Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Book Review: Constructing Europe

Constructing Europe: 25 Years of Architecture edited by Diane Gray, FundaciĆ³ Mies van der Rohe
Actar Publishers, 2013
Hardcover, 308 pages

In 2013 the Mies van der Rohe Foundation celebrated the 25th anniversary of the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - Mies van der Rohe Award. Twenty-five years – one quarter of a century – is a typical milestone, but in the context of the prize it might seem a little odd, given that it happens every two years. So while the book, exhibition, and related events celebrate 25 years, it only 13 cycles of the prize happened in those years; the inaugural run happened in 1988 and the first of the new millennium took place in 2001, hence the shift from even- to odd-numbered years. A small and trite point to make, to be sure, but more importantly the decade-and-a-half time frame allows the prize organizers to reflect on the changes and important buildings that occurred in that time.

Graced by a cloud rather than one of the winners, the cover makes it clear that the organizers do not elevate one building over another, even as each year the job of the jury is to do such. Hence, the organization of the book is straightforward: a chronological presentation, in black and white photos, of the winners for each cycle, followed by essays culled from the different prizes. In terms of the latter, those with catalogs to the EU/Mies Prizes, also published by Actar, will recognize these essays, just as they will surely recognize the winners. Given that the winning and shortlisted buildings presented here are known by most fans of architecture, the value of the book is in assembling the essays, which trace the important issues of each cycle and highlight different voices: Kenneth Frampton, Elia Zenghelis, Aaron Betsky, Ricky Burdett, and so forth.

In addition to the photos and essays are a handful of new essays that look back on the prize's first 25 years and a foldout timeline that situates the winning buildings within a larger European context of politics, culture, and science. As an entirety, the book's content serves to elevate the importance of the prize to both a European audience and those outside of Europe. To date, the rule of awarding prizes to European architects realizing designs on European soil has narrowly restricted the influence of architects from Europe. When the prize returns in 2015, that limitation may be extended (per comments from the Mies Foundation's director at the Biennale this year) to European buildings overseas, something that would acknowledge the exportation of ideas and the cross-border movement of architects. Perhaps in another 25 years, the retrospective catalog will be called Constructing the World.