Saturday, February 08, 2014

Book Review: Crossover (and some notes on continuity)

Crossover by Cecil Balmond
Prestel, 2013
Hardcover, 720 pages

The more I read books, at least non-fiction, the more I realize that the middle of a book is often the most important part. This it not a universal rule, but something I've noticed particularly in monographs. Placing something important in the middle of a books seems intentional, for doing such at the beginning would front-load the book and make the rest like a downhill path, while doing such at the end would make the journey seem longer than it should. Putting it in the middle gives a more natural, bell-curve-like arc to a book's narrative, making the experience of reading more enjoyable.

This hypothesis comes to mind in the case of Cecil Balmond's follow up to his popular book Informal. Occupying just over 100 pages in the middle of Crossover is OMA's CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, easily one of the most important projects in structural engineer Cecil Balmond's career. It is a bravado feat of engineering, a building that reconsiders what a tall building is by looping it in on itself through its two legs and daring cantilever. The building actually expresses the structural forces at play, a testament to Balmond's abilities and creativity, but also the willingness of architects like Rem Koolhaas to trust him to help shape their projects.

Like Informal, Crossover isn't strictly a monograph or a theoretical text; it combines both to present case studies but also manifestos and peeks into how Balmond's brain works. The latter is definitely the most valuable aspect of the book, illustrated through loads of sketches and other documentation, and accompanied by text that describes the voyage of each project. To be sure there are many circumstances of "that's going to be impossible," followed by lots of hard work and (re)conceptualizing, and often involving a "eureka moment" where the structure and architecture fall into place.

To return to my idea about the importance of a book's middle section, I'd also say that the end of a book is important for pointing the way forward, giving a hint at the preoccupations that are in their early stages and will probably be explored fully at a later time. In the case of Crossover, such a thing is found in Toyo Ito's Opera House under construction in Taichung, Taiwan, what I believe will be one of the most important works of architecture in this century. The sponge-like mass of concrete achieves a synthesis of architecture and structure, where any distinction between the two disappears. The project, second to last in the book, signals that great things are still to come for Balmond and the architects he works with.

Some notes on continuity in the form of architectural monographs:

Another thing that comes across in Balmond's latest book is the relationship of the book's content and form to its predecessor, Informal. Balmond employs similar means of telling the stories of the projects in each book, but they also have a similar (but not the same) appearance, size and graphics. The stripes from Informal (cover photos above) can be seen extending to the spine of Crossover, where they shift to a curving pattern on the cover. The book feels and reads similarly to the first (but thankfully the odd, just-off-center, right/left justification spine of Informal's text is gone), meaning that the continuity achieved with Crossover is important. Balmond is not the first to do so, and below are a few others that come to mind.

Steven Holl was not the household name that he is now when Anchoring was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1989. But I'd wager that the linen cover, square format and thorough documentation of primarily unbuilt projects made quite an impression on other architects (not to mention the introduction by Kenneth Frampton and the strongly theoretical essay by Holl). It's no surprise that Holl used almost the same format for 1996's Intertwining. In the ensuing years Holl has published many books with both PAPress and other publishers, departing from the continuity of the first two monographs. But the 2009 release of Urbanisms (and to a lesser degree the 2007 book House: Black Swan Theory, which is meant to be the "micro" to Urbanisms' "macro") harks back to Anchoring and Intertwining with its linen cover and same-size format. The interior is much different, but side-by-side on one's bookshelf these books illustrate that Holl's ideas have been fairly consistent over the years, yet growing in scale with his popularity.

One architect I'd least expect to receive the treatment of one monograph after the other in the same format is Renzo Piano, whose buildings responds to the unique circumstances of site, client and program to the extent of not having a personal style. But when seen at the level of the details, Piano's buildings are actually pretty consistent. In that sense, having the details of a series of monographs (cover, author (Peter Buchanan), layout, etc.) stay the same is consistent with the architect's practice. The latest book in the series is Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Complete Works, Volume 5.

On the other hand, one architect I would expect to receive such a treatment is Richard Meier, whose drawings and models are as consistent as the white buildings he designs. Meier's recognizable style is now documented across six monographs published by Rizzoli, which just released Richard Meier Architect: Volume 6. It seems that the only difference is the color on the cover.