Book Review: Architectural Journeys

Mexico City Architectural Guide. (DOM, 28 Euros) Architectural Guide United Arab Emirates (DOM, 48 Euros) South Africa Architectural Guide (DOM, 28 Euros)

Form Mexico coverThree recent additions to a rapidly growing series of guides for the architectural traveler. Handsomely designed, well bound, and full of useful maps and color illustrations, most are models of their genre. Earlier volumes focused on new and recent work, which made them especially valuable since general travel guides make the odd reference to concrete eyesores but show zero interest in the better manifestations of modernism. Gothic cathedrals, ruined castles and cute marketplaces are more to their taste. These three guides attempt, with varied success, to encompass the entire history of their chosen territories, which bulks them out while blurring their focus and shortchanging the best of the new.

Mexico City is a fascinating palimpsest of pre-Columbian, Colonial, Beaux Arts and Modern, but the earlier layers have been well documented and there’s a urgent need to identify the work of contemporary practitioners and their immediate predecessors. Here the coverage is up-to-date but spotty. Inexcusably,m there is no mention of Luis Barragán, the greatest of 20th-century Mexican architects, even through his Cappucine Chapel and at least three of his houses can be visited. TEN retains its base in Mexico City but there is no mention of the Chopo Museum or their other major achievements, nor does Mauricio Rocha’s photo museum make an appearance. A revised addition should fill these gaps by omitting the 12 aerial spreads of the city and the two spreads on the Soumaya Museum, a flashy vanity project that may be the worst-designed art museum of our times. The guide could also use a sharp critical voice; too many descriptions are bland.

The UAE guide is much the most substantial and valuable of the three. The few fragments of traditional culture and the desert landscape form a backdrop to the extraordinary explosion of faux historical and avant-garde buildings from the past three decades. It has the unreal character of science fiction renderings coupled with the vulgarity of Las Vegas. Tucked away within the mushroom growth of office towers, flashy hotels and air-conditioned malls, are important buildings by the world’s top architects; a few completed or under construction, many more (like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim) a mirage of good intentions. Architects join the four authors in trying to make sense of the chaos, and the guide may persuade me to brave the heat and dust to experience this apparition for myself.

The South Africa Guide had quite the opposite effect. To judge from the images, the architecture of the four major cities has a depressingly conventional character. Cape Town is noted for its Dutch colonial buildings, but those have been shut out by lumpish structures errected under British rule and during the apartheid years. The descriptions are often unecessarily wordy–this is meant to be a field guide not a reference book–and the whole production has an amateurish character. I would certainly think twice about flying halfway around the world to see what is shown here, but I suspect the representation is at fault. — Michael Webb


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