Book Briefs #35 Revisited

Last week I cobbled together eight books, some of which publishers had sent me more than a year ago, in an effort to write a "Better Late Than Never" installment of "Book Briefs,"  something I had done back in April 2018 with Book Briefs #35. But, sensing I would not be able to absorb the books quickly enough to get the post done in less than a week, I thought that revisiting that five-year-old post would be a great way of (finally) dipping into the timesaver that is AI, asking OpenAI's ChatGPT to write similar one-paragraph reviews and see what it came up with. So that's what I did. Specifically, I told ChatGPT to "Give a short, one-paragraph review of 'X Book' by Y author." Its output is featured below, in four of the six books that were part of Book Briefs #35, accompanied by my own "briefs" from 2018 and blurbs from the publishers. 

How do the reviews compare, my own vs. OpenAI? My takes are certainly more personal, with first-person commentary that isn't always germane to the book at hand but indicates where I'm coming from and what I find of interest and/or value. ChatGPT is, on the other hand, formulaic, with four sentences in a clearly repetitive structure for each review: statement of importance; two descriptive sentences; a closing statement indicating relevance to a particular audience. The AI "reviews" read well and have a clear position, but they are prescriptive, repetitive, and boring (so many rules of three!), especially when read in multiples, as here. I included the blurbs to see if OpenAI was drawing any phrases from them in shaping the reviews; that does not appear to be the case, nor does it appear that it used my "briefs" to formulate its speedy takes (each one took about five seconds to generate) on the books I gave it. Maybe ChatGPT is more effective in longer reviews, but this exercise does not lend any urgency to such an attempt on my part.

African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence. Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia edited by Manuel Herz, published by Park Books in 2015 (reprinted in 2023) (Amazon | Bookshop)
Blurb: "In the 1950s and 1960s, most African countries gained independence from their respective colonial power. Architecture became one of the principal means by which the newly formed countries expressed their national identity. African Modernism investigates the close relationship between architecture and nation-building in Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. It features one hundred buildings with brief descriptive texts, images, site plans, and selected floor plans and sections. The vast majority of images were newly taken by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster for the book’s first edition. Their photographs document the buildings in their present state. Each country is portrayed in an introductory text and a timeline of historic events. Further essays on postcolonial Africa and specific aspects and topics, also illustrated with images and documents, round out this outstanding volume."

: Although the size of a coffee table book and graced by full-page Iwan Baan photographs, African Modernism is a deep, scholarly work, not just something to flip through. Focused on the five subtitled African countries that gained their independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s (5 of 32 countries on the continent that did so), the book examines how architecture played a role in expressing their independence and modernity. Each country is given an introduction, a timeline, a photo spread by Baan, documentation of important buildings in photos (most by Baan) and words, and an in-depth academic essay. Though many buildings show signs of wear (not surprising, given the time between their realization and today), the architectural quality is astounding. That the buildings in the book are largely unknown points to a deficit in architectural education and publishing — and the need for more books like this one and Adjaye Africa Architecture.

ChatGPT: "'African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence. Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia' edited by Manuel Herz is a groundbreaking book that sheds light on the architectural legacy of African modernism. With a focus on five countries, the book explores the post-independence era and the architectural projects that emerged during this period of political and cultural transformation. The book's rich collection of photographs, plans, and essays provides valuable insight into the unique blend of local and international influences that shaped African modernist architecture. It is an essential resource for anyone interested in the intersection of architecture, history, and cultural identity in Africa."

The Architecture of Paul Rudolph by Timothy M. Rohan, published by Yale University Press in 2014 (Amazon | Bookshop)
Blurb (excerpt): "Based on extensive archival research and unpublished materials, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph is the first in-depth study of the architect, neglected since his postwar zenith. Author Timothy M. Rohan unearths the ideas that informed Rudolph’s architecture, from his Florida beach houses of the 1940s to his concrete buildings of the 1960s to his lesser-known East Asian skyscrapers of the 1990s. Situating Rudolph within the architectural discourse of his day, Rohan shows how Rudolph countered the perceived monotony of mid-century modernism with a dramatically expressive architecture for postwar America, exemplified by his Yale Art and Architecture Building of 1963, famously clad in corrugated concrete. The fascinating story of Rudolph’s spectacular rise and fall considerably deepens longstanding conceptions about postwar architecture: Rudolph emerges as a pivotal figure who anticipated new directions for architecture, ranging from postmodernism to sustainability."

JohnHILL: A lot has happened in the four years since this book's publication [between 2014 and 2018]: Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago was demolished, Paul Rudolph's own Orange County Government Center was maligned through a partial demolition and insensitive addition, and the famed Robin Hood Gardens was demolished. A new exhibition, in fact, hones in on the demolition of Brutalist structures, something that books like Rohan's haven't been able to reverse. This isn't to say that saving Rudolph's buildings and others like it was Rohan's goal, but as Alexandra Lange points out in her 2014 review of The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, "it's a timely publication." That time seems to have slid by rapidly, but given that 2018 is the centennial of Rudolph's birth, we might just see a renewed appreciation in his work. If so, Rohan's thorough, well-researched book will surely play a part.

