Posts tagged with "Books":
For the U.K.’s latest passport design, a page is dedicated to British-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor. This is nothing untoward; Kapoor is a distinguished artist both nationally and on the world stage. On the page are three of his works: Marsyas, Temenos, and the Orbit, the latter of which was designed with the help of equally esteemed British engineer, Cecil Balmond.
At 377 feet, the Orbit is Britain’s tallest sculpture. A press release for its 2014 re-opening proudly proclaims that the ArcelorMittal Orbit—to call it its official name after Indian steel giant Lakshmi Mittal—“originated in 2009 when [former] London Mayor Boris Johnson launched a competition to design a sculpture for the Olympic Park.”
The term sculpture is perhaps too kind, since the Orbit looks like Kapoor and Balmond both sneezed while trying to wrest control of the mouse with Rhino running on the computer. Today, despite adding a slide, it costs the taxpayer $13,100 a week to keep running. The omnipresent Orbit looms over the London 2012 Olympic site in the London borough of Newham and now the work—an inescapable reminder of Johnson’s eagerness to create an icon—will follow Britons around the globe.
Though a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words, thankfully there is better documentation of Johnson’s foibles in the built environment. Critic Douglas Murphy’s Nincompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson, does this superbly and goes beyond, relating it to Johnson’s ironic ineptitude on more serious issues with real-world ramifications, such as the Heygate Estate evictions in South London. In this instance, Johnson remarked that it was “vital we push forward with work to unlock the economic potential” of the area as he approved the replacement masterplan, seemingly oblivious of the implications. The estates were home to more than 3,000 people.
The darker manifestation’s of Johnson’s mayoralty come later in the book, which is laid out in two parts: Johnson the architectural meddler comes first and Johnson the hapless, apathetic, and willfully ignorant politician, after. In this sense, Murphy’s depressingly long catalogue of Johnson’s errors posits the more obvious architectural blunders as a mask to his more inimical failings.
To make the grim reading digestible, Nincompoopolis is filled with personal touches from Murphy (all but two of the images used are the author's own) who found himself in London just as Johnson took the reins in 2008. His sophisticated anger is both fitting and relevant, delivered with a dry sense of humor, as he dismantles everything wrong with each project, from the process (or lack of it) to the final product. The reader is doused with lashings of context, followed by a predictable punchline: Johnson.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The Garden Bridge, with a corrupt tendering process in which Johnson played a central role, was scrapped by incumbent Mayor Sadiq Kahn. A shopping mall version of the Crystal Palace was another near-miss, and orders have been stopped on the New Routemaster London bus. These failed follies can hardly be classed as wins, however, with millions of dollars of public money having already been squandered on them.
Perhaps a bright spot can be found in the socially-minded work of Peter Barber Architects, which Murphy duly mentions. Johnson is also credited for issuing new housing standards in the shape of the London Housing Design Guide which, bemusingly for him given his track record, called for less “iconic” architecture and beckoned in the “New London Vernacular.” However, as Murphy points out, much of this genuinely good work rides on the legacy of former mayor Ken Livingstone, who worked with Richard Rogers during his time as mayor. “In a city that has been undergoing so much housing struggle, no amount of tasteful brick detailing can mask the problems,” Murphy remarks.
The bearer of an American passport which reads “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson,” London’s former Mayor will never have to suffer the full consequences of Brexit, in which he played a leading role. Nor will he have to look at the Orbit embarrassingly sprawled across a page of official national documentation.
Brexit, hopefully, was Johnson’s political swan-song. It made sense as well. The Routemaster and Crystal Palace fiascos were projects inspired by a misplaced public love of nostalgia, to which Johnson, seeing his chance as a so-called man of the people, rushed ham-handedly to cater to.
Inspiration also came from New York, where Johnson was born, but again, these ideas were executed in the wrong way. The High Line’s success spurred the Garden Bridge into almost becoming a reality, but ignored the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Johnson was determined to emulate the grandeur of antiquated world expos, but this somehow resulted in the Orbit and nearly led to a enormous glass mall, neither of which approached the legacy of 1964.
