Book: Designing Japan: A Future Built on Aesthetics by Kenya Hara

Designing Japan: A Future Built on Aesthetics
by Kenya Hara
published by Lars Müller Publishers

This collection of Kenya Hara’s essays provide examples of Japanese design principles and customs, and suggests that Japan’s (and other local cultures’) values can shape unique products and experiences in ways that differentiate themselves in global marketplaces.

My copy of Hara’s book is filled with little book darts marking ideas I especially like. His optimism that design itself can inspire better decision-making and life choices is appealing. I find the idea that our lives are so crowded with objects that we can’t see and appreciate them individually feels fair. (I feel that the near-minimalist ideal this implies has been superficially transformed here into a different sort of materialism, seen in the vast spaces spotlighting curated “conversation pieces” within the enormous homes of the rich.) Hara’s planning and execution of exhibitions is interesting to read about, and his suggestion that novel demographic changes likely have design solutions is intriguing. His examples of rural support with mobile infrastructure is a lovely example of very democratic, well-designed approach.

Hara has numerous timely insights, such as on the decluttering fad: the problem isn’t just with the individual who has accumulated useless things. “It is not jettisoning the object that is mottenai (shameful waste), but rather the series of efforts conceived and executed with the goal of manufacturing a useless object destined for disposal.” YES YES YES!

I am tempted to delicately reword comments about historic Japanese sensibilities being “diluted” by external influences, due to my sensitivities toward current American xenophobic euphemisms. External influences can be dire, (I write here in the language of people who enslaved many of my ancestors, so I have feelings on this topic), but external influences CAN also bring ideas that can be transformed by the culture that consumes and reworks them. Japan has produced great innovations, including innovations on technologies that originated elsewhere. I fully acknowledge that industrialization (which I don’t conceptualize as a cultural product) specifically has proven both beneficial in raising basic living standards AND highly problematic in environmental impacts.

This is a thoughtful collection. I enjoyed the clarity of the language used, and the mix of theoretical discussions with specific examples of how these theories have been communicated for international exhibit audiences.

Book: The Neri Oxman Material Ecology Catalogue, edited by Emily Hall and Jennifer Liese

The Neri Oxman Material Ecology Catalogue
edited by Emily Hall and Jennifer Liese
published by The Museum of Modern Art, NY (MoMA)

Art exhibitions are a special sort of book, and I was excited to obtain this one after having missed the exhibit at MoMA (because: COVID).

The curator’s essay notes that architecture has its movements and manifestos, and that Speculative Critical Design, which could include Oxman and her lab’s practice, “has featured earnest but inconsequential exercises and clichéd storytelling,” which could honestly be a summary of nearly every architectural movement/manifesto (I could stop the sentence here) that hasn’t delivered a robust body of work. Oxman’s written philosophical content can provide insights, but appears intended to produce a shell of theory for the practical purposes of funding an experimental practice. You can gloss over it, admire the design of the catalog itself (modeled in tribute to Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog), and then look at the interesting experiments and models that Oxman and her teams have produced.

Oxman produces attractive art objects that show off the potential of experimental, available natural materials. To utilize these materials, different fabrication methods involving both showy robots and insects are attractively documented, so that the processes behind the forming of materials is clear.

There is a tiny caption in an image “the shellfish industry produces more than 1 million tons of chitin-based waste per year,” and suddenly the context of the many forms and pieces involving chitin is clear. We have abundant supplies of materials that are the byproduct of other industries, which could offer opportunities to escape our petroleum and plastic-based problems.

The emphases on responsible material use, experimental manufacturing, and artistically documented processes interest and please me. Displays of models and experiments charm me (in a way similar to Studio Olafur Eliasson’s geometric model shop), though these models often have forms suggesting industrious insects made them, or perhaps volcanic springs formed them over time – and I mean that as a compliment. There are a few pieces that aren’t as tightly conceptualized to appeal to me (the death masks, for example), but the results are attractive, and they aren’t here to please me alone, so I won’t complain.

This is an attractive, well-designed catalog that shows off intelligent and attractive materials engineering experiments. I appreciate Oxman’s innovative work and overall practice, which is very STEAMY (in the putting the Art back into STEM way).

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: 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.