Book Review: Atlas of Another America

Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction by Keith Krumwiede, published by Park Books, 2016. Hardcover, 272 pages. (Amazon)

[All images courtesy of Park Books]

Opening this sizable, almost atlas-sized book from Switzerland's Park Books I didn't know what to expect. Actually I wasn't expecting a whole lot, given the subtitle, "an architectural fiction"; while I appreciate the idea of adding narrative to architecture, most of what I've encountered in the realm of "architectural fiction" has left me wanting. Yet I was pleasantly surprised with Keith Krumwiede's creation, which is more a graphical narrative than an architect's attempt to force a fictional story into an architectural wrapper.

His subject, broadly, is the United States and, more specifically, home ownership and the house plans developed by large-scale home builders. These subjects are analyzed and critiqued through a fictional place, Freedomland, whose structure follows from the "grand agrarian democratic tradition of Mr. Thomas Jefferson," but also takes "into consideration the current economic and political order." Like a traditional atlas, the Atlas of Another America moves from the large scale to the small scale, from the country cut up into six-square-mile townships to the house plans grouped onto the smallest (330-foot-square) of the nested squares. A highly rational process – what Krumwiede calls "Checkerboard Logic" – underlies the shift from big to small, but the results are unexpected.

Within each town are 36 sections that are further broken down into four estates each. The estates are based upon specific home plans by home builders whose names should be familiar to most Americans: Ryland Homes, Toll Brothers, and David Weekley Homes, to name just a few. Krumwiede calls these "[A]Typical Plan[s]," but what is surprising, and what makes up the bulk of the book, are the way he takes what are normally standalone buildings in suburban landscapes and groups them together to create recognizable shapes – places. Some are straightforward, like the perimeter block with central green space above, but a lot of them are more complex, taking fairly uninspired plans and turning them into generators of urban form and community spaces. That the home builders' plans and exterior forms harken to a time before two World Wars and the advent of the automobile is humorously critiqued in the occasional historical painting merged with a grouping of homes, as seen above.

The book, which is beautifully produced in everything from its layout to the types of paper and binding, does include some text after the presentation of the 144 estates: an appendix with a clever reworking of Rem Koolhaas's essay "Typical Plans," a critique of David Weekley's "SuperModel Homes," an analysis of prevailing house plan typologies by various home builders, 40 "notes on Freedomland" culled from a wide range of sources, and an afterword by Albert Pope. These lend the graphical fiction preceding it some scholarly backbone, but like the 144 estates these texts are equally unexpected. Together the plans and writings on "Another America" make up one of the most refreshing, enjoyable and thought-provoking books I've come across in a long time.