Book: Architecture Now! Museums by Philip Jodidio

The cover gives a sense of the clean lines the book’s featured projects consistently display. As in other Taschen architecture books, architecture photography is the star of the show.

Architecture Now! Museums
by Philip Jodidio
published by Taschen, Cologne (Köln), Germany

This oversized softcover showcases architecture firms working on public and private museums, with an emphasis on projects Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. Each firm has a brief profile, followed by one or more projects which are showcased through very precise, clear photographs and blue architectural drawings (usually plans, sometimes sections, in miniature) for orientation. Profiles and project texts are provided in English, German, and French in caption style, as the photos and drawings do most of the work in showcasing the projects.

The author emphasized built projects over conceptual ones, though he included some already under construction and a few very likely to be built, to keep the book feeling up-to-the-moment as of its publication. He succeeded!

Museums, especially large public ones, are something of an architect’s dream: the program requirements for the building tend toward grandness (with grand budgets to match), and the owners are often trying to embody their status and create a landmark. (Several of my own city’s museums are featured here, and yes, we were definitely collecting star firms for bold looks that will please visitors and be recognized as proof of our cultural sophistication.) As a result, many of the projects included here were the result of high profile, international competitions.

The projects are quite diverse in materials and appearance, and this impressive variety is due to the hard work of the author, the skill and diverse approaches of the architects, and (I am certain) the programmatic requirement to make unique statements that will serve the owner’s image.

As in other architecture books, I especially appreciate images that show the building being used for its intended purpose. Some promising projects are included here that were built around special collections, but those collections aren’t shown in the uninhabited spaces, and so it is difficult to know if the building truly succeeded in its program. (I don’t know if this is the usual concern about the purity of the architect’s work (which I don’t find useful), or concerns that any art shown would require additional legal reproduction rights.) Those projects that show people moving through the spaces and art on display with appropriate lighting suggest they firmly meet the criteria of success. I wish such images were included for all the projects.

In fact, now that this particular book is ten years old, it would be great to have a standard analysis performed of each rating them on how well the execution of the programs held up during use. I would like to see the best designs/designers given some retroactive credit for not only winning their competitions successfully, but for their programmatic success, and for the satisfaction of their customers.

This is an attractive book of a wide range of solutions to the display requirements of museums, and it is fun to spend time with. I’m happy I purchased it (long ago) and revisited it (today!).

Book: Zaha Hadid by Philip Jodidio

What would the architecture profession do without architectural photography?

Zaha Hadid
by Philip Jodidio
published by Taschen, Köln

Before reviewing this book, I wish to disclose how I feel about deconstructivism, even though Hadid’s work is NOT the old meaning of THAT fad. I trained as an architect and worked in architecture in the late 80s and early 90s. In school, I had a few oppressively modernist instructors (as in the 1950s concept of modern) get very, very excited about abstract deconstructivist drawings of spaces which could not be built, and which had no human use. While they obsessed over floating red triangles, they still insisted that an ideal building was a Palladian villa. I’m not kidding. They couldn’t see where the movement was going. Also, the deconstructivist works they liked best could not be built on earth because of gravity. They completely missed the rebellion against simple forms that these fetishized, sharp drawings offered. Their enthusiasm for drawings with no application on earth put me off all such work for a long time. In the meantime, Hadid’s real world, mature work displays great characteristics which were implied by her early rebellion against simplistic geometries, which led me to this book.

This book is a profile of Zaha Hadid’s architectural practice, and the work of the global firm she founded, which continues to produce remarkable buildings consistent with her approach beyond her death. The Taschen Basic Art series is a collection of artist profile teasers, which get you started in your studies without committing you to a vast, oversized portfolio the size of your coffee table. It takes a light, greatest-hits touch, which was just right for me to familiarize myself with her recent work and help me overcome my misgivings around the early conceptual drawings I used to associate her with.

The essay by Jodidio is long, but it helped me clarify elements of her designs I like. I was pleased to read that she always worked with engineers up front, not at as an afterthought, which explains her innovative designs for walkways (such as the famous floating ramps and stairwells of the National Museum in Rome, and so many other cores of her buildings), which define many of her interiors for me. She incorporated and used below-grade spaces as essential spaces within her designs more visibly than many of her contemporaries, and this allowed for different circulation patterns, which also feel innovative. Her use of organic, fluid-appearing forms carries through her designs in a way I feel is superior to some of the others working on similar projects. Many of her theoretical drawings and early designs also anticipated computer-supported fabrication, so it sometimes feels like the technology caught up with her ideas.

The selection of projects is excellent, and the photography is well done, especially with respect to night scenes and interior lighting. (Hooray for architectural photography!)

I’m not entirely sold on all of the interior spaces. There are walls that melt down into the floor in a way that will tempt skateboarders, but foil pedestrians, and while those feel consistent with the intentions for the overall building forms, they sometimes look… leftover? I’ve been in her building in Seoul, and loved her plazas and bridges, but the interior spaces I entered were more cavernous than comfortable.

