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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Book Review: Architecture Visionaries and Why on Earth...

Architecture Visionaries by Richard Weston
Laurence King Publishing, 2015
Paperback, 312 pages

Why on Earth Would Anyone Build That: Modern Architecture Explained by John Zukowsky
Prestel, 2015
Paperback, 224 pages

As much as I spend my time reading books by and for architects, I have a soft spot for books that attempt to bring the subject to a broader, general audience. These two recent books, both by respected authors (Weston has written books on Aalto and Utzon, among others, and Zukowsky is a former curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago), fall into that category and I review them here accordingly.

Architecture Visionaries portrays 75 of the most well-known and influential architects of the last century and a half. They are arranged chronologically by date of birth, from Antoni Gaudí (b. 1852) to Shigeru Ban (b. 1957). Each "visionary" is given four pages – no more, no less – with a portrait, a page of text by Weston, a short yet indicative quote, photos of important buildings, and a timeline highlighting birth, death (if applicable), graduation, practice, award and other important dates. Oddly, the important buildings are not situated on the timeline.

With 75 names, it's hard to find omissions in Weston's book, though it's a bit easier in recent years. For instance, Tadao Ando (b. 1941), Toyo Ito (b. 1941) and Ban are a few of the younger Japanese architects included, but SANAA, the duo of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is a glaring omission. They won the Pritzker, after all, while Steven Holl (b. 1947), a perennial favorite for the award who has yet to win it, is found here. Herzog & de Meuron (both b. 1950) are included, which rules out the flat-out omission of collaborative pairs (Charles and Ray Eames, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are others in the book).

This nitpicking at who is included gets at the book's most obvious criticism: how relevant is a book focused on "sole geniuses" today when collaborations are valued so highly? Do the visionary ideas that changed architecture and continue to push it in new directions come from individuals on high, or from collaborative interaction? Yes, even sole geniuses collaborate and rely on interactions with others to generate and develop ideas (Frank Lloyd couldn't have done all those buildings alone), but where are the SOMs and SHoPs and other collaborations that have been influential but can't be highlighted with one figurehead? The book capably highlights current and past master architects, but at the expense of featuring even more visionary material.

Why on Earth Would Anyone Build That? tackles a shorter timeframe, about the last 50 years. The cover – Will Alsop's OCAD building in Toronto – makes it clear enough: this is a book about iconic architecture. Zukowsky presents the roughly 100 projects in five chapters: Triumph of Geometry, Space Age, Making a Statement, Skyscraper Style, and Homage to the Past. The last two are fairly narrow themes on tall buildings and postmodernism, but buildings could easily fall into more than one category elsewhere. For instance, why is Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in the Space Age chapter instead of the Triumph of Geometry? It could go either way in my opinion.

While Weston's book is about A4 size, Zukowsky's book is much smaller, about an A5 size. Regardless, there is plenty packed onto the pages, which consistently highlight one building per spread. Each building is explained through a photograph, a description by the author, and six text boxes set off by symbols: a "?" explains why the building is so important; a triangle describes the materials and techniques; a circle in a circle puts the building into context; an eye symbol highlights similar buildings, often by other architects; an exclamation point provides incidental information; and finally a quote highlights, logically, a short quote by the architect or another key player is included.

All of the bits of information that fit snugly on the page are the print equivalent of a pop-up video. While they add layers information – some of it important, some of it not – ultimately these text boxes take away from explaining why each building came to be. If Zukowsky had more room to flesh out the main descriptions (either with more room from a larger page size or from less accompanying text boxes) he would have been able to turn the book's title from a rhetorical question into a literal – and more rewarding – one.

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