Book Review: A Genealogy of Modern Architecture

A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form by Kenneth Frampton, edited by Ashley Simone
Lars Müller Publishers, 2015
Hardcover, 304 pages

Amazon's "Author Page" for Kenneth Frampton features, as of today, 66 books the prolific architectural historian has authored, edited or contributed to. I have a good chuck of those books, or at least of that number – 14 as of today, when I found an issue of Architectural Design from 1982 by and about Kenneth Frampton and his then (and now) influential book, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, which was the first book of his I ever purchased. He is one of those writers whose books I have a hard time passing up. Even though his take on architectural history is consistent – some might say rigid or even inflexible – I like to read more of his books for the nuance of his arguments and for the new ways of (re)telling the same histories.

This new book from Lars Müller Publishers falls into the latter camp, in that it is a novel way of presenting the histories of 28 buildings from the 1920s to the middle of the last decade. Rather than treat each building individually, Frampton compares two buildings at a time, two buildings with similar typology, size, and date. These include Mies's Tugendhat House and Aalto's Villa Mairea, Hertzberger's Centraal Beheer and Foster's Willis Faber-Dumas, Terragni's Casa del Fascio and Asplund's Gothenburg Law Courts, and Rietveld's Schröder House and Le Corbusier's Villa Cook, as seen in the small spreads below.

[Spreads courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers]

The comparative critical analyses, as Frampton calls them, are based on seminars he has taught at various universities, most recently at Columbia GSAPP, from which the examples in the book are culled. Reading the analyses, it's clear that the comparative format is ideal for students of architecture, though I appreciated going along for the ride, if you will, to see what the format yielded; after all, there must be a benefit to the comparative format if it is to be used. In some cases, the benefits are hardly evident (the forest-like poles of Villa Mairea contrasting with the "urbanity" of Tugendhat's travertine paving hardly seems important), but in other cases the comparisons yield greater insights by widening the context of the analysis (the differing yet important politics of the Casa del Fascio versus the Gothenburg Law Courts is a case in point).

Lars Müller's layout, which places one building on the left and one building on the right, allows the book to be read in multiple ways: diving into the text that is keyed to the images; focusing solely on the images, which includes photographs but most importantly plans and sections with consistent overlays for function and movement; or reading the bold text, which acts like captions to the images and an abbreviated summary of the text. Whatever the case, it is the type of the book that will be read when one wants to know about a particular important building, one trait that makes it ideal for students. Yet unlike other books that present precedents individually, the pairing forces students to look deeper into the form, structure, and meaning of buildings by seeing how their production paralleled other contemporary buildings.