This book is an attractive and affordable introduction to the built work of an innovative architect whose portfolio feels both contemporary and futuristic.

For those of you who drink: the introductory essay creates an opportunity for a drinking game. Take a shot each time you encounter the words “seamless” or “chthonic.” You are also allowed to have an outburst each time a comparison to modernism is made.

Book: Concrete edited by William Hall

edited by William Hall, with an Essay by Leonard Koren
published by Phaidon Ltd., New York & London

I purchased this oversized, well-illustrated book more because I love Phaidon as a publisher than because I love concrete. I certainly don’t love concrete as much as William Hall, whose introductory page made me laugh out loud over his enthusiasm and his bafflement that everyone does not share it.

I have my own strong feelings about concrete. I loved my structures class in architecture school, and, even though I prefer steel trusses and wooden glu-lams for a surprising number of purposes, I was lucky enough to have T.Y. Lin, ‘the father of pre-stressed concrete,’ come to speak at City College of San Francisco while I was attending. His work in concrete impressed me greatly, and made me fussy about its application. His applications were so damned CLEVER. Lin (who passed away in 2003) and his firm have an amazing practice with bridges AND other structures in which concrete really shows off its compressive strengths. Pre-stressing in their work also allowed concrete to be used in situations where it would otherwise be a too-heavy, too-bulky choice. The firm’s work include structures that have thin decks and crisp, curved walls because of his practice’s expertise with pre-stressing (and likely also post-tensioning, which also increases concrete’s versatility).

So my enthusiasm for concrete emphasizes using it where it can do something that steel or wood CAN’T. Arches, rings, heavy supports, thin parabolas, crisp curved shells – shapes where compression is why it was chosen.

I appreciate that there are other reasons concrete may be chosen – its versatility, ability to be shaped into many different forms, fire resistance, ability to include on-site aggregates, and so on. But if a building doesn’t have some structural sophistication that REQUIRED concrete, I’ll often give it the side eye. Not to single out the gorgeous works of Louis Barragán, but I often look at his painted walls and think aloud, “yes, but they aren’t holding anything up, so he could have done that with plaster over just about any building material.” I am disclosing this purist structural bias up front.

I have another bias, which is that I live in an area prone to earthquakes, and so I am forgiving about the fact that concrete is rarely only concrete. Here in seismically BUSY California, there is invariably steel rebar, glass fibers, or something else giving concrete tensile strength it wouldn’t ordinarily have, to keep it from dropping chunks on us when our buildings shake. The waffle ceilings of my college architecture building were designed to let the concrete crumble or crack lightly while the steel gave us time to get out in the event of a major seismic event beyond its capacity. So I (reluctantly) accept that this book on concrete is rarely about concrete by itself, because I would avoid such buildings for safety reasons! (STEEL IS AWESOME!) So, I’m conceding this point, so you will know that my weird purist bias has practical limits involving wanting us all to survive earthquakes.

But enough about me, let’s talk about me. No, wait, I mean the book!

The projects in this survey are organized by their dominant characteristics, such as mass, scale, or texture, and this works well as an organizational principle. The book is a broad mix of different programs, leaning heavily on physically larger projects where concrete makes sense. As a survey, it includes many older, established projects which are often illustrated in black and white. It may sound silly that I want to see the color of the concrete, but I DO, so for the still-extant older projects, I would have preferred newer color images of them. (Beyond the older, harshly lit photos, the older projects also reflect that formal architecture and/or recognition for it was largely closed to anyone but European men during prior eras, so even the institutional projects in Asia shown were designed by famous European architects. The later projects fare a bit bitter, generating my relief to see Ando and a few female names.)

The most impressive projects for my purposes are those where concrete was necessary due to scale or form. This means I was especially pleased by multi-unit housing projects, public libraries, and (hooray for) aerospace buildings. I made a sad face at Falling Water but a happy face at Johnson Wax. (Falling Water is reputed to be a maintenance nightmare, so if we have to do FLW, Johnson Wax is more overtly successful.) I made frowny faces at Corbu’s skinny columns and space-consuming ramps, and I have mixed feelings about the Japanese residential projects, which are too often just shown from the outside as interesting but potentially unlivable geometric objects.

The layouts across pages are quite good. Projects half a century apart may share a page spread, but they have forms in common that make points about the use of concrete over time — say, a Fiat rooftop car racing track and a concrete pool-type skate park – that are thoughtful and appealing.

This book has a good design, a good essay by Leonard Koren who – YES! – raises the environmental impacts of concrete, and some good selected works to profile, with enough information to send you in the right direction for further research. This is a pleasing addition to my Phaidon book collection.

Book: Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

A great title which accurately reflects the book’s contents! I was laughing aloud in a museum when I encountered this.

Ugly Belgian Houses
by Hannes Coudenys
published by Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, Gent, Belgium

I came across this book in an architecture museum, and it had me laughing out loud. My friend, who joined me in appreciating these aesthetic horrors, later found the book elsewhere and purchased it for me as a present, so I could enjoy it all over again!

