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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Friday, December 10, 2004
    Books and Brands

    Architecture is a field in ceaseless pursuit of the up-to-date — and yet the most ubiquitous figure in contemporary architectural publishing was born in 1867. Forty-five years after his death, Frank Lloyd Wright remains the brand-name to bet on in the small but smartly appointed niche of publishing occupied by books on architecture. Or at least, it's easy to get that impression if you spend some time trolling around the rough but ready research tool that is Amazon, where if you type in "Frank Lloyd Wright" and press "Go" you are rewarded with 765 "most relevant" results. An impressive number, you think; and your respect is only enhanced when more pointing and clicking reveal the comparatively measly totals of other estimable — not to say world-famous — designers. A search for "Frank Gehry," for instance, turns up only 74 titles, and another, for "Rem Koolhaas," yields just 57 — a surprisingly paltry figure, given Koolhaas's seemingly endless outpouring of print. Only when you expand the search to include an architect born in 1475 do the numbers start to rival Wright's: Michelangelo is the subject of 734 books available from Amazon.

    A trip to one of the big-box booksellers does little to alter the picture. There you might find, as I found at a Borders in an upscale mall near Boston, that fully a quarter of the 100 titles in "Architecture" are devoted to Wrightiana. The offerings were diverse: a generous selection of illustrated books on the famous houses, idiosyncratic interiors, elegant leaded-glass windows and awkward furniture; a hefty catalogue and encyclopedia; a couple of field guides to Wright sites (perfect for the type-A design tourist); and slipcased extravaganzas such as Frank Lloyd Wright in Pop-Up (which features delicate three-dimensional constructions of the complex structures) and The Interactive Portfolio (with assorted removable extras like CDs and sketches).

    It's perhaps ungrateful to suggest that there's anything wrong with all this Wright. The master of Taliesen was a great bravura genius, a worthy object of admiration; and certainly his prodigious legacy will survive this embarrassment of overexposure. What seems less hardy is the health of architectural publishing. In my last post I mourned the loss of an independent bookshop in Harvard Square, and suggested that the most insidious effect of the decline of the independents will be to influence the output of publishers, whose survival will depend increasingly on cranking out titles that the national retailers will want to stock. And so despite its undoubted delights, the bulging bookshelf of wall-to-wall Wright points unhappily to what is becoming the survival strategy of publishers, which is heavy reliance on brand identity.

    In some ways, of course, branding is just new media-speak for an old reality of the book world. (Jane Smiley has called Charles Dickens the "first person to become a 'name brand.'") But it poses special pitfalls for publishers of illustrated books, and most architecture books are illustrated. In a field with emaciated budgets and breathless schedules, it encourages the production of all those formulaic picture books that crowd the oversized shelves of bookshops — all those monographs on celebrity architects or fashionable buildings, over-designed and under-conceived compendiums in which famous and familiar images, and maybe a short essay, are artfully arranged and lusciously packaged. Some of these are undeniably alluring — I've been eying the new Zaha Hadid monograph, with its garnet-colored, molded-plastic slipcase, and I'll admit that this year's fetish object from Phaidon, its Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, is more than a little tempting. But most of these picture books are ultimately boring. After paging through yet another glossy steroidal book-brochure from one of the big global practices, or the latest anti-monograph from a young firm in which the images are low-resolution and almost aggressively ugly, or one of those interchangeable compilations of "new American houses," you're left with little but a more or less pleasant blur, and maybe the sense that a lot of resources have been expended to make what seems mainly like a marketing tool.

    But this is all sounding too uncheery — too bah-humbug. And so in the spirit of the season I'll add that the last few years have seen several monographs that have resisted the urge merely to push the brand, and have instead nudged the limits of the form. I'm thinking of books that are intellectually vigorous, like Mies in Berlin, edited by Barry Bergdoll and Terence Riley, and Marcel Breuer, Architect, by Isabelle Hyman; or that tell stories that hadn't been fully told, like Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean; or that are wonderfully weird and obsessive, like Your Private Sky: R. Buckminster Fuller and the Art of Design Science, edited by Joachim Krausse and Claude Lichtenstein; or that are impressively comprehensive, like The Charged Void: Architecture of Peter and Alison Smithson, with its beautifully reproduced, mostly black-and-white images.

    In my experience good publishers want to make books not brands. Let's hope the booksellers find room on their shelves not just for what's famous but also for what's fresh.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:00 pm | Permanent link



About Nancy Levinson
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Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili. More


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