Nincompoopolis is a playful word, more endearing than insulting. However, Murphy does not shy away from showing that beneath Johnson’s boyish bravado and messy hair, depicted atop the Orbit on the book's cover, is a more clueless and sinister character.
Nincompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson Repeater Books $10.00
Unlike a standard ebook, this digital version is designed specifically for an art book reading experience. While the catalogue is available in print format—and there still is nothing like thumbing through physical pages—the digitized version offers a user-friendly interface whose features make up for the lack of tactility.
Published through Musebooks, perhaps the best feature of this digital version is the ability to toggle between text view, image view, and page view while staying in the same section. The image view compiles all of the catalogue’s illustrations into one webpage and allows readers to zoom into the detailed drawings without losing much of the resolution, a feature that is critical for discerning readers.
The catalogue and exhibition highlight Wright’s expansive practice and feature architectural drawings, models, furniture, films, and television broadcasts. Focusing on objects from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, they include essays penned by architecture professors and critics like Mabel O. Wilson, Michael Desmond, and Ken Tadashi Oshima, accompanied by almost 300 illustrations.
A preview of the digital version of Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive is available through Musebooks, where it is also being sold for $25.99. (The hardcover, meanwhile, will set you back $44.15 on Amazon.)
Niche Tactics, a collection of essays edited by Caroline O’Donnell, approaches architecture as a living entity with a symbiotic relationship to its environment. She starts with contrasting bubble metaphors, the “ecological bubbles” of biologist Jakob von Uexkull, who studied creatures’ particular stimuli—blood for ticks, pollen for bees—with the Corbusian bubble that focuses on interior space shaped by program. External forces will burst the bubble rather than merely deform it if it isn’t designed for its ecology or able to adapt.
O’Donnell also bases her studies on Greg Lynn’s evolution of formalism unleashed from typological constraints. To this strategy, she adds the tactical niche, which references the components and resources of a habitat that influence survival. She takes us through a breadth of history, theory and cultural studies—from the Renaissance and the Picturesque, to Vitruvius and Palladio, to Colin Rowe and Peter Cook, and from sustainability and phenomenology to film and comedy—examining objects’ relations to their contexts and how this relates to architecture. Along the way she shows that basic principles of symmetry, proportion, and typology are not antithetical to an ecologically responsive architecture.
However, radical practices often get slapped with the “weird shape” or formalism label, so it’s encouraging to trace a trajectory from Rudolf Wittkower to Nikolaus Pevsner and Rowe, whose own studies of the analytic and the collage are found in O’Donnell’s research of context. Ideal Palladian villas are reintroduced to their country settings, and churches yield their historically typological forms to exaggerated responses to wind, solar, and urban orientation. Considering the urban, O’Donnell speculates what would have emerged had Le Corbusier’s clean sweep of the Plan Voisin grid considered cultural and civic landmarks as interferences. However, none of this is really all that new, foreign, or radical. The original Citicorp Center tower gave way to its site, the economics and air rights of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and O’Donnell shows how Manhattan’s gridiron deforms when confronting natural features, such as those of Morningside Park.
Moving into contemporary practice, O’Donnell reminds readers that the iterations initiated by Lynn grew from specific conditions, often dealing more with environment and evolution than more recent strategies such as application scripts and parametricism. A couple chapters addressing monsters and notions of ugliness are useful in describing how appearances that deviate from our expectations may actually indicate something more in tune with their environment or be on their way to a new “species” of architecture.
While O’Donnell laces her text with examples of analyzing and implementing contextual forces in projects, she saves the final chapter for examples of her own firm’s works. While some are no more than a paragraph, others elicit a more thorough explanation, such as her firm’s MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program winning entry Party Wall, to show how one can design to respond to site, urban context, history, and program.
