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Monday, July 01, 2013

Book Review: Two Books from Exhibitions

Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Polish Architecture After Socialist Globalization by Łukasz Stanek
Fundacja Bęc Zmiana, 2012
Paperback, 96 pages

S AM 10 / Building Images: Photography Focusing on Swiss Architecture by Hubertus Adam, Elena Kossovskaja
Christoph Merian Verlag, 2013
Paperback, 196 pages

These two books—both born from exhibitions—paint a picture of the architecture from two European countries: Poland and Switzerland. But each one goes beyond the geographical and political boundaries of their respective countries to find relevance in a larger context. Postmodernism Is Almost All Right looks back to the 1970s and 80s to Polish architects working in other countries and continents; and S AM 10 tackles a subject—architectural photography—that applies to just about any country producing architecture today.

The first book is the product of two exhibitions—2010's PRL Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland and Postmodernism Is Almost All Right—at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, as well as symposia, including South of East-West: Post Colonial Planning, Global Technology Transfer, and the Cold War. One might expect an academic publication coming from these mouthful titles, but the namesake book of the 2011 exhibition is heavy on visuals, historical photos and new hardline axonometric drawings; the former cover the architecture of Polish architects working in the Middle East and North Africa in the 1970s and 80s, while the latter documents some projects of the same architects back on their home soil in the ensuing decades.

So why the emphasis on Polish architects working in Algeria, Iran, Kuwait, and other countries? It documents a unique scenario, in which Polish architects were sought after to work in these contexts, and they treated the opportunities as means of formal and urban experimentation that would eventually be imported back home. That it occurred after orthodox modernism lost favor is important. With postmodernism typically thought of as the reinterpretation of historical motifs, how do architects from one country reinterpret the traditional architecture of another country? And how does the architecture of a foreign locale then influence architecture in Poland later? These questions are analyzed through historical research and drawings that focus on how 11 buildings fit into their context. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is on external form, but it's hard to resist wondering what these buildings are like inside, wondering what kind of spaces were created.

S AM 10 focuses on architectural photography through the lens of Swiss architects, both in buildings in Switzerland and elsewhere (most are in Switzerland). One would think that this book—the catalog for an exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum—would be most valuable as a snapshot of Swiss architecture. But through text and images the book is better at tracing the recent history of architectural photography as it is used by architects, clients, publications, and artists. Thanks to Herzog & de Meuron's and Peter Zumthor's use of photography in their publications and exhibitions in the 1990s, Switzerland is a good barometer for trends in architectural photography.

The book is comprised of four parts: chronology, themes, projects, and interviews. The themes and interviews are most valuable in the larger context. These sections tackle the main issues around architectural photography today, respectively through the authors' eyes and those of prominent architects and photographers. These are the same practitioners that make up the projects section, in which one or more photos are selected to represent a year from 1987-2012. In this time the changes are less dramatic than, I'm guessing, 1950-1990, but the years encompass the digital shift that has affected architectural photography and every other way of capturing images. The viewpoints and issues are varied, but if one things comes across generally it is a fatigue with images as they become more and more ubiquitous and able to be produced by anybody. What direction can architectural photography take when anybody can capture a building and publish it somewhere?

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