Four Monographs

Of the numerous books publishers send me for review — be they requested by me, pitched by them, or arriving at my doorstep unsolicited — the highest percentage of them are monographs. This fact goes against the occasional sirens over the irrelevance and anachronistic nature of monographs in our digital age, with free access (for now) to voluminous amounts of information on buildings and architects readily available online. But books, in my opinion, are better archives than websites, offering architects a further level of control over the finished product compared to websites. It's not uncommon today to find architecture firms, no doubt driven by savvy marketing departments and PR firms, merging their brands across platforms, such that their monographs resemble their websites. But in five or ten years time, only the books will retain that expression, thereby making them important archives of architects' work and the means of presenting it. The four recently published monographs that follow provide four diverse expressions for architectural monographs today.

I'm not sure when I came across the architecture of Bryan Cantley, but for sure it was through his popular Instagram account — with nearly 30,000 followers now, at least it is popular by architecture standards. The images saturating his account transport me to my undergrad days in the early 1990s, when Neil Denari, Peter Pfau and Wes Jones, and other machine-minded architects were in vogue. Building; Machines, the twelfth issue of Pamphlet Architecture, was the bible of this strain of contemporary architecture, where structure and services were exposed, elements moved (or at least appeared to do so), and surfaces (almost always metallic) featured curves that echoed the form of concrete mixer trucks. I figured I wasn't alone in connecting those aesthetic dots, but I also assumed such a reading was overly superficial and potentially unfair toward whatever Cantley is doing through his designs and illustrations. 
Neil Spiller actually mentions Neil Denari and Wes Jones in his introductory essay to Speculative Coolness, but only briefly, lumping them with a wider swath of visionaries ("the Wright brothers, Barnes Wallace, Archigram, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers") and stating that "nowadays these preoccupations have their epicenter in SoCaL." Cantley is a professor at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) and has taught at SCI-Arc and Woodbury University, all SoCal schools, though his bio at the start of the book also points out that "his work is in the permanent collection at SFMOMA, as well as in the personal collection of Thom Mayne." If such "preoccupations" have their epicenter in and around Los Angeles now, they did so thirty years ago, too, when Denari, Jones, etc. taught and practiced there. This network with shared interests and formal similarities is accentuated by Wes Jones's essay in the pages of Speculative Coolness and Mayne's afterword in the same.

A major thing separating the work of Denari and Jones with that of Cantley is the brief, or program, or whatever one wants to call it. Although much of the machine-inspired architecture of the nineties remained on paper or in model form, the projects were clearly proposals to be built, be it an unlikely monastery, a more reasonable house or apartment building, or most obviously an industrial structure (an example of the last, by Holt Hinshaw Jones, was built at UCLA in 1994). But it's difficult to grasp what Cantley's projects might function as if they are considered as models for actual buildings, or if they were designed in response to particular briefs, for instance in the way Brodsky and Utkin created designs for competitions but hardly ever had them approach being recognizable buildings. But do I care if Cantley's designs are speculative, self-generated programs rather than proposals for specific briefs from others? Do I care if I grasp his intentions, further obscured by the texts accompanying the images? Well, frankly, no. His projects, as rendered in sketches, drawings, models, perspectives, and collages, are just too beautiful. No wonder his website sells prints of his architectural imagery — and no wonder this monograph is saturated with the same, sure to woo architects and architecture students too young to remember the nineties.
Half a world away from Southern California is the equally warm-and-dry region of Catalonia and the metropolis of Barcelona, where the multi-disciplinary firm Batlleiroig, founded by Enric Batlle and Joan Roig in 1981, is located. Forty years is a long time for an architecture firm, and across those years Batlleiroig has realized many projects spanning multiple disciplines: architecture, landscape, and planning. Those same disciplines structure the book, which features ten chapters with three projects per chapter — one planning project, one landscape, and one building per chapter. But let's not call them chapters: Batlle describes them as "ten concepts that we believe must be incorporated into our daily lives to combat the climate emergency and improve living conditions on the planet." 10 x 3 = 30, hence the thirty projects presented in Merging City and Nature are also "30 commitments to combat climate change."

Over Batlleiroig's 40-plus years, the firm has grown to 140 people, making them a large firm in any of their three disciplines. Such size often means, at least in terms of architectural monographs, a business-like approach over an artistic one. This approach is definitely on display in Merging City and Nature, from the 10x3 structure and the descriptions of the projects/commitments (more bullet points than narratives) to the design and layout of the book, which resembles a textbook at times. Structure trumps reality, such that even though the firm has fifteen times more architects than planners and twice as many architects as landscape architects (as expressed in a bubble diagram at the back of the book), there are ten projects presented for each discipline. I would have loved to see more landscapes, which are the strongest parts of Batlleiroig's output (the Garraf Controlled Waste Landfill project is one of many highlights). As is, the book's rigid structure enables the firm to show how each of their disciplines addresses each of the ten concepts: commendable from a marketing perspective but dry and fatiguing for anyone looking for inspiration. So, if you're looking for a practical book loaded with well-designed examples of how architects and planners can address the climate emergency, Merging City and Nature is the book for you.

