Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On the Value of Old Publications

The Architectural League's recent digital presentation of Vacant Lots—their 1987 design study and exhibition—prompted me to flip through my copy of the book that presents some essays and designs for ten vacant lots in New York City. The League's study on affordable housing for infill lots sits on my shelf next to a contemporaneous book on affordable housing, which sets next to a book on architecture projects funded by NYSCA grants.

So the next thing I know, instead of reading Vacant Lots again, I ended up digging out a bunch of books that are similar to it, not in subject but in something else—these books are two-to-four decades old yet purchased much later. Most are well beyond their intended shelf life (these are not the books that have stood the test of time—the Gideon's or the Banham's—and maintained their popularity to this day), but all of them are appealing to me for some reason. Below is a presentation of these books that I grabbed off my shelf and some quick thoughts on why they might be important; all fit neatly into some categories that reflect some personal interests.

Mainly, I think these books capture a not-too-distant past, either in terms of architecture or the writing and presentation used to document it. Also, there is something worthwhile in picking up books a couple decades after they've been published (I'm not recommending to wait that long to get a book, but rather to not pass up a book because it hasn't been published in the last year or two)—there is a certain cultural amnesia these days, and looking at old books reminds us that supposedly new ideas have probably been tried already in one form or another, and that even new things will look old someday.


Even before I started work on my Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture, I already owned a number of guidebooks to architecture in the city, most of which were fairly recent. But as I researched, wrote and assembled the photos and maps for the book, I looked to older books that I found in used bookstores and even thrift stores. This looking back wasn't about figuring out what buildings to include or, to a lesser degree, learning historical aspects of the city; it was about the format, tone, and usability of a guide. A few books I obtained include Paul Goldberger's excellent The City Observed: New York: A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan (Vintage Books, 1979), which takes a critical look at old and new buildings in Manhattan (and which unfortunately did not extend to the other boroughs as planned); A Look at Architecture: Columbus, Indiana (Visitors Center, Columbus, Indiana, 1984), more a promotional document or souvenir but still a valuable guide on the famous Midwestern town that the Cummins Engine Company built; and Sally B. Woodbridge's and Roger Montgomery's A Guide to Architecture in Washington State (University of Washington Press, 1980), a guide short on descriptions that makes up for it with an excellent "environmental perspective" (Woodbridge's well-done 1992 San Francisco Architecture guide was also helpful for its easy-to-use layout and simple, yet effective b/w maps).


Another subject that I've amassed a few old books on is multi-family housing. I've never been one to voraciously pour over the seemingly infinite stream of books on single-family houses, and perhaps that stems from more historical and theoretical interest being focused on housing rather than houses, which tend to be the purview of glossy collections. Most recently I picked up Martin Pawley's Architecture versus Housing (Praeger Publishers, 1971), which traces the history of "publicly financed building projects," particularly in England. Normally this particular history would not interest me too much, but Pawley was such a sharp writer that I considered it a valuable title to have. A couple of the titles I referred to at the beginning are Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing (NYSCA/Princeton Architectural Press, 1988), a small snapshot of international housing designs in the late 1980s accompanied by well-researched essays by Marta Gutman and Richard Plunz, who wrote the invaluable A History of Housing in New York City; and Vacant Lots (Princeton Architectural Press, 1989), which gives a glimpse at attempts to fill holes in the city's urban fabric by architects like Tod Williams Billie Tsien, Weiss/Manfredi, and others before they were famous.


Not surprisingly, given my predilection for book-length case studies, I have a hard time resisting books on buildings that I like. Eleven Authors in Search of a Building (The Monacelli Press, 1996) is about Peter Eisenman's design for the Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the University of Cincinnati; not surprisingly, the plethora of drawings and photos are accompanied by some dense academic prose by the usual suspects (Sanford Kwinte, Jeffrey Kipnis, Cynthia Davidson, +8). The Construction of the New Headquarters for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Ian Lambot, 1985) is published by photographer Lambot, who documented the Kowloon Walled City in the amazing City of Darkness; this book on Norman Foster's addition to Hong Kong's skyline is extremely thorough in its documentation of the building's realization (plumbing, water chillers, structural steel, bamboo scaffolding, prefab modules, etc.) but beautiful throughout as he captures the building's evolving form and spaces that are now hidden. Highrise of Homes (Rizzoli, 1982) is more a polemic than a serious proposal to be built; James Wines attempts what many people see as a gulf that can never be bridged—merging the city and suburbs, housing and houses, the modern and the traditional.


Old magazines are pretty hard to resist because they are often priced at one or two dollars at used bookstores. Usually all it takes is one project I like in its pages and I snag it. But there is the occasional magazine that tackles a broader theme worth examining. While I've never been a fan of postmodern architecture, I couldn't resist buying American Architecture: After Modernism (A+U, 1981), a special issue of Japan's A+U guest edited by Robert A.M. Stern. As postmodernism is being reappraised in books and exhibitions, I'm finding this issue more and more valuable—it has a ton of projects, many now forgotten, and articles by Michael Sorkin and Suzanne Stephens that are, respectively, (cautiously) critical and helpful in providing a larger context. When in Venice last August I happened to find a copy of Domus Dossier 5: Exhibiting (April 1997) at a used bookstore near my hotel. It was a suitable way of gaining a larger understanding of exhibitions and their designs—from Carlos Scarpa to Coop Himmelb(l)au—as I was writing about my first Biennale.

Independent Study:

Somewhat by surprise I realized there are a couple books in my library on independent study, one on students and one on professionals. I was not one of the chosen few at my school to enter the SOM Traveling Fellowship, but a number of fellow alumni from Kansas State University have won the award, so I couldn't pass up Traveling Fellows: Fifteen Years of Student Awards (SOM Foundation, 1997). Like Vacant Lots, this booklet with CD-ROM gives a glimpse at some now common names in their formative years, as they describe how the travel affected them; comments from the SOM jurors are also enlightening. Independent Projects: Experimental Architecture, Design + Research in New York (SITES Books, 1993) collects architecture, planning, and design projects funded by the New York State Council for the Arts from 1988 to 1992. Many of the projects are known because of later publications or projects that came out of the grants, such as Kaplan and Krueger (PA14: Mosquitoes), Smith-Miller + Hawkinson's North Carolina Museum of Art, and Camilo Jose Vergara's New American Ghetto.

Urban Design:

Going to school for urban design five years ago (has it been that long?) did a couple things for my library: it expanded my interest in urban design literature of bygone eras (which isn't very long, considering urban design as an articulated profession or approach dates back to the mid-1950s), and it gave me easy access to discard books at the CCNY library. One book I picked up post-graduation, and which sparked me to write about an unrealized scheme in its pages, is The Pedestrian Revolution: Streets without Cars (Vintage Books, 1974). The book offers practical solutions that are rooted in its time (a chapter on "other mini-vehicles" is charming), so it has not stood the test of time of something like Bernard Rudofsky's historical look at Streets for People. The Regional Plan Association's Urban Design Manhattan (The Viking Press, 1969) is full of overreaching visions for Midtown Manhattan; for example "mechanical aids to pedestrian movement, such as moving belts or quick-access shuttle vehicles." Yet is also has some beautiful diagrams that make the (top-down) information easy to understand. Both of these books are helpful in reminding urban designers that even as their goals are admirable, looking to trends and technology is not always the best route.