ChatGPT: "'The Architecture of Paul Rudolph' by Timothy M. Rohan is a comprehensive and insightful exploration of the influential architect's work. Rohan delves into Rudolph's distinctive design language, innovative use of materials, and his significant contributions to modern architecture. Through detailed analysis and stunning visuals, the book captures the complexity and dynamism of Rudolph's buildings, showcasing his mastery of space, form, and light. This book serves as an invaluable resource for architects, students, and enthusiasts seeking a deeper understanding of Rudolph's architectural legacy and his lasting impact on the field."

Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2015 (Amazon)
Blurb: "From 1978 to 1993, the renowned Soviet 'paper architects' Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin created an incredible collection of elaborate etchings depicting outlandish, often impossible, buildings and cityscapes. Funny, cerebral, and deeply human, their obsessively detailed work layers elements borrowed from Egyptian tombs, Ledoux's visionary architecture, Le Corbusier's urban master plans, and other historical precedents in etchings of breathtaking complexity and beauty. Back by popular demand following the sold-out original 1991 edition and 2003 reprint, Brodsky & Utkin presents the sum of the architects' collaborative prints and adds new material, including an updated preface by the artists' gallery representative, Ron Feldman, a new introductory essay by architect Aleksandr Mergold, visual documentation of the duo's installation work, and rare personal photographs."

JohnHILL: I'm not certain when I first learned about Russian Architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. Maybe it was in a 2005 blog post at Pruned. For sure it was well after the title Princeton Architectural Press put out on the duo in the early 1990s, as well as the 2003 first edition they put out and then printed again (with new preface) in 2015. The duo's intricate etchings are more art than architecture (they're represented by Feldman Gallery, after all), though many were submissions for architectural competitions hosted by Shinkenchiku and others in the 1980s. At 9x12 inches, the book isn't small, but with so many layers of information in their images it could easily be twice as large.

ChatGPT: "'Brodsky & Utkin' by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, published by Princeton Architectural Press, is a captivating and visually stunning retrospective of the renowned Russian architectural duo. The book showcases the imaginative and whimsical architectural drawings and etchings that Brodsky and Utkin are known for. With their unique blend of historical references, surrealism, and social commentary, their works transport readers to a dreamlike world of fantastical structures. This publication serves as a valuable tribute to their distinctive artistic vision and is a must-have for architecture enthusiasts, artists, and anyone captivated by the power of architectural illustration."

Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres by M. Christine Boyer, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010 (Amazon)
Blurb (excerpt): "On his French identity card, legendary architect Le Corbusier listed his profession as 'Homme de Lettres' (Man of Letters). Celebrated for his architecture, which numbers fewer than sixty buildings, Le Corbusier also wrote more than fifty books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of letters. Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres is the first in-depth study of Le Corbusier as a writer as well as an architect. [...] In Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres author M. Christine Boyer focuses on the development of his writing style as it morphed from romantic prose to aphorisms and telegraphic bulletins. [...] Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres shows for the first time how his voluminous output — books, diaries, letters, sketchbooks, travel notebooks, lecture transcriptions, exposition catalogs, journal articles — reflects not just a compulsion to write, but a passion for advancing his ideas about the relationship between architecture, urbanism, and society in a new machine age."

JohnHILL: When I received this book way back in 2010, I had every intention of reading the whole thing — all 702 pages (780 pages with notes and index). Well, life got in the way and I only got through two of the book's twelve chapters before putting it down and, unfortunately, not returning to it again. I recall those hundred or so pages being, though not an easy read, certainly an enjoyable one. Boyer managed to mine Le Corbusier's original documents and discuss them in a way that pulls the reader along. A strong interest in Le Corbusier and his writings (the book focuses on 1907-1947) helps greatly; though there are plenty of architects out there meeting that criteria.

ChatGPT: "'Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres' by M. Christine Boyer is a compelling exploration of Le Corbusier's lesser-known role as a man of letters. Boyer sheds light on the prolific writings of the renowned architect, showcasing his literary talents and intellectual pursuits. Through a meticulous examination of his letters, essays, and manifestos, the book reveals the breadth and depth of Le Corbusier's ideas on architecture, urbanism, and society. This book is a valuable resource for scholars and enthusiasts seeking a deeper understanding of Le Corbusier's multifaceted contributions to the fields of architecture and literature."