Often my excitement with learning about an architectural imprint is tempered by the fact I didn't know about it sooner. How did Valencia's TC Cuadernos put out dozens and dozens of monographic issues on contemporary architects in and beyond Spain before Allied Works sent me number 156 without me knowing about them? Am I that out of touch with European architectural publications? Or are there just too many to keep track of? The quality of the issue devoted to about twenty years of Allied Works' buildings is exemplary, indicating that the wider TC Cuadernos oeuvre melds the qualities of, say, El Croquis with Detail: offering color photographs on high-quality paper accompanied by detailed architectural drawings. (That said, I do wish the font for the project descriptions and essays was easier to read and that all the drawings were labeled, not just the wall sections — reading floor plans without labels is not very helpful.)
Allied Works Architecture 2003- 2022 is the first expansive monograph on Allied Works since Occupation, the 2011 release covering the first sixteen years of the studio founded by Brad Cloepfil in Portland, Oregon, in 1994. I have not seen that earlier monograph, but the level of control I mentioned in the prologue to this post is naturally eschewed in the new book (essentially a periodical), in terms of page design and the couple of things I quibbled about above. Still, for the most part it is an Allied Works product, with the drawings, models, photographs, and text provided by the studio. Most refreshing is the span of the book, with fourteen completed buildings over nearly twenty years presented; it even includes Cloepfil's fairly well-known early essay/project "Sitings: Five Reflections on Architectural Domain" (PDF link), which functioned as a statement of intent when he founded his firm now nearly thirty years ago.

Back in 2017, I attended the Vectorworks Design Summit in Baltimore, where Cloepfil gave the keynote and I was able to speak with him one-on-one after his presentation for an article at World-Architects. Before that talk, the projects I was most familiar with were the Maryhill Overlook (1998), the Wieden+Kennedy Headquarters (2000), the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2003), and the Clyfford Still Museum (2011). These four projects are thoroughly orthogonal buildings, but the projects he presented in Baltimore, such as the National Music Centre of Canada (2016) and National Veterans Memorial and Museum (2018), are dramatic departures from the apparent norm: curved and spatially complex constructions that see Cloepfil and Allied Works apparently striving to create architectural icons. Not surprisingly, these last two projects are found at the beginning of TC 156, signaling their importance in this phase of Cloepfil's career and the output of his studio. The diversity of Allied Works' designs can be seen in the other cultural, residential, and commercial projects that fill the monograph, including the issue's closer: Providence Park Stadium Expansion (2019), a project that hardly screams "Allied Works" but exhibits the studio's attentiveness to form, material, and structure — especially as presented in the pages of TC 156.
Also based in Portland, Skylab was founded by Jeff Koval in 2000 — more than twenty years ago, meaning it was about time for the firm to produce its first monograph. Although Skylab is best known for a series of projects with Nike — especially the Serena Williams Building (2021) and a temporary installation for the shoe brand at the 2012 United States Olympic Trials for Track & Field — the format of the book reflects the music business: The square book features foldout cover boards, a circular cutout and "parental advisory" sticker on the cover, multiple large double-fold gatefolds, and "sides" rather than chapters (Side-A, Side-B, etc.). There isn't even a table of contents, something that makes flipping through the book a voyage of discovery, much like dropping a needle on an album, putting on headphones, and listening deeply. 

From the photographs of the ten presented buildings under construction to photographs of them completed and everything in between, there is an almost rock n' roll aesthetic suffusing Skylab — a certain coolness that makes the LP format appropriate, if a bit quizzical at times. (If taken to its logical conclusion, wouldn't each "side" be the same length, instead of just 12 pages for Side A, for instance, versus 130 pages for Side B?)

One can easily flip through The Nature of Buildings without any awareness of the LP metaphor and gain just as much understanding of Skylab's work: digesting the projects through images layered with green text and drawings; relishing the surprise each gatefold elicits; and reading the trio of conversations between Kovel and others, including clients. The latter are presented sideways on the page, a bit like liner notes, I assume, though they can also be seen just as readily as print elements meant to stand out from the projects that are right side up throughout the book. 

Like fellow Portlanders Allied Works, the portfolio of Skylab is formally and typologically diverse. Kovel and company's projects might not be as geographically widespread as Cloepfil's, with most of Skylab projects keeping Portland weird, but with commissions in Utah and Idaho they're gaining in popularity beyond their local following.