The book is a welcome mix of the multidisciplinary—theory expands beyond formal analysis or historical indexing. O’Donnell combines those aspects with examples of projects in their environments, incorporating ecological and contextual referents into a living, evolving design practice. Ultimately O’Donnell argues for an ecological responsiveness to inform firmitas, utilitas, venustas contemporary architectural design.
Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site Caroline O’Donnell Routledge $59.95
“Context,” “vernacular,” and “reference” were the architectural buzzwords of choice that critic Owen Hatherley, at the start of 2017, used to recall the Architectural Review’s “Townscape” campaign. Here, he postulated that enhancing the old can be achieved by celebrating the new and serve as a deterrence to bland homogeneity. In London, viewing architecture without actually experiencing it in person is dominated by two abstract frames of reference: Instagram and flying things.
The former has helped to articulate a trend of austerity nostalgia and pastiche faux edginess, all bound by a medium that aestheticizes a bygone era and conveniently filters out context. It is, however, a deeply personal medium. The latter, meanwhile, depicts architecture within the cityscape and typically from above; lashings of context, yet devoid of any personal meaning seeing as very few of us can afford to travel by helicopter, and even fewer are birds.
New Architecture London, refreshingly and succinctly, makes no allusions as to what it's about through its title—not London looking nervously over its shoulder through rose-tinted spectacles, nor blind developer-driven optimism, this is the city as if were you to wander it right now.
Across 163 pages, photographers, Agnese Sanvito and Richard Schulman present a perpetually changing London in the “now;” a city, evidently rich in history, but not bound by it. For Schulman portraits of architects—and not just their buildings—is a hallmark of his work. While no portraits are featured in this book, it operates at a personal level with Schulman and Sanvito's lenses curating a pedestrian perspective of the city’s contemporary buildings.
In his foreword to the book, critic Edwin Heathcote describes Norman Foster's 30 St. Mary Axe (known by its colloquial moniker: The Gherkin) as a "bullet emerging from a city that has been bombed three times in a century." “Now it can barely be seen,” he continues, noting the structure as a stylistic and typological catalyst for its more contemporary, Boris-approved counterparts. It’s not all heroic, however. A generation ago, as Heathcote acknowledges, London was populated by few structures by architects of international repute, but now it is a playground for Pritzker Prize winners to plonk their iconic structures.
When Renzo Piano's Shard is framed with the abstract geometry of more glass you wonder: if the U.K.'s tallest building wasn't in the picture, would we know what city we were in? On the next page, a counter: the Shard rising above a Georgian wall, amid an equally mundane, yet historically inflected setting. In both, the Shard is the only visual indicator of place, but how long will this continue to be the case? Heathcote remarks, though, “it’s not just [London’s] skyline that has seen radical changes; its streets and its public spaces are being transformed” too.
This is a precedent for the photographers' work which looks at the abstract and intimate relationship between old and new (Amanda Levette’s 10 Hills Place and RARE Architects’ Patriot Square being notable examples). It also allows London's new architecture, in light of Townscape, to frame and be framed by its context. This is achieved sometimes by letting reflections, light, and shadow alternate focal points. Other times, it is as Heathcote remarks, “glimpsed around corners… or poking above streets.”
The technique encourages you to seek the narrative of a place and imagine the moment which is presented, as Schulman’s photograph of Caruso St. John's RIBA Stirling Prize winning Newport Street Gallery demonstrates. Even if you don't know what a delayed Southwest train service destined for Waterloo sounds like, the act of placing yourself in that scene isn't hard as the skyward facing photograph frames the saw-toothed roof and train reflection in the gallery's windows. Sadly, however, this image is afforded little page space by Prestel. The same could be said for a few other images too.
The term "shot" perhaps is a disservice to the photograph. Implying it was taken sporadically in the moment (a trait intentionally and successfully articulated) hides the fact that Schulman, in fact, spent considerable time to capture the moment and essence of place—even if a particular place is lacking in just that. He typically visits sites 20-30 times before shooting. "To take great pictures, you have to be prepared to lie on your back in the middle of the street," he told me.
