Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book Review: The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings

The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings by Marc Kushner
Simon & Schuster/TED Books, 2015
Hardcover, 164 pages

The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings is based on a March 2014 TED Talk, "Why the buildings of the future will be shaped by ... you," given by HWKN partner and Architizer co-founder Marc Kushner. In both the 18-minute talk and the roughly 150-page book Kushner argues, "we’re entering a new age in architecture – one where we expect our buildings to deliver far more than just shelter," as he puts it in a TED Ideas blog post. He does this in the talk by giving a quick tour of the last 30 years of architecture, while in the book he focuses on the immediate past through a selection and presentation of 100 projects – most of them built but some of them unbuilt proposals. Key to both the talk and the book is Kushner's optimism and media, social media, not surprising given his position at Architizer, a website that gives any architect the potential to upload projects and share them with the site's millions of visitors.

Focusing squarely on the book, Kushner presents the 100 buildings in bite-sized chunks, typically one or two per spread, with one photo, a description and a question in red type. Culled from Architizer A+ Award entries, the buildings are numbered and grouped under themes like "Shape-Shifters" and "Social Catalysts." But in the rapid-fire presentation and focus on innovative contemporary architecture the ordering and grouping of the projects doesn't really matter; they could be in any order and achieve the same goal, which is to interest a general audience in the work architects are doing, be it a small pavilion, an opera house, a park, a house or even a McDonald's.

[Spread from The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings with HWKN's Wendy installation at MoMA PS1]

Kushner's populist approach jibes with his comments elsewhere (such as a panel discussion I observed at the Center for Architecture) that evince a frustration with architects talking to each other rather than to a broader public. Architizer, his TED Talk, and its book offshoot attempt to involve more people in conversations about architecture and to respond to how they "consume architecture." But is the book successful in doing so? What is it telling readers about architecture?

I'd argue that in its cursory glances at some significant and not-so-significant buildings, the book prioritizes superficial gazes at visually striking buildings rather than an embrace of their poetics as containers of our lives, even if Kushner's words here and elsewhere point to the latter. It also equates architecture with the consumption of images over the social interaction of bodies in space. He isn't the first to do so, but the inexpensive and image-rich book aimed at a general audience continues such an approach, for better or worse.

This superficial presentation of architecture is reinforced by the questions in red that preface each project, acting like convenient, businessese-like shorthands that highlight each building's "takeaway." In a number of cases I wanted to answer many of the rhetorical questions with a "no, but..." finished by the sentence in red that follows the description: "#10: Can we live on the moon?" No, but, "architectural ingenuity isn't earthbound."

Yet these critiques of the book's format and content are coming from an architect/writer about architecture, making the words ring a little hollow. After all, would a book for a general audience that takes a more nuanced approach to discussing the poetic qualities of architecture, say, or one exploring fewer buildings in more depth, make architecture less accessible and become another instance of "architects talking to architects"? That's a strong possibility, since the ideal means of explaining architecture to non-architects has yet to be found, but not for a lack of trying. While I have issues with how Kushner presents his selection of 100 buildings, I can't fault him for trying to break through that wall that separates architects from the people who interact and "consume" the buildings they design.