Friday, March 14, 2014

Book Review: Two Small Books

Horror in Architecture by Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing
ORO Editions, 2013
Paperback, 220 pages

Lost Landscapes by LOLA Landscape Architects
nai010 publishers, 2013
Paperback, 240 pages

It's fairly obvious that graphic design and page layout impact the success of illustrated books, especially architecture titles. But what about size? I'd argue that this factor plays as large a role, since it dictates design to a degree (with some back-and-forth involved) while also creating some preconceptions about a book before one even breaks the spine. Skinny books, for example, set themselves apart as something unique, both in terms of content and relative to their neighbors on a bookshelf, as do landscape-oriented books that fittingly serve as a good format for books on landscape architecture and often stick out beyond the front edge of a shelf.

Finding the right size for a book is paramount. Size is dictated to a great degree by economics and other practical considerations, but ultimately it is a reflection of the authors' intent that shapes the readers' impressions. These two titles opt to go small – both are roughly 4-1/2 by 7 inches. One is a theoretical treatise and one is a monograph, and each one could be bigger if they followed the conventions of other titles in their niches. The decision to go small makes each book seem special, easy to carry around, much thicker than if they had larger page sizes, and a more intimate experience when reading.

[Spread from Horror in Architecture]

The first of the two books is Horror in Architecture, written by Harvard GSD graduates Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing, who now run Lekker Design in Singapore. These two traits – academic background and current residence – shape their book about "buildings in which normal anatomy becomes strange." Their GSD background means the writing is not as accessible as it should be about a topic that could appeal to a fairly wide audience, not just fellow architects with master's degrees. This does not occur as much when the authors are explaining the myriad, really interesting examples of the ugly or horrific in architecture; mainly it occurs when they try to make conclusions or advance their thesis that these buildings should be embraced. Perhaps the best thing about the book is the wide pull of buildings and other examples they include, partitioning them into chapters on different ugly traits (a spread from "Doubles and Clones" is above).

Their Singapore locale enters in the evolution of the book, which started as a guide to architecture in their home city, per a book talk found on YouTube. Their research then veered off into oddities outside of Singapore, leading over a five-year period to the resulting book. When I heard them state the book's origins in the Q&A portion of the event an alternative version of the book started to make sense: why not a guide or catalog to "horror in architecture"? This tactic would fit well with the small size of the book but also help to make it more understandable and accessible by connecting the dots between the various examples through the usual guidebook means (individual entries, cross references, etc.). Nevertheless, I'm glad Comaroff and Ker-Shing wrote this small book full of big ideas.

[Spread from Lost Landscapes]

The second book is a monograph on Rotterdam's LOLA Landscape Architects, founded by Peter Veenstra, Eric-Jan Pleijster and Cees van der Veeken in 2006, and recipients of the 2013 Rotterdam-Maaskant Prize for Young Architects. Lost Landscapes refers to the acronym of their name (LOst LAndscapes) but also how they "design and study landscapes that are forgotten, derelict or on the verge of change," as it conveniently says on the book jacket. LOLA certainly isn't alone is this desire to improve the overlooked; witness the rise of landscape urbanism, which targets industrial and other areas that cities and suburbs almost literally turn their backs on. Difference comes in how LOLA views the "lost landscapes" and how they conceptualize their transformation.

LOLA's position can be summarized in the term "New Romanticism," which harkens to the time of the Enlightenment, but in its "new" form it is a "longing for a lost and wild nature." This longing is illustrated in the book through the Lord of the Rings-esque wedding of Sean "Napster" Parker and Alexandra Lenas in an ancient Redwood forest in Big Sur, California. The wedding expresses their desire to personally engage nature, even though it involved hiring a movie set designer to add temporary vegetation, an artificial pond, fake ruins, and other technological means of making the landscape more "authentic" to the couple. While a later California Coastal Commission filing points to the paradox of this one act, LOLA sees "the sum of green technology and green desire" illustrated in the wedding as "the perfect basis for the future of landscape architecture."

The small book is split into three chapters – Lost Lines, The Long Tail of Leisure, and The Fat of the Land – each one of them broken down into thirds: a featured project, an essay by LOLA, and an essay by an outside writer. When seen like this, the decision to make the book a small one make sense, since it is neither a traditional monograph nor a collection of essays. Lost Landscapes is an exploration of such places through designs, writings, research, and illustrations. Ultimately, with most of the work conceptual and "on the boards," the book is a promise of things to come. With LOLA's thoughtful combination of design and writing, I'm eager to see how their New Romanticism comes to fruition.