On Case Studies
"What is a case study?" you might be asking, or maybe, "Is it different than a monograph?" Although the word monograph literally applies to any book devoted to any individual subject — be it a person, a place, a thing, or even an idea — in the realm of architecture books that one-word term is used more prevalently, if not strictly, in regards to individual architects and/or firms. A book on Le Corbusier is a monograph. A book on Villa Savoye is a case study. Although I opted to have two chapters in my book Buildings in Print titled monographs — "Monographs (Architects)" and "Monographs (Buildings)" — I still prefer to call books devoted to buildings and other individual works (landscapes, artworks, books, etc.) as "case studies." I like how the phrase indicates that the subject, the case, is being analyzed in depth: it is being studied, not just presented. Ideally, a case study delves into the meaning and other aspects of a building rather than just documenting it. Buildings take years to realize, some even take decades, and that fact alone points to them deserving in-depth book-length treatments. Granted, not all buildings should have a book devoted to them, but definitely more than have been given the case-study treatment.
The fact I included a case study chapter in Buildings in Print, as mentioned above, points to my appreciation of this sub-genre of architecture books but also to the role they have played in teaching architecture students, spreading knowledge around important works, and promoting architects and architecture within and beyond the profession. Perhaps the most well known case studies are from Phaidon's "Architecture in Detail" series from the 1990s, when a few-dozen buildings were documented in photographs, drawings, and critical essays. The books were slim but the pages were large (12" square, though smaller editions were later released for some of the titles), which made the detailed drawings particularly helpful for students and practicing architects. Among many others, the case studies included Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea, and the Eames House by Charles and Ray Eames; those three titles were later bound into one hardcover as part of Phaidon's repackaging of the series as "Architecture 3s." There have been other case study series, though very few continue to publish; only "Opus" from Edition Axel Menges and the "O'Neil Ford Monograph Series" from UTA come to mind as appearing to have ongoing momentum. I hope there are others.
I have more than a hundred books in my library that I consider case studies, ranging from pocket-size books to coffee table books, both architecture and other subjects. Among them are a slim analysis of the film Groundhog Day, a "reader's guide" to Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Michael Benedikt's classic Deconstructing the Kimbell: An Essay on Meaning and Architecture, a small book on WORKac's MoMA PS1 pavilion, the huge Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Lincoln Center Inside Out: An Architectural Account, my souvenir from a trip to Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals, and a beautiful book on Geoffrey Bawa's Lunuganga, a place I'll probably never get to see in person. This short list indicates that case studies are just as often critical takes as they are first-person accounts of the making of something. They can serve as vehicles for exploring ideas, as in Benedikt's book on the Kimbell; they can serve as repositories for the many sketches, drawings, and photographs produced about a place; or they can exist somewhere in between on such a spectrum between critical analysis and laudatory presentation. My favorites tend toward the last: an abundance of visual information accompanied by input from both creators and critics.
- Higher Knowledge: SANAA'S Rolex Learning Center at EPFL Since 2010 by Christophe Van Gerrewey, published by EPFL Press, 2022 (Amazon / Bookshop)
- Past to Future: La Grande Carrière Wincqz by Isabelle Toussaint and Matteo Robbiglio with photographs by Marie Noëlle Dailly, published by Prisme Editions, 2022 (Amazon)
- Kazuo Shinohara: The Umbrella House Project edited by Christian Dehli and Andrea Grolimund, published by Vitra Design Museum, 2023 (Amazon / Bookshop)
The first, Christophe Van Gerrewey's essay on SANAA'S Rolex Learning Center at EPFL Lausanne (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, or Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne), falls into the critical-analysis camp. It is less than 100 pages, has a fairly large text size for such small pages, and has quite a few b/w photographs. It is a quick read, in other words, but it is not short on ideas. Van Gerrewey explores a myriad aspects of the distinctive undulating building completed in 2010 (the same year Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa won the Pritzker Prize): from the campus's origins and the building's programmatic requirements, to situating the project's flowing spaces within other open-plan buildings and how the undulating slabs of concrete are structured. There are no chapters, so the ideas flow fairly seamlessly, with some fitting on one page or spread, and others spanning multiples of the same. Much of the book is devoted to the broader work of SANAA and how it fits into both Japanese and Western (modern) architectural traditions. Van Gerrewey, who teaches at EPFL, is evidently a fan of the building, but more for the way it functions as a setting for open-ended interactions than as a built expression of architectural ideas.