As an expansion of my partial revisiting of Book Briefs #35, below are catalogs of two exhibitions I wrote about for World-Architects back in 2022 (MoMA's The Project of Independence in February of that year, The Met's Bernd & Hilla Becher in July) but never got around to reviewing here. These are books I consulted after my initial visits and while writing my exhibition reviews, so I have some familiarity with them, albeit now from a distance of roughly a year or more. But given that I'd yet to articulate my thoughts on them, I decided to write "briefs" on them after inputting the same prompt into ChatGPT — a reverse of the reviews above. Will the AI-generated affect how I write about them? Should I adopt the style of ChatGPT in my one-paragraph reviews? Read on to see...

The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985 edited by Martino Stierli, Anoma Pieris and Sean Anderson, published by the Museum of Modern Art in March 2022 (Amazon | Bookshop)
Blurb (excerpt): "Anchored by a newly commissioned portfolio of images from architectural photographer Randhir Singh, this richly illustrated and meticulously researched catalogue features essays by the curators and leading scholars in the field on subjects such as the politics of concrete, institution-building, higher education, housing, infrastructure and industry, landscape, and design, as well as presentations of seventeen transformative projects from around the subcontinent. While several of the architects appearing in these pages have in recent years received monographic exhibitions, The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985 marks the first attempt to consider their work within the ideological frameworks of its creation and the political context of the region as a whole."

ChatGPT: "'The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985' edited by Martino Stierli, Anoma Pieris, and Sean Anderson is a thought-provoking and enlightening anthology that explores the architectural landscape of South Asia during the post-independence era. Through a collection of essays, case studies, and visual documentation, the book examines the complex interplay between politics, identity, and architectural production in the region. It sheds light on the diverse range of architectural projects that emerged during this transformative period, offering valuable insights into the decolonization process and its impact on the built environment. This book is an essential resource for architects, historians, and anyone interested in the intersection of architecture, history, and postcolonial studies."

JohnHILL: Museum of Modern Art curator Martino Stierli, in an interview at World-Architects that I edited ahead of the opening of The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985, described that exhibition as "a continuation of the 2018 exhibition, Toward A Concrete Utopia," subtitled Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 and notably his first major show at MoMA. Stierli actually proposed the exhibition on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka in his 2014 interview for the MoMA post, a clear sign that he sees the contemporary importance in "destabilizing the Western-centric canon of modern architectural history," one notably fostered by MoMA for decades. The catalog is as good as the exhibition was, with a portfolio of contemporary photographs by Randhir Singh, essays by architects and scholars (on cities, housing, infrastructure, education, and other subjects), and case studies on more than a dozen buildings, from Antonin Raymond' s Golconde dormitory in Pondicherry, India, to Yasmeen Lari's Anguri Bagh Housing in Lahore, Pakistan. As befits Stierli, an architectural historian, the catalog is more thorough and wide-ranging than the exhibition it accompanied.

Bernd & Hilla Becher by Jeff L. Rosenheim, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in August 2022 (Amazon / Bookshop)
Blurb: "For more than five decades, Bernd (1931–2007) and Hilla (1934–2015) Becher collaborated on photographs of industrial architecture in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, and the United States. This sweeping monograph features the Bechers’ quintessential pictures, which present water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, and more as sculptural objects. Beyond the Bechers’ iconic Typologies, the book includes Bernd’s early drawings, Hilla’s independent photographs, and excerpts from their notes, sketchbooks, and journals. The book’s authors offer new insights into the development of the artists’ process, their work’s conceptual underpinnings, the photographers’ relationship to deindustrialization, and the artists’ legacy. An essay by award-winning cultural historian Lucy Sante and an interview with Max Becher, the artists’ son, make this volume an unrivaled look into the Bechers’ art alongside their career, life, and subjects."

ChatGPT: "'Bernd & Hilla Becher' by Jeff L. Rosenheim is a captivating tribute to the renowned German photographic duo known for their systematic documentation of industrial architecture. The book delves into the Bechers' distinctive approach to capturing the beauty and functionality of industrial structures, presenting their work as a unique blend of art and documentary photography. With insightful essays, stunning reproductions of their iconic images, and a comprehensive overview of their artistic journey, this book is an essential resource for photography enthusiasts, art historians, and anyone fascinated by the power of visual storytelling."

JohnHILL: In the last of six numbered galleries of the Bernd & Hilla Becher exhibition at The Met last year, a glass vitrine displayed a selection of books published by the photographers in their lifetime. I wrote in my review of the exhibition that "books [were] an integral part of their career — the primary means of making their work accessible to artists, architects, historians, and the general public." Their books, furthermore, are highly prized — expensive even as reprints, and somewhat scarce — so any book on the Bechers, in my mind, is welcome, especially this one by Met curator Jeff L. Rosenheim. Highlights of the beautifully produced catalog include Gabrielle Conrath-Scholl's essay on the Bechers' documentation of Zeche Concordia between 1967 and 1970; Rosenheim's interview with Max, the Bechers' son; and 120 pages of plates that include a couple gatefolds. The plates may not be a substitute for seeing the Bechers' photographs — larger — in a gallery setting, but their accompaniments make them that as valuable here.