Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Briefs #19: University of Minnesota Press

"Book Briefs" are an ongoing series of posts with short first-hand descriptions of some of the numerous books that make their way into my library. These briefs are not full-blown reviews, but they are a way to share more books worthy of attention than can find their way into reviews on my daily or weekly pages. In this post are six titles published by the University of Minnesota Press.

1: Architecture since 1400 by Kathleen James-Chakraborty | 2013 | Amazon
Instead of the traditional discussion of style and analysis of space, the author aims "to reconstruct the story of how environments are created that shape experience and communicate identity through the ways in which spaces are formed and surfaces are decorated." The examples in the book, which moves chronologically and geographically from front to back (starting in China in the early 1400s and ending in the same country in present day), are diverse in terms of place (Asia and South America are afforded as much importance as Europe and North America, though Africa is the focus of only one of the thirty chapters) and architect/builder (encompassing more buildings than those designed by well known architects), making it an atypical history of architecture when compared to Sir Banister Fletcher, Trachtenberg and Hyman, and other standard textbook histories. The bite-sized chapters – thirty of them across 488 pages, or an average of 16 illustrated pages per chapter – make the book a handy reference when students and architects want to get a different perspective on buildings in a particular place and time. Further, references at the end of each chapter give the reader good places to go for more depth than what James-Chakraborty's book allows.

2: City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America by Alison Bick Hirsch | 2014 | Amazon
I've never been a fan of the phrase, "You can't judge a book by it's cover." Sure, you can't pass judgment on a book entirely based on its cover, but there are certain telling things that covers convey, particularly some architecture books. This book's cover has two illustrations: a photo of activity in Cascade Fountain in Seattle's Freeway Park designed by Lawrence Halprin, and a score by Halprin for a performance, most likely for his wife Anna. These two images, as the title of the book hints, have a strong relationship, as the design of Halprin's public spaces, like Freeway Park, were informed by a creative process called the RSVP Cyles (Resources, Score, Valuation, Performance) that Halprin developed in the 1960s. Hirsch, in a book based on her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzes Halprin's methods for designing public spaces with people's actions in mind, an approach that designers should pay attention to today.

3: The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City by Eric Avila | 2014 | Amazon
"When the interstate highway program connected America's cities, it also divided them, cutting through and destroying countless communities." So says the back-cover description of this book, which brings to mind the way the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago's South Side separated the former Robert Taylor Homes from the neighborhood of Bridgeport, the home of Richard J. Daley, the Mayor of Chicago when both the expressway and public housing were constructed in the 1960s. In this case the expressway didn't destroy Bridgeport (as planned it would have, but it was rerouted eight blocks to the east) but it severed the white and black neighborhoods from each other. This particular example is not part of Avila's book, since the associate professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA focuses on Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and other cities where people have protested the damage wrought by highways.

4: Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History by Sigfried Giedeon | 2013 | Amazon
Sigfried Giedion wrote one of the most influential books on architecture last century, Space, Time and Architecture, released in 1941 and now in its fifth edition. If one masterpiece in his lifetime was not enough, Giedion also wrote this masterful volume seven years later on the "anonymous history" of mechanization taking hold of just about every aspect of our lives. Having covered architecture in the earlier book, here he tracks the changes in the food we eat, the chairs we sit on, the rooms we bathe in, and even the locks that secure our homes. As much a product of its time as Space, Time and Architecture, Mechanization Takes Command is, as Stanislaus von Moos states in the postscript to the 2013 printing of the 1948 book, equal parts "factographic" historical account and manifesto. I prefer to read it in the former sense, since the balance of textual and visual evidence paints a clear picture of technology's advance, even as the unbiased nature of Giedion's writing comes through from time to time. It does make me wonder if a similar "anonymous history" could be done on the computer age, on the influence of the digital in similar areas of our life. Perhaps somebody's done that and I'm not aware; if not, Giedion's reprinted book is a wake-up call for somebody to dive in.

5: The Modern Architectural Landscape by Caroline Constant | 2012 | Amazon
In the sphere of modernity, there's an inclination to partition work and expression into disciplines. Buildings are the purview of architects, for example, and the land around a building is taken care of by the landscape architect. Such a distinction is prevalent today, but this book's analysis of nine landscapes designed by architects puts a wrinkle in this partitioning by focusing on the totalizing nature of modernism to create cohesive environments, buildings and landscapes combined. Inside are the Barcelona Pavilion and Lafayette Park, both the product of Mies van der Rohe, the Woodland Cemetery of Asplund and Lewerentz, Jože Plečnik's Prague Castle, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, and OMA's unbuilt Parc de la Villette submission, among others.

6: Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925–1956 by David Smiley | 2013 | Amazon
Southdale Center, designed by Victor Gruen and known as the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall in the United States, opened in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956. Gruen and his influence on the shopping mall and the suburbs after World War II is well documented, but what about the architecture of shopping centers pre-Southdale? Such is the subject of Columbia University professor David Smiley's thorough and thoroughly illustrated book, which tackles the years 1925 to 1956. The history is told in six chapters that are thematic rather than chronological, with "Park and Shop" in chapter three and "The Language of Modern Shopping" in chapter six, for example. The previous ignorance of early 20th-century shopping centers from architectural study is hinted in the title, as "pedestrian" refers not only to shoppers on foot (and the environments architects created for them) but also to the relegation of shopping centers to "secondary, pedestrian status" as the back cover attests. This book shows that the latter is far from the truth, and shopping centers are as much about modern architecture as housing, office buildings, and other traditional building types of interest.