A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes, and that is literally the case with the second book, Past to Future, which documents the conversion and restoration of the Grande Carrière Wincqz quarry in Soignies, Belgium. The middle third of the book's 216 pages is given over to an essay by architect Matteo Robbiglio, also titled "Past to Future," that is structured as lengthy captions to images that sit on pages between the French and English versions of the essay. The images move, like architectural documents, from big to small, and from past to present — or in the case of this book, from past to future. They start with a mid-19th-century scientific map of the region showing the composition of the subsoil; the color-coded map is paired with an image extracting from the map a blue layer, imagined to be coal deposits, with Soignies located in the midst of it. We learn in Robbiglio's text that the coal was not useful, but the stone "showed great potential." Logicallly, the next page is a map showing infrastructure in the region, including the location of the Wincqz family's eventual stone mining operation, an operation depicted in the third image, a print from an 1852 book on Belgian industry. The essay continues for seven more images or pairs of images that trace the site's historical uses, its conversion to a training centre, and its potential in influencing future preservation projects.
The first third of Past to Future is given over to photographs taken by Marie Noëlle Dailly of the completed Grande Carrière Wincqz project. Keyed to a diagram of the site and the contemporary interventions carried out by Robbiglio with fellow architects Isabelle Toussaint and Patrick Bribosia, the photographs are helpful in grasping how the layers of time are expressed in the physical layers of glass, metal, and masonry. I'll admit I wasn't familiar with the project before learning about the book and getting a copy of it from Prisme Editions; the photographs reveal a place with an intimate scale and a pleasant mix of old and new, but not a place that screams for a book-length case study. The book's value lies in the stance toward "transformative preservation," as articulated by Robbiglio in his essay and in the thorough documentation of the process in drawings and photographs by Toussaint in the book's last third. The drawings, with their black is old/orange is new color scheme, are particularly valuable in getting readers, like myself, not familiar with the place to understand the numerous interventions carried out there. As I've written in regards to other case studies on this blog, successful ones make me want to go there; this stunning book does that, but it also makes me wish I could have experienced the place in the past, before its sensitive transformation this century.
Like the first two, the third case study is about a building in Europe, but with a caveat: Kazuo Shinohara's Umbrella House was not originally built on the continent — it was recently moved to the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany, from Tokyo. Built in 1961, Umbrella House is one of the earliest houses designed by Kazuo Shinohara (1925–2006), falling into what is considered his First Style, the most traditional of four styles he would eventually move through. It must have been 2G's excellent double issue from 2011 where I first encountered Umbrella House; it is the first of two-dozen houses in that special issue. Excerpts in the description of house there quote Shinohara: "Unless it attains the status of a work of art, a house has no reason for being." Those words, also found in a short text by Shinohara in the pages of Kazuo Shinohara: The Umbrella House Project, point to the need not only to save the house once it was threatened for demolition around 2019, but to treat it as a work of art and move it to a museum-like campus where it can be appreciated, studied, and maintained. The process of saving, dismantling, shipping, and rebuilding the house unfolded over the course of the pandemic, wrapping up in 2022.
This slim, beautifully produced book features period photographs, photos of the house on the Vitra Campus, drawings, photos of the salvage/restoration/shipping process, and two essays. The first text, by reconstruction architects Christian Dehli and Andrea Grolimund, goes into detail on the process of dismantling and reconstructing the house and is accompanied by photos of the same. The second text is "An Architect's DNA Revealed in a Single Work" by Shin-ichi Okuyama and David B. Stewart, who wrote The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture: From the Founders to Shinohara and Isozaki and contributed an essay to the 2G issue on Shinohara. Combined, the two essays solidly describe, respectively, the tricky process of reconstructing a "no 'ordinary' Japanese house" and the importance of the project in Shinohara's oeuvre. Umbrella House would have been worthy of its own case study before the events of 2019, but the circumstances of moving the house add a layer that makes this book very much of this moment, when far too many important 20th-century buildings in Japan are meeting the wrecking ball.