The late Detlef Mertins distilled a lifetime of scholarship and research on Mies van der Rohe into this massive and authoritative survey of the master’s work and thought. Seven hundred drawings and photos illustrate the entire arc of a career that took Mies from Peter Behrens’ office in Berlin to a global practice in Chicago as the primary exponent of international modernism. “Less is more” and “God is in the details,” have become part of the everyday language of architecture. To some he was a god-like figure; others dismissed his buildings—even the best of them—as unlivable, dysfunctional, and authoritarian. It’s time for a reappraisal.
Entries in Phaidon (3)
Phaidon, a London-based publisher of sumptuous books on architecture and art, was recently sold and one can only hope that the new owner will preserve its integrity at a time when other publishers are dumbing down. Phaidon’s latest atlas of 20th Century World Architecture ($200) — a blockbuster in the same format as two previous surveys of contemporary work—chronicles 750 exemplary modern buildings of the 20th century. Classics are juxtaposed with unfamiliar projects, and the committees that produced this mammoth tome have striven for a geographical balance. Each project gets a full page of images, drawings and a succinct factual description, which facilitates comparisons. It’s a great work of reference, but you may prefer to wait a couple of years to buy the compact and inexpensive travel edition. Meanwhile, you can browse the entries, country by country, and plan future voyages of discovery. And, as further stimulus, the travel edition of The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture has just appeared.
The Future of Architecture Since 1889
by Jean-Louis Cohen
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.