Or sometimes, you have to be in a gondola—the Emirates Airline to be precise—from which Wilkinson Eyre’s Emirates Royal Docks and the Crystal can be spied. A synopsis states the cable-car system “connects directly to the London Underground while granting passengers a much more absorbing visual experience.” Don’t be fooled. When the summer tourists disappear, the supposed infrastructure is a ghost town gimmick—and a costly one too.The Emirates airline is the only transport-orientated project featured, which says a lot for London’s building priorities. It could be said today’s starchitects were beaten to the opportunity largely by the Victorians, but Norman Foster's British Museum proved great work can be done when working with buildings from this era. New Architecture London is also ordered as haphazardly as London itself. A chronological or geographical route through would have been handy.
Three brick blockbusters, O'Donnell + Tuomey's LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Center and Herzog de Meuron's Switch House, in addition to Newport Street Gallery, can be found at the end of the book and remind us that London was once a brick-built city; a gracious nod to, not fetishized fawning, of the past. Looking forward, meanwhile, is New London Architecture, presenting an honest and refreshing take on a city still working out where it wants to go.
New Architecture London Prestel $45.00
Ambitious "Well-Tempered City" explains what makes cities work, from ancient Mesopotamia to Lagos and New York City
As a certain New York real estate figure thrusts a set of unpalatable values down the national throat, another local developer’s ideas are entering public discourse for better reasons. Jonathan Rose is, in important senses, the Antidrumpf: a developer who views the building of communities as an ethically consequential profession. He applies knowledge from nature and intercultural history to benefit entire populations. He advocates resilient development in sane, mature, well-evidenced, and convincing terms.
One finishes The Well-Tempered City with respect for a substantial contribution to the urbanist literature—and with the impression that in an administration dedicated to planetary and institutional stewardship, not plunder and bluster, Rose would merit a cabinet-level appointment. (Interior? HUD? Energy? A polymath like Rose could lead any of these departments.) The Well-Tempered City stands alongside works by Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and Christopher Alexander, deserving influence and implementation.
The enduring fivefold path
With ambitious scope and explanatory clarity, Rose offers a unified theory of urban history grounded in five core concepts: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion. He also identifies nine variables critical to the rise of ancient cities: cognition, cooperation, culture, calories (energy), connectivity, commerce, control, complexity, and concentration.
The alliterations may imply a professorial top-down scheme, but Rose infers the nine C-concepts from historical studies before elucidating how stagnation or resilience depends on “urban operating systems” promoting the five principles. Cities that manage resource flows efficiently, generate socially beneficial incentives, and respond to shocks have thrived (e.g., today’s Copenhagen or Singapore, the altitude-adaptive village of Shey, Tibet, or the flexibly organized cities of Islam’s golden age). Wasteful, dis- or over-organized, militaristic, and parasitic cities (e.g., imperial Rome) have ossified and decayed.
Rose distinguishes complication from complexity: the former merely reflects scale, while the latter describes volatile conditions where small inputs trigger large outputs. The acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), he contends, describes urban as well as biological systems. Design suited to a VUCA environment will avoid the oversimplifications of 19th- and 20th-century planning by incorporating feedback phenomena and by continually adjusting incentives, technologies, balances among market and public-sector mechanisms, and other determinants of civic well-being. Ecosystems’ cyclical resource metabolisms are particularly important, avoiding linear extract-and-discard economies.
Déjà vu will kick in for readers of Jacobs, whose Death and Life chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is” drew on Warren Weaver’s observations about “problems in organized complexity.” To this foundation Rose adds a broad familiarity with global cultural practices, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cognitive science, and network theory: He has the intellectual discipline to be usefully interdisciplinary.