It provides EXACTLY what it says it will.

These houses are hilarious.

This is a blog-to-book project, where the author started out anonymously posting photos of subjectively aesthetic disasters on tumblr, and wound up developing quite a following. What makes this more than just a greatest hits collection from his blog is the introductory essay, where he explains how Belgian copyright laws means you can’t publish images of buildings without getting permission from the designer and/or owner, and this means he had to contact the people whose homes he mocked online. Often, in person. Often, ALONE.

It’s a fun read!

I took delight in this book, and recommend it to anyone who has ever looked at a very ugly building and laughed. I also recommend the blog, which I’ll link to below.

Manga: Appleseed by Masamune Shirow

Covers of the Eclipse editions of Appleseed Books One and Two by Masamune Shirow

Appleseed Book One: The Promethean Challenge
Appleseed Book Two: Prometheus Unbound
Appleseed Book Three: The Scales of Prometheus
Appleseed Book Four: The Promethean Balance

by Masamune Shirow and Seishinsha (and many translators)
published in English by Eclipse International (books One and Two) and Dark Horse Manga (a part of Dark Horse Comics) (not shown, Books Three and Four)
1989, 1990, 2008, 2009

I was recently chatting with an architect, and discussed how 1980s manga from Japan had some interesting conceptual architecture. The 80s were an era when the idea of “arcologies” (large sustainable, self-contained or partially self-supporting construction projects) was all the rage in architecture theory magazines, and some famous Japanese architects made some wild sculptural drawings which got a lot of press. On this topic, I loaned him the first two volumes of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga.

Two panels from Appleseed Book One

Now it’s my fault that architecture students at a local UC have to create an architecturally-themed manga as one of their assignments. (Sorry, kids!)

The architecture in the manga IS really detailed – these aren’t just backgrounds for wild action, but an entire portfolio of theoretical architectural design work in its own right. The end papers of each comic are always architectural, and whether the images are of the ruined high rises of the old world, or the solar-paneled developments of the new one, they are all done with pleasing attention to detail.

There are also lots of 1980s touches to the futurism – there are tons of 45 degree angled walls and buildings just because that’s what we all thought was cool at the time, and things are only barely rounded, just a tad. Our futurism always gives away when we really made something! But it’s NICE. It’s internally consistent from a design standpoint. It’s always done ALL THE WAY.

Should I say something about the manga itself? (What, there is a story?) Okay. Shirow, who is more famous for Ghost in the Shell (which has been turned into feature films at least four times now) was really at his peak (architecturally – ha!) for the Appleseed story. It follows a pair of soldiers, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, who were living in the ruins of cities in the aftermath of a devastating world war, as they are recruited to live in a new civilization that has risen from the ashes. They become police in a seemingly utopian society, but are put off a bit by the fact that most of the peaceful, educated residents of their new home are bio-engineered, and no longer completely human.

The first two volumes are world-building: Shirow explains world history, the rise of Olympus, the purpose of its population, and the political tensions that arise when you try to decide whether or not humans are really, you know, SAFE.

The second two volumes rely on the first (you can’t just start there), and show the ongoing struggles of our protagonists with their dangerous jobs and complex political entanglements. These are mostly action sequences, and less philosophical than the first two, which had so many meaning-of-life debates among engineered bioroids that they required footnotes. (No, really.)

I have objections to some elements of the manga. A big one: Women’s Bodies. The men are covered from head to toe, or are encased in robotic bodies, but the women show skin all the time, to the point that there are shower scenes (because of course). So, you 100% know this was drawn by a man, what his preferred body types are, and also that he is damned near obsessed with the female pelvic region, because of how often you can see it rendered in great detail even during fight scenes. (Once you see this theme, you can’t unsee it. HOW MANY HIGH KICKS DOES A WOMAN REALLY NEED TO PLACE IN EVERY DAMNED BATTLE, HUH?) I now know that later in his career, Shirow turned to what we (Americans) call softcore porn drawings of shiny, oiled-looking youthful girls/women, so please be careful with your image searches!

Also, as a part black woman, I’m not a fan of how he draws black people. Since most of the characters appear to be heavily stylized pseudo-European (rather than Asian), there is a hazy stylized ethnic ambiguity until black people arrive, and they are suddenly VERY different. I’m not saying we aren’t bigger or can have different features, but between the one black character in Macross/Robotech, or in the more recent Castlevania, there are some great manga-stylized renderings that I find more attractive. I realize that I have access to black people in my own family, and Shirow may not, but I was… confused by several of them, honestly.

So I have positive architectural feelings about Appleseed, and especially appreciate the buildings, machines, and industrial design of the first two books.

Architecture: Harpa

There is a lovely photo of Harpa in the book I’m reading, and that made me go looking for additional photos of it… even though I am privileged enough to have seen it in person, I know that people who were wearing better coats than I was during my brief visit likely took better photos of it with real cameras. 🙂

The photo on their website is stunning (and is not the same as in the preview below, at least at the moment), and so I’m sharing that link so you can see it yourself.