From street level, London can seem overpowering--a vast, crowded metropolis that crushes the human spirit--but from a viewing gallery it becomes a green city. Expansive parks, leafy squares, and lovingly cultivated back yards: a triumph of planting over building. The native love of gardening found full expression in residential squares that were planted and enclosed—in contrast to the paved civic squares of the continent. In Europe, plazas and piazzas began life as market places or as forecourts to the ruler’s palace; in London and a few provincial cities such as Bath and Edinburgh, it was a developer’s tool—a way of adding value to a new residential quarter. In The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a British landscape designer, traces in scholarly (sometimes tedious) detail the evolution of the London square, from the Italianate ensemble of Covent Garden (which soon acquired a market and lost its cachet) to the flowering of the form in the Georgian era, and the steady erosion of these oases over the past century.
Too few potential clients have experienced the pleasure of living in a well-designed modern house—which is why so many cling to familiar historicist styles. The Case Study House Program was intended to create models for rational living and win over the uncommitted, but tract home builders offered the illusion of a customized product at a competitive price, easy financing and instant acceptance. Over the past 20 years, AIA/LA has showcased the latest work of its members in a succession of self-guided house tours and now it has added a new attraction: a monthly, architect-guided tour to an updated modern classic. These tours should demonstrate that good design is timeless, no matter how confined the space, and show how the frugality of the Great Depression and the post-war era can be subtly enriched to accommodate contemporary cravings.
A massive portfolio of photos on African cities, and a collection of discussions at Princeton on the relationship of art and architecture show two sides of a provocative British architect who is beginning to make his mark in America. “Africa has always been a point of reference for me,” writes David Adjaye, who had a peripatetic childhood as the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and has now reconnected with his roots. He traveled to all but one of the 53 African states (wisely omitting Somalia) studying the relationship of buildings to climate and landscape, and photographing the gritty reality of their capitals. This research fed into his competition-winning design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC—a building of extraordinary originality amid the banalities that line the Mall—and a series of commissions in Africa.
The photos are grouped geographically—desert, forest, mountain etc—in six paper-bound volumes, plus a slim collection of essays. It’s a dramatic way of articulating the radical differences within a continent that most Westerners ignore except for the latest civil war or massacre. Adjaye wants to play up the diversity and vitality of his homeland, observing that “the colonial city existed primarily for purposes of trade and administration but, since independence, the same cities have become symbols of modernity…The identity of each modernity can supply incredible richness.” That sounds good and it may be true, but Adjaye’s photos don’t support his assertion. What we see is squalor bordering on the chaotic; shabby relics of colonialism swallowed up in a tide of gimcrack construction and unregulated signage. Even Asmara, which a veteran Ethiopian architect describes as a “modernist city of unparalleled beauty and serenity [that] has survived unscathed from years of war,” appears derelict in these images.
African Metropolitan Architecture
by David Adjaye
Rizzoli International, $100
Authoring is an edited transcript of discussions Adjaye had with three artists—Teresita Fernandez, Jorge Pardo, and Matthew Ritchie--while teaching at the Princeton School of Architecture. It recalls a similar dialogue between Frank Gehry and Richard Serra that the Weisman Institute hosted 20 years ago. Adjaye studied art and has, to an even greater extent than Gehry, achieved a fusion of the two disciplines—in houses, galleries and installations. He is an outspoken critic of form for form’s sake. “Architecture is, at its essence, a way to think about civil society and translate the building requirements beyond the basic needs of the clients,” he declares. “Thinking, and the process of idea generation, is far more important than perfecting a technique.” It’s an ideal he practices (his Idea Stores in London’s East End have created a new model for branch libraries) and one hopes his students at Princeton take it to heart. Authoring challenges received ideas and much current practice in art and architecture, and, like all of Lars Müller’s books, it is elegantly produced. It’s a stimulating read that should get you thinking.
David Adjaye: Authoring; re-placing art and architecture
Lars Müller, $45
Over the past 20 years, Thomas Heatherwick has produced a stream of innovative designs on an ever-larger scale, culminating in the spiky marvel of the British Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. In this massive survey of 140 works, past, present and to come, Heatherwick explores the ideas that inform every project, and the ways they were realized. Brief texts accompany abundant illustrations in this personal exploration of a prolific career. In an exhibition that is on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum through September 30, the creative process is brought to life though animation, and it’s easy to imagine an e-book that would do the same.
Heatherwick’s range is dazzling, from chairs and temporary installations to roll-up bridges and a power station that morphs into a green mountain. Electricity pylons that disfigure the landscape are transformed into gauzy skeins. A beachfront café evokes the rolling surf in undulating shells of welded steel, and an outdoor pool is canopied with a cats-cradle of wood spars resembling those that wash up on the shore. An unrealized design for the Olympic Velodrome captures the dynamic energy of cycle racing to a far greater degree than Michael Hopkins’ iteration. Heatherwick has even redesigned the double-decker London bus, and the gleaming prototypes are drawing admiring glances as they ply route 38 from Victoria to Hackney. As you close this book you wonder if there’s anything he cannot do. Even Leonardