Book: Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women by Jane Hall

Cover image via Phaidon’s gorgeous website

Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women
by Jane Hall
published by Phaidon
2019

The premise behind this book is that lots of women are designing impressive buildings you recognize, buildings that are worth celebrating, but you may not be aware of this because their work is often shown under a firm name or misattributed to men. To correct this gap in your knowledge, this book collects excellent projects, both recent and historical, and tells you about the architects behind them.

So many gorgeous projects, including projects you have seen in magazines or in person! (Via Phaidon’s website)

The selection of projects neatly tilts toward my favorite types: large public works, plus large private projects, both of the type that are experienced by a lot of people: concert halls, offices, museums, schools. Each architect is represented by a brief biography and one or more excellent project photos with key details for further research. Collaborations between men and women are recognized and celebrated in an acknowledgement of the team effort that contemporary architecture ordinarily requires for large scale projects.

Hall is very modest about her research and the limitations of the Europe-centric architectural awards processes that favor Europe and selected other regions, but I am delighted by the geographic range of her selections.

The essay and quotes in the book underline the importance of spotlighting these high quality projects to correct for the erasure of women in the field. Hall calls out the 2014 scandal around having architect Patty Hopkins photoshopped out of a photo of architecture award winners, while her husband was left in for a BBC show about their shared firm’s work – even though she co-founded the firm, and their shared name is on it! (See the article in Architects’ Journal entitled, “BBC slammed for ‘bias’ after Patty Hopkins is sidelined in TV show” dated March 5, 2014 by Richard Waite and Laura Mark.) It isn’t just about the photo, it’s about the program’s premise that men were exclusively responsible for the shape of contemporary design – the photo was just a reminder that the facts did not support that narrative. If your are actively edited out of discussions about the firm you co-founded and the projects you worked on, just to indulge some stranger’s all-male hero narrative, who is safe? The lone genius theory is bad enough, but diminishing key founders because of their gender is outrageous.

“No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as Venturi’s. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable.”

–Denise Scott Brown

(This issue is, unfortunately, relatable: a male teacher happily gave my boyfriend/classmate credit for my architecture work because just once I used my bf’s woodworking tools to build a model, though if he had borrowed equipment from me, the reverse would NOT have been suggested. My bf told me he took it as a compliment (to him). Their creepy camaraderie over rewarding him for my work made quite an impression on me.)

This is a beautiful, oversized book of great projects with lovely photos. The core details about the firms behind the designs are enough to send you in the right direction to learn more. The presence and success of the women behind these projects is encouraging and satisfying.

This book also gives you an excuse to visit the Phaidon website, which is GORGEOUS and has many wonderful temptations, especially the fine art monographs and design books.

Book: Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green, by Deanna MacDonald

How is that for a cool cover?

Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green
by Deanna MacDonald
published by Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont
2015

This is a beautifully illustrated survey of Japanese building projects which show a commitment to environmental sustainability.

This book grabbed me right away by immediately explaining something that had always confused me: why are homes made with renewable, traditional materials so rare? The answer that explains it all: insurance companies won’t insure old houses. One MUST tear down and rebuild to new codes every 30 years to get insurance. And so houses are basically disposable, and less sustainable materials can be cheaper, faster, less flammable, or more fashionable.

Some of the edgy, innovative Japanese house books I’ve seen are now so easily explained: no one is building for the long term, so being over-specific for a point in time, or taking risks, and being daring makes more sense – you won’t have to grow old in what you build! (Even in the recent Japanese fiction I’ve been reading, families tear down buildings to sell an empty lot – this seems to be considered the best choice almost always…)

This book profiles a range of projects from architects with a range of attitudes and credentials about environmentally sustainable building. It is a buffet of different eco-emphases: some projects focus on energy use, some on thermal insulation, some on traditional wood treatments (like charring to protect against insects), some on attempting to preserve the natural features of a landscape by resting on smaller foundations (which involves using a lot of steel, however), and all result in a range of reasonably conventional homes that wouldn’t jump out as eco-friendly without some explanation.

