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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Wednesday, August 16, 2006
    Architecture to Landscape

    The monograph is the workhorse of architectural publishing. It's at once the easiest genre to do (pick the projects, collect the images, convince a famous colleague to contribute a foreword, get a graphic designer to give it some glamor, and then you're practically ready for the book party) and to disdain ("effectively, a great big practice brochure," as Kester Rattenbury noted in an Icon overview of architectural publishing). But lately I've been thinking that the monograph is ripe for rehabilitation—that the problem isn't that these big fat picture books are self-promotional but that they're formulaic. S, M, L, XL, after all, managed to be a six-pound advertisement for the career—the mystique—of Rem Koolhaas and an inventive exploration of the genre. With its unexpectedly compact trim size and unabashedly bloated page count, it upended the coffee-table conventions of the category and inspired more than a few extra-thick imitators. (Whether this particular development has been salubrious is still open to debate. In his very smart review of the publication, Martin Filler described S, M, L, XL as "user-hostile," and personally I suspect the unwieldy volume is more grazed than read . . . which may of course have been exactly the point.) What makes the monograph especially ready for more such reconceptualizations is the Internet. The rise of digital communications and, more specifically, the proliferation of professional web sites are freeing the monograph from its traditional role. Now that the chronological and/or typological record of projects can be web-based, the monograph no longer need function as a large-format, perfect-bound curriculum vitae. Now the monograph can be—well, whatever its author-designers want it to be. Ideally this sort of freedom will challenge practitioners to make books that are both conceptually rigorous and beautifully wrought—to toss the template and see the making of a book as an invigorating creative journey.

    An elegant case in point is Architecture To Landscape, a monograph on two houses by architects Salvatore LaRosa and Ronald Bentley, both of whom are partners in the New York firm B Five Studio. Edited by James Russell (whose authorial credits include the AJ blog "Sticks and Stones," and who is—necessary disclosure—a friend) and designed by Lawrence Wolfson, the book is an elegant and thoughtful study of two private houses, and of how they were shaped to relate to the particularities of their landscapes. One house is deep in the woods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania; it happens to be the architects' own weekend place, a comparatively modest structure created over many years, in a process that began with the LaRosa and Bentley camping on the property in order, as Russell writes, "to come to intimate terms with the site." The other house is an estate in Easthampton, New York, and it isn't modest at all; but you might say it wears its wealth with pleasing reticence. The residences are lovely, and so is the design of the Easthampton landscape, by Douglas Reed of Reed/Hilderbrand. But what really interests me here is how richly the book presents the projects. The key decision, I think, was to devote the entire volume to just two buildings. Architecture to Landscape features dozens of photographs (by no fewer than seven photographers), and not just the beauty shots that you might have already seen (both houses have been published previously, in professional magazines and also in the New York Times Magazine). We see the Bucks County house evolve over more than a decade, and we see it also in different seasons, in both color and black-and-white images. Architecture to Landscape also includes plans and elevations and—a lovely touch—a scattering of tiny images of design influences, which range from Asplund's Woodland Chapel to Mies's Jackson Hole Resort House to Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown's Brant House. This sort of illustrative depth is extremely rare in architectural publishing (even in El Croquis), and it draws you in, as do the thoughtful essays (by Russell, Gary Hilderbrand, and Peter Rowe).

    Architecture to Landscape does not push the boundaries of the genre, as did Koolhaas and his co-author Bruce Mau. But it does—with its clarity of conception and intensity of focus—exemplify a very satisfying approach to revitalizing the print monograph in our age of endlessly accessible electronic imagery.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 8:24 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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