Discussing how the efficiency metric of energy return on investment (the ratio of usable energy generated to energy spent creating it) correlates with civilizations’ rise and fall, he notes how China’s recent agricultural practices resemble those that doomed Rome for a thousand years; how New York, Detroit, Lagos, and Baltimore have benefited from better data collection; and how a Big Mac takes seven times as much energy to produce as it provides to its consumer. One strong chapter, “The Cognitive Ecology of Opportunity,” links the neurohormonal threat response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to environments that traumatize children, exacerbated by exposure to neurotoxins such as lead, producing vicious cycles of maladaptation and social isolation. Tragic cases like Freddie Gray’s death in a struggle with Baltimore police illuminate interwoven civic and individual pathologies.
Taking the polis in for a tune-up
Rose’s master metaphor is the tuning system popularized by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, an advance beyond Pythagorean “just intonation” (grounded in astronomic-mathematical ratios and generating beautiful scales within each key, but unable to change keys without discord). Music from the baroque through bebop is inconceivable without it. Bach didn’t invent equal tempering; Rose scrupulously credits the discovery to Ming prince Zhu Zaiyu’s Fusion of Music and Calendar (1580), brought to Europe by a traveling monk and incorporated into German music theory by Andreas Werckmeister (1687), then into practice, gloriously, by Bach.
Conceiving harmony broadly, Rose looks to Mesopotamia for another key (if unfortunately named) concept. The societal codes that the Ubaid civilization (5500-4000 BCE) considered divinely ordained, known in Sumerian as meh, are the archetype for subsequent codes found across world history. Rose finds similar operating-system principles in Chinese nine-square geometric urban forms, Lübeck Law regulating trade in the Hanseatic League, and contemporary Smart Growth codes. Conversely, when civilizations embrace a poorly designed code—as when the Federal Housing Administration incorporated racist residential legislation into redlining, or when Chicago School economics ignores environmental externalities or network-scale Nash equilibria, in which choices maximizing individual benefits produce worse outcomes than coordinated choices do—disharmonies are inevitable: congestion, impoverishment, waste, and disease.
Socioeconomic reharmonization requires a comprehension of how codes handle inputs and outputs. Humanity’s mandate is thus to approximate nature’s advanced harmonies. Rose’s spiritually oriented conclusion points out how the Hebrew concept tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) has cognates across cultures. Humanity, he finds, has “evolved with an innate metacode” in which “altruism flows through every bit of a city’s interdependent social and cognitive ecologies, and is embedded in the morality of its systems.”
The audience that needs Rose’s analysis most drastically may be the least prepared for it. “Meh” in current parlance also names the shoulder-shrugging indifference of the incurious to anything beyond their truncated attention spans. Recent electoral results inspire little confidence that American society can decode principles observable in Uruk, Göbekli Tepe, and Chengzhou, and act on them purposefully. In his November 9 AIANY book talk, Rose emphasized how increasing immiseration in poorly built cities requires more comprehension of history and the sciences than partisan politics could muster: “I don’t believe either side of the election had the intellectual capital to deal with this.”
If Rose’s tempering theory omits anything vital, it may be a recognition of evil: Another synonym for the civic distempers flowing from greed and fear. Yet in accentuating the positive, the connectedness that has outlived such distempers, he reinforces our sense of harmony even in out-of-tune times.
The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life Jonathan F. P. Rose Harper Wave, 2016, $29.99
What is creativity? Who are the creative geniuses among us? How can the talents of the creative individual be identified and cultivated?
These questions were asked about architects six decades ago in one of the most comprehensive studies of creativity ever done. The work was carried out by a talented cadre of psychologists led by director Donald MacKinnon of the University of California’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research with support from William Wurster’s Berkeley architecture faculty.
It was part of a five-year research program funded at a cost of 1.4 million in today’s dollars by the Carnegie Corporation to measure the personality characteristics of a range of creative types. The hope was that the “creative promise and dormant potential” of individuals could thus be identified and encouraged to blossom for the benefit of society as a whole.
Given the major investment of time and money involved, it is curious that relatively few outside the world of personality research were aware of the architect study and that no comprehensive account of the work has existed outside the files of IPAR until now.