By showing a diversity of approaches and solutions, the book provides a good survey of concerns that CAN be addressed and SHOULD be considered. You CAN have a normal-looking house while making better choices!

As with all architecture books, I get a better sense for how living in the spaces could be when they have signs of human life in them, such as art or furnishings, so I am relieved that several of the homes are furnished, at least minimally. While a few of the homes are absolutely palatial (the vast, full floor height, insulated windows in some of these projects alone probably cost more than my entire house), there are some modest / practical ones in the mix. I also appreciate the interludes to cover topics such as the use of landscaping, and kit homes (hello, Muji!), and the inclusion of some international projects to tie what is happening in Japan to global trends.

Overall, this is an attractive, nicely presented book showing how many potential approaches there are to improve the sustainability of residential construction, especially in the climate and circumstances found in Japan. I enjoyed it.

Book: Cabins by Philip Jodidio

Cabins
by Philip Jodidio
published by Taschen
2018

This hefty, dense, trilingual (English, German, and French) volume features extremely charming illustrations by Cruschiform (Marie-Laure Cruschi), great photos, consistent and clear floor plans (!gasp!), and outdoorsy-buildings, only some of which are cabins.

While the promotional text discusses rustic simplicity, and there are a few rugged/utilitarian structures, MOST of these aren’t modest buildings you could track mud into. I mean, there are some without heating, or that are only intended for seasonal use, but many are fully developed, large, contemporary homes for the well off.

I adore this “boathouse,” but we have boathouses in our public parks here in SF, and they are basically uninsulated garages for boats that are rusting and have bird poo on them. They don’t look like this:

This home by AR Design Studio in the UK is fantastic. Too fantastic for cabin-hood! It is a retreat from… another home on the property.

The design of the book is great – the illustrations are stylish, fun, colorful, and provide clear transitions between projects. The consistent floor plan graphics help explain how the buildings should work. The index is well organized, and the essay at the front is worth a read.

The projects themselves range from translucent structures that you can camp in, to wine country vacation homes, to buildings where you could live normally, to those that are better suited for ‘glamping’ (pretend glamour camping). There is at least one where I can imagine snowshoeing in from the edge of the property with a sled full of cocktail ingredients and catered food, though unpacking supplies in the immaculate kitchen that appears to have no food preparation tools of any kind would be daunting. 🙂

It’s difficult to tell what the criteria for SUCCESS in the design category is. The program for a cabin (a real cabin) is looser than one for a home, but that leaves their utility ambiguous. Are we snow camping, or are we entertaining? Can our older parents visit, or is it too difficult to access? Is it comfortable for a weekend only, or a week, or a month?

The structures that are fully furnished are easier to interpret – I know my parents could sit down without me having to bring furniture, so that’s great. Some bedrooms are completely filled by a bed. Why? Should you need to leave the bedroom to open a suitcase and dress? Should you need to climb a ladder into a loft to sleep? Does the enormous trap door in the floor without railings feel sketchy when you’re hauling in your supplies? Is a glass-enclosed bath a great idea if your parents are visiting for the weekend?

The client’s desires and goals for using the space are mentioned at various levels of detail, but without giving away too much, I’d love to have a scorecard to compare the programs on a practical level, considering the range of projects. Accessibility (how able-bodied do I need to be to get in, and how many stairs am I hauling supplies up), is there enough floor space to dress in the bedroom; is there enough light to read; is there space to draw/paint/write; is the temperature range comfortable in its intended seasons, is there any storage space for the outdoor gear you need to get there… This would be especially valuable because of the glossy architecture magazine convention of showing most of the spaces without human occupants, without normal personal possessions, and without any normal living functions being performed.

This is a fun collection to leaf through, and I do have at least one new Swedish island cabin getaway fantasy now, so I think this book has accomplished its mission.