browsing, where each visual cluster offers an explanation as part of the larger theme. The essays delve deeper into particular topics and are academic in tone, but they do not read like they have been taken directly from an academic journal; they are made accessible, particularly through the highlighted bold text of important phrases throughout. And the whole book is great for people interested in puzzles and drawing connections between different material. The exhibition artifacts are quite diverse, even though the theme is nuanced: slides of dust from Canadian homes, photos of Garbage City in Cairo, SANAA's Rabbit Chair (the original chair for Japan and the supersized one for the U.S. market), and so forth. The book lends strong credence to the ability of institutions -- in particular the CCA -- to explore relevant contemporary topics and point the direction for conversations people should be having.