Book Review: The Sky's the Limit

The Sky's the Limit: Applying Radical Architecture edited by Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann and Sofia Borges, published by Gestalten, 2012. Hardcover, 288 pages. (Amazon)

What is the state of architectural icons in the 21st century, post-2008? Frank Gehry's design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is the marker for icons in the decade leading up to the economic collapse of 2008, but do later attention-getting pieces of architecture offer something different? Sofia Borges asks as much in her introduction to this collection of "radical architecture." Pointing out that icons date back to ancient civilizations, the only thing separating today's crop from historical icons is the sources of power. No longer directed by governments or other public figures, corporations and other private institutions lead the way, fighting for attention in cities that are more than open to being host to the latest and greatest.

Yet Borges argues that the glut of icons following on the heels of Gehry's Guggenheim have given way to "spatial experiences that enhance and correspond with their sculptural forms." Or to put it another way, decorated sheds have been superseded by ducks with accessible innards, thanks to computer technology's influence on design and fabrication. The Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain, designed by J. Mayer H., is an ideal example of this experiential shift (it is also the first project in the book). Yet the argument does not hold up for the entire book, given that many projects, like Jean Nouvel's 100 11th Avenue, are private, with interiors off limits to everybody but the fortunate few (or unfortunate, depending on who you listen to) buying units in the building.

The 135 projects are split into five chapters -- organic flow, sharp structures, smarter surface, internal affairs, point of view (oddly, these chapters are not laid out in a table of contents). There is an obvious focus on form, meaning "radical" is related to geometry and its effect on space rather than social concerns. This is fine, considering that each project is highlighted with a number of photos and very little text; there is no room to explore how form relates to other radical impacts. Within the book's pages, projects are located relative to other ones with similar forms (a few scalloped forms in chapter one are grouped together, some Japanese houses sit side-by-side in chapter two, etc.), giving the book a nice flow that is missing from the websites where most of these projects can be found. One could see this book as a "greatest hits" of 21st-century cutting-edge architecture (or, more accurately, the last five years), as if the editors culled projects from the websites that feed us these projects alongside ones not-so-radical. This book will not replace those websites, but it will give people a snapshot of today's international icons vying for our attention.