Book: Zaha Hadid by Philip Jodidio

What would the architecture profession do without architectural photography?

Zaha Hadid
by Philip Jodidio
published by Taschen, Köln
2019

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

Concrete
edited by William Hall, with an Essay by Leonard Koren
published by Phaidon Ltd., New York & London
2012

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: Judy Chicago: New Views by the National Museum of Women in the Arts

This is a gorgeous cover, with the intrusive colored smoke encroaching on the title text. Just fantastic!

Judy Chicago: New Views
by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (U.S.)
published by Scala Arts Publishers, Inc., New York
2019

Judy Chicago’s works, especially her drawings and paintings, always appeal to me. She has a sense shading and gradation that is consistent across her materials, and her drawing compositions are just stunning. She is an artist I have always believed should be more famous, and the folks at the National Museum of Women in the Arts agree! They’ve created and published this excellent book.

There is a lot to appreciate about this volume. It includes works that are held privately, and so you are unlikely to have seen them; it includes details of works you may not have appreciated from a polite viewing distance in a museum, especially for her textile works; and the essays and interview are of exceptionally high quality – and are somehow at just the right length to leave you stimulated and wanting more.

I am personally thrilled to see images of her smoke and firework pieces, which had escaped me previously, but which I should see in larger form at the upcoming Judy Chicago retrospective at the San Francisco deYoung Museum, which opens later this month (August 2021).

I appreciate so much about her body of work. I especially appreciate: the consistency of her compositions across materials (from Prismacolor pencil to sprayed paints on different bases); her elegant use of ranges of color; her direct embrace of female imagery and feminist ideas; her compassion for the suffering of others (including animals), which she renders so skillfully across different media; her in depth, multi-year studies of materials (she enrolled in auto body shop classes, boatbuilding classes, and china painting classes) so she could execute her work at a high technical level; and her utilization and embrace of skilled collaborators to help her achieve some of her monumentally sized works.

While her work evolved in clear directions, I was surprised to be so delighted by some of her early paintings on car hoods, which I wouldn’t recognize has hers (based on later work), but which is charming and bold. The shapes she uses are nearly iconic.

This is an excellent book of very high quality by every measure, with a great selection of Chicago’s work, beautifully reproduced, presented in a well-organized fashion alongside thoughtful writing about her direction and commitment to her themes. I’m so glad I bought it, and feel more prepared to enjoy her forthcoming show!

Book: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
by Cathy O’Neil
published by Broadway Books (Penguin Random House), New York
2016 (afterward from 2017)

I’ve finally read this clear and well-organized book about the design of data-centric automation tools, and how their potential has been often squandered or misused. We can do so much better!

O’Neil is a math Ph.D. and professor who went into industry and was distressed at how proprietary algorithms are being used in potentially harmful real life situations without thoughtful oversight. The fact that technology is involved at all leads to something like blind faith from the businesses and organizations that apply it. She firmly believes algorithms CAN be used for good, but won’t under current approaches. You can’t have good outcomes if the goal is to make a quick buck, keep the approach secret, and never improve it! These tools are too often used in ways which only reinforce existing inequities.

Her examples are thoughtful and described in depth.

A major flaw in data automation is the use of proxy data, and I was glad to see this called out. How do you measure if someone is a good teacher, if they would be a good employee, if they should receive a good deal on your product, or if they are a risk to the community? Without a single, obvious thing to measure, people make stuff up that is easier to quantify, and then encode their wacky idea into an “objective” measurement that doesn’t really measure the subject at all. The wacky measurement is then obscured as proprietary secrets, and sold as as a product to businesses, who want answers cheaply more than they want accuracy. The less regulated the industry, the wackier some of the data and measurements become.

For example, good teaching is hard to measure, so instead the system may measure a change in test scores… but if the students were already getting all As, there is no improvement possible, so the teacher may be marked down, and not know why. Unscientific personality tests may be used to screen potential employees, or robots may just scan applicant resumes for keywords, without any real indication that those tools result in better employees.

Many of these approaches are NOT ready for real world use, but are used just the same. O’Neil cites the Michigan automated unemployment auditing system that falsely accused thousands of unemployment fraud, which destroyed livelihoods (and marriages), as a great example. That error is still playing out, and will play out in the courts for a long time, per this Detroit Free Press article: Judge: Companies can be sued over Michigan unemployment fraud fiasco by Paul Egan & Adrienne Roberts (March 26, 2021). To quote from the article, “The state has acknowledged that at least 20,000 Michigan residents — and possibly as many as 40,000 — were wrongly accused of fraud between 2013 and 2015 by a $47-million computer system, purchased from FAST, that the state operated without human supervision and with an error rate as high as 93%.” Officials blindly launched this system without human checks, because yaaay, technology?

