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Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Book Review: 100 Years of Architecture

100 Years of Architecture by Alan Powers
Laurence King, 2016
Hardcover, 304 pages

[All images courtesy of Laurence King]

About halfway through writing my just-released book, 100 Years, 100 Buildings, my editor at Prestel sent me a PDF of Alan Powers' 100 Years of Architecture, then in progress but at a more advanced stage. Even before opening the file to skim it, the relevance to my book was obvious, and I knew there would be plenty of overlap in the projects each of us selected as significant in the last hundred years.

Finally receiving a print version of the book about a month ago, I couldn't help focusing on the differences, on of which was readily apparent at first glance: the cover photo is the Philips Pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels, a pavilion designed by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis that was, like most Expo projects, torn down. While my book limits itself to projects that people can visit, the cover photo indicates that Mr. Powers' scope is broader.

Yet the end of the last sentence in his introduction throws this assumption into doubt: "...there is no substitute for visiting these buildings and getting to know them, inside and out." All architecture writers are aware that books are not a substitute for firsthand experience, but books do allow arguments to be made, attention to be levied on particular buildings, and comparisons to be made through their combination within the pages of a book. That said, the fact the Philips Pavilion is nowhere to be found inside the book points to an emphasis on extant buildings.

The book is organized, as one would expect, chronologically, but also thematically. Instead of a year-by-year approach, as in my book, the content is organized into twelve chapters, each one spanning from 12 to 55 years. Further, each chapter tackles a theme, such as "The New World," "Landscape and Location," and "Icons, Superstars and Global Brands." Needless to say, the chapters overlap chronologically, but given the themes this is hardly an issue.

Powers wrote the book in the form of what I'd call a "caption history." Each chapter has a page of text that outlines that theme and contextualizes the buildings within, but after that he presents each of the significant buildings as one photo accompanied by a caption. These are not short captions, as the spreads here indicate, so they are able tell the reader more than just one notable thing about each building.

What drives the success of any book that presents buildings over 100 years or some other span of time is selection. Powers' selection is solid but, like my book, heavy on buildings in Europe and the United States. Beyond the selection, though, the caption format and page layout allow Powers to draw comparisons between contemporaneous buildings. In some cases these comparisons are explicit in his captions, but much of the time he lets the photos speak for themselves, as in the case of the two clock towers above. This approach makes the book all the more richer; and even though it's primarily captions, readers will be rewarded for paying close attention.

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