Serendipitously, the forgotten records of the study were discovered languishing in IPAR’s archives several years ago by Bay Area author, architect and educator Pierluigi Serraino whose painstaking efforts bring them to light in an engaging and fascinating history, The Creative Architect.
Serraino’s attractively packaged volume has a welcoming layout that is easy to navigate. The text is illustrated with abundant examples of original study documents and findings. Practitioners for whom blueprints evoke nostalgia will encounter a color scheme that resonates positively, and those who appreciate a behind-the-scenes approach to storytelling will find his account especially pleasurable. Throughout he lends a historical perspective that provides a unifying context for the information presented.
Serraino traces the origin of the study to several factors: the growing interest in the post-WWII zeitgeist on the creative potential of the individual, the wartime experience of key IPAR staff in administering large batteries of tests under standard conditions for personnel evaluation, and MacKinnon’s fascination with the scope of the architect’s work. In 1962 he notes: “in what other profession could one better observe the multi-farious expressions of creativity?” To him the successful architect is an artist and a scientist, able to juggle and apply “the diverse skills of businessman, lawyer, artist, engineer, and advertising man, to say nothing of author-journalist, psychiatrist, educator and psychologist.”
These influences shaped the design of a multifaceted study in which 40 highly creative American architects from across the country assembled in Berkeley in 1958 and 1959 for three-day sessions to undergo a 20-hour battery of 22 tests and observations covering 7 broad areas. Comparison data were collected by mail from two groups chosen to represent lesser levels of creativity, one with 43 former colleagues of the “highly creatives” and the other with 41 practitioners chosen at random.
Individuals seeking a sense of the culture of architecture of the 1950s will savor descriptions of the often politicized procedures that were followed to select subjects and to design and carry out the study, supplemented by unvarnished views of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the icons of American architecture, gleaned from their interactions with the research team and each other. Particularly rich are portrayals Serraino has assembled from original records to reveal the formative influences, philosophies, anxieties and inspirations of Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutral, Eero Saarinen and others.
Serraino transports the reader back in time to group testing sessions in which participants, fueled by well-iced martinis, debated pre-selected questions even as they were being taped and under the intense scrutiny of the full research staff. During discussion their unique personalities emerge: “each participant appears as a distinct character type—Saarinen (phlegmatic), Johnson (socialite), Lundy (lively), Ain (ideological) and Born (aristocratic)—pouring out their worldviews…then engaging in a passionate exchange.”
The independent and competitive natures of participants are revealed by the Mosaic Construction Test, an activity intended to mimic the creation of an artistic product. Participants used their full allocation of time to develop unique and idiosyncratic designs “that held their own,” seizing the opportunity to “make a declaration of their own talent.” Their resulting designs are faithfully reproduced and fascinating to examine.
It is hard to find serious fault with this engaging and sometimes dishy history (two participants were observed cheating on a creativity test), but readers lacking a background in psychological research will find the tangled chapter on study design tough sledding. And many will be disappointed when they realize that tantalizing references made to a twenty-five-year follow-up study of the same subjects are not supported by a meaningful presentation of findings.
Serraino strikes a proper note of caution by acknowledging the shortcomings of the IPAR study—selection bias, self-reporting of key data, choice of testing site, and, of course, the almost exclusive focus on personality traits. On the other hand, he accepts and builds perhaps too readily on generalizations that MacKinnon made about creativity. As a result, the composite portrait of the creative architect with which the book concludes strains to bring a finality to the IPAR work that the original researchers could not.
The IPAR study stands as a historical milestone in the ongoing study of how architects create. Although it cannot be said to have succeeded in its intent, in all fairness, psychology as a whole has made relatively little progress over the intervening sixty years in answering the basic questions posed earlier. What Serraino reveals in his book is that for now, in architecture, the back story is the real story.
And as we have all heard, it’s often the journey and not the destination that matters. Serraino shows what an interesting journey it was.
The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study Pierluigi Serraino The Monacelli Press $45.00
Luigi Lucaccini teaches creativity, innovation, and applied design at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management