As someone who keeps being asked by one credit agency about cars I’ve never owned and pet insurance I’ve never purchased, I know that we’ve already automated some data projects badly. O’Neil cites other professional data scientists who have proposed sensible industry standards, and she has additional, more specific suggestions on top of this.

I can hope that the popularity of this book, which was a NYT Bestseller, can push decision makers into making better, more ethical, more fair decisions as a result of her ideas.

Book: Yarn, Thread, String: Making, Manufacturing and Creating by Janine Vangool

This is one of FOUR covers that come printed on the poster-like dust-jacket

Book: Yarn, Thread, String: Making, Manufacturing and Creating
by Janine Vangool
published by Uppercase Publishing, Inc., Alberta, Canada
2021

Janine Vangool publishes Uppercase Magazine and an increasingly long list of books that have specific art, craft, and design themes. Vangool’s books in her ‘Encyclopedia of Inspiration’ series are collections of profiles + portfolios showing recent work on a given theme. These types of surveys of a creative space are a huge effort to solicit, judge, layout, edit, and proofread! This gorgeous, hefty volume provides nearly 500 pages of full-color, beautifully printed, elegantly designed profiles of artists, designers, manufacturers, and suppliers working with fibers and fiber-like materials.

Vangool and her team included an impressive range of profiles, from flax farmers to wool processors, knitters to fine art portrait embroiders and macrame artists; from people who make natural dyes to those who machine knit; from people shredding used plastic bags to responsibly reuse them for a more durable purpose, to people shredding paper to turn into delicate, nearly lacy fabrics.

I appreciate the effort that went into this compilation and survey, and especially the impressive resulting range of work. Many of us only have a chance to see fiber arts if we happen to be in a region where they are being shown, or have a chance to watch fabrics being made at a textile museum. (I went to an experimental public elementary school, which means I’ve carded and spun wool, but that is a rare experience in a city!) This is a great way to showcase excellent work to a broader audience than most of these creators could otherwise reach, and to give more people a chance to see some great materials and works.

Vangool not only does a great job with the book, but also creates an embedded video for each of her publications on the Uppercase website, so you can view a video of the entire publication before you buy. That takes confidence! You can click on this Vimeo link, or on the book title just below the cover above ,to preview this book.

Summary: this is a high quality publication of some fantastic fiber art manufacturers, suppliers, designers, and fine artists. I recommend it highly if you enjoy well-designed books, textile arts, skeins of freshly dyed yarn (artfully arranged), or understanding how threads and fabrics are made.

Book:The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Audiobook cover version

Book:The Space Between Worlds
by Micaiah Johnson
audiobook read by Nicole Lewis
published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
2020

Here’s a great premise for a sci-fi story: rather than developing time or interstellar travel, scientists find a way to travel between a limited number of parallel universes with parallel earths, and then use information from those earths to adjust our earth for success. Though not for EVERYONE’S success…

This conceit has a catch, and it is a brilliant one: the only people who can travel to parallel earths can’t be alive there. Those with a living equivalent die a horrific death in transit due to [mysterious law of physics]. So, the most valuable potential multiverse spies alive on earth zero are those who live in dire circumstances. This means interworld travel is NOT safe for members of the ruling elite – only the marginalized, living marginal lives, who have the odds stacked against them in a way that killed them off in other universes.

Cara, our heroine, had a rough upbringing that was fatal to her on most earths, so she can go to more earths than anyone else. She is recruited to the small force of traversers, and finds herself working for the predominantly white elite, living in their fancy walled city, and manifesting on other earths where everyone looks so familiar, but where the other versions of herself are dead. Her position on Earth 0 feels tenuous, her crush is cold toward her, and she experiences racist and classist snubs as a black woman from the desert. A forthcoming scientific breakthrough OR being too ethical about what she sees (and what her bosses collect) could end her job and her chance at a safe life with clean water and fresh food.

When something goes terribly wrong on another earth, she has a chance to shake things up, though she may not survive it, and has no way of knowing what the result will mean…

This book didn’t go where I thought it would go; it wasn’t over when I thought it was over; and it was filled with thrills and surprises in all the best, ultimately epic ways. Cara is a savvy, smart, opportunistic, determined heroine. (I only yelled at her for saying something dangerous when she was delirious/medicated, and it couldn’t be helped. Note: yelling at an audiobook is best done when you are home alone, so as not to startle others.) She isn’t some perfect superhero – she gets hurt, she carries scars, she’s loved/hated terrible people, she’s survived horrific abuse, she wallows in self-doubt and self-blame, she put ethics aside in favor of survival – but her determination and ethical evolution as she makes a place for herself in the world(s) is a solid, stimulating heroic journey.

This audiobook (libro.fm) is performed by the remarkably talented Nicole Lewis, who reads beautifully, acts brilliantly, represents the many characters by voice clearly, and makes a fantastic Cara. The author, Johnson, provided excellent dialog in the unabridged version, and Lewis made it come to life. (I discovered this audiobook on Libro.fm’s Playlist, “Black Narrators You Should Be Listening To” from June 2021. Nicole Lewis is fantastic. She sounds like black women I know, and hearing her perform these characters so brilliantly was a delight. I would have appreciated this list even if I wasn’t half black myself, the same way I research and enjoy great books by Asian writers without being Asian.)

This book is impressive sci-fi, I loved it, I zealously recommend it, and I’m hoping for more brilliant work like this from Micaiah Johnson.

Book: William Gibson’s Archangel by William Gibson, et al.

The hard-to-find hardcover compilation of the comics

William Gibson’s Archangel
by William Gibson, Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and others
published by Idea and Design Works LLC (aka IDW)
2017

This World War II spy thriller incorporates William Gibson’s recent theme of branching alternative futures in an action-packed, dark comic book.

A brief synopsis: a despotic American leader on a toxic earth goes back to 1945 to create a new branch reality in which he has even more power. A small resistance force plans to interfere…

The story is fast-paced, and the action is dense. The compositions are dynamic, with lots of diagonals, fists, kicks, and planes flying at steep angles. The panels are sepia-tinted and dark, with deep colors and deeper shadows. The characters have a lot of texture, shading, wrinkles, coarse fabrics, and the sort of surface definition that comes with harsh lighting. (Or orthochromatic film, which played such a big part in the noir look of movies of past eras.) The faces are expressive and stern. (Characters’ faces sometimes look unfamiliar, which is a minor distraction in a solid series like this). The drawings set a really remarkable mood, and I’m especially impressed that I’m even THINKING about the coarse look of fabrics!

The individual issue cover art by Tula Lotay (tulalotay.com) is more vivid, with a different palette (remarkable greens and purples), and slightly different interpretations of the characters. These look fantastic.

This is a well produced, action packed, very William-Gibson story, but with WWII noir and timeline-splinters that started far back in time, which distinguish it from his other works. There are additional cover art panels and sketches of each of the characters the appendix, to round out your appreciation of the effort that went into this great book. I’m so glad I found the compilation!

Unexpectedly, IDW has very little promotional content on their website about this comic, but did produce a lightly animated preview!

Book: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Excellent, space-y use of bubbles!

Lagoon
by Nnedi Okorafor
published by Saga Press (Simon & Schuster), NewYork
2014

This ‘first contact’ sci-fi story by Nnedi Okorafor immediately delighted me, because the first earth being the aliens communicated with was not human. Hooray for other species getting their moment to shine!

This is a story of aliens turning up off the coast of Nigeria, and the chaos that erupts when they announce themselves and walk among the residents of bustling, cosmopolitan Lagos, Nigeria.

The aliens are good at making friends, and so three humans find themselves taken by a wave into the sea for deep (heehee) conversations, and then tasked with assisting an alien representative in meeting the public and authorities. The humans have their own messy lives and drama, and get abundant additional drama served up to them by their relatives and neighbors. I hope I would be as smart, curious, and enthusiastic as the marine biologist of the group if aliens dragged ME into the ocean!

It’s a fun ride! Lagos is depicted as lively, corrupt, dangerous, bustling, and nearly addictive; the humans of Lagos are curious, food-obsessed, friendly, opportunistic, self-aggrandizing, helpful, loyal, violent, religious, superstitious, music-loving… It’s a great setting, and the dramatic reactions the public has to the news seem entirely fitting. (Especially now, years later, during this global pandemic, it is even more convincing!)

I enjoyed this VERY much, and having already enjoyed Binti, I’ll now need to find some additional Okorafor (nnedi.com) books to dive into.

Book: Tokyo at Night by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Cover of Tokyo at Night, art book by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Tokyo at Night (translated Japanese title: Tokyo Night Train Works)
by Mateusz Urbanowicz
published by MdN Corp, Tokyo, Japan
2019

This is a beautiful book of NIGHT TIME contemporary, urban watercolors by a professional artist/illustrator for Japanese animation films. If you have ever wondered what animation artists do in their spare time, the answer is: they create MORE ART!

You may find this book review inevitable, between my fuss over ordering books from Kinokuniya Books in San Francisco, my background in architecture, and my appreciation of the background illustrations in Japanese anime I caught up on during the pandemic. Kinokuniya featured Urbanowicz’ other work, Tokyo Storefronts, prominently in its windows, and those are great, but night time watercolors are definitely within my special area of interest!

There is a lot to appreciate here.

First, Urbanowicz has some conflicted feelings about contemporary urban surfaces in Tokyo. There are a plenty of hyper-modern concrete facades, overhead wires, metal roll-up doors, overpasses, and other functional urban shapes, all of which are both a great visual challenge for an artist AND a sort of painful visual blight for someone who appreciates historic/traditional Japanese design more generally. I like that Urbanowicz embraces this hypermodern chaos, accepting it for what it offers visually, and sharing some of his feelings about it.

On a related note, Urbanowicz isn’t choosing beloved landmarks that would already have a warm place in your heart: he is choosing ordinary urban scenes that you wouldn’t ordinarily go out of your way to glorify. As so many people favor conventionally pretty, “popular” scenes to benefit from existing affection for a subject, I’m all the more impressed for his originality and effort to make remarkable work about ordinary locations.

As a professional illustrator, Urbanowicz takes a very practical approach to these works. He uses waterproof ink where that benefits the work; he uses opaque white paint when that creates an effect he wants; he uses masking fluid; he uses an airbrush when he wants to soften something. He uses watercolor for its strengths, and uses other tools when they contribute. He also revises compositions when the real life arrangement wouldn’t make a great image. He offers and illustrated guide near the end of the book to share his techniques, so we’ll appreciate the human effort that went into doing all this work by hand. It’s quite refreshing that he is so skilled with many tools, and isn’t unduly strict about single tool purity.

I’m especially impressed that he created all of this work on light paper. That required laying down a LOT of pigment, and he chose his materials and approach carefully, so that his washes remained clear and smooth. (My own washes get very grainy in unfortunate ways when I try to work this this kind of saturation, so I really appreciate his fantastic washes – I appreciate just knowing that this kind of saturation is possible!) Many painters render night scenes in opaque paints, especially oils, so seeing this work done in watercolor expands my idea of what is possible in watercolor.

This is an impressive and enjoyable book of great watercolors for fans of watercolor painting, hard-edged urban details, night scenes, Tokyo, Japanese urban environments, and any of Urbanowicz’ other work.

Book: Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Audiobook cover

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
audiobook narrated by Zainab Jah
published by Penguin Random House
2007 (audiobook in 2017)

How could anything as horrific as a civil war make for such an engrossing, heartfelt book? I am touched, moved, horrified, pained, and I zealously recommend this novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of two women, non-identical twins with a privileged background, living their lives in recently independent Nigeria in the 1960s. One is a university professor who is deeply in love with a political firebrand with a scheming, old-fashioned family that wants him to be with an uneducated woman; the other is a savvy businesswoman and fixer, stepping into her father’s role in the corrupt business world. We get to know them, their lovers, and their households well, the steady patterns of their comfortable lives, the awe in which their rural house staff view them…

And then massacres begin. Massacres of the Igbo people, the ethnic group these characters all belong to within a diverse, post-colonial Nigeria.

It’s clear that the new nation, with many of its persistent, colonial-era power imbalances between groups, cannot stand – the Igbo can’t share a government with people who kill them while calling them infidels. Biafra, a new nation for the Igbo and other southeastern groups, is declared… and a slow-motion disaster unfolds, as Nigeria won’t let them go, the military intervenes, and the major powers of the world take sides – and nearly all take the side of Nigeria against Biafra.

By making the decline personal, by seeing these sisters and those they care about take up the cause of their new nation, and then gradually have their world destroyed, is brutal. The decline, the horror, the hardships, the atrocities, reading about their (fictional but representative) experience of it all while knowing how badly it ended in real life – it is gutting.

I listened to the audiobook version, brilliantly performed by Zainab Jah. Her presentation of the Igbo phrases, the local and British accents, pleading children, shouty-old-ladies ordering people around or accusing them of witchcraft, the swearing Americans – her performance was FANTASTIC!

This is a brilliant novel, and a forever timely reminder of both the damage done by the empires of the past and the absence of a peaceful path for self-determination for groups of all types today, who are trapped indefinitely within the borders of a previous century.