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Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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« RADICAL MOVIES | Main | Book Review: Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History »
Tuesday
Feb072012

BOOK REVIEW: The Future of Architecture Since 1889

The Future of Architecture Since 1889
by Jean-Louis Cohen
Phaidon, $75

Don’t be put off by the silly title. Few architectural historians are as lucid and insightful as Jean-Louis Cohen, and this magisterial survey distills his encyclopedic knowledge of the highways and byways of modernism. Rather than an epic narrative of great formgivers, now staled by familiarity, he explores the rich diversity of expression around the world through the end of the 20th century. Each of the 30 chapters focuses on a theme that might easily be expanded into a book, and the 600 illustrations are as eclectic and relevant as the text.

In compressing so much information into 500 pages, this survey could easily have become a dry summary of actors and buildings. Instead, Cohen gives an organic account of how architecture was shaped by social forces, economic growth, war, and advances in technology. He demonstrates the universality of new ideas, juxtaposing concrete frame buildings that were realized around 1910 by Gill, Perret, Maillart and by lesser known architects on a heroic scale in Wroclaw and Talinn.  We see how Peter Behrens progressed from his neo-Renaissance crematorium to the timeless functionalism of the AEG Turbine Factory in just two years, and the close similarity of the Zuev Workers Club in Moscow and Terragni’s Novocomun apartments in Como, both of 1927-29.  Period illustrations convey the shock of the new. This is history as it was lived, with all its contradictions and surprises.

Wisely, Cohen ends his account in the year 2000 with a few short sections on Frank Gehry, OMA, Jean Nouvel and Herzog & de Meuron as firms that define the present, but inevitably this ending feels cursory and anticlimactic. The present is evolving too widely and unpredictably to be encapsulated and analyzed with the authority Cohen brings to the past. Other histories will supplement this one in years to come, but are unlikely to supplant it. This is a must-have for architects, students and anyone who cares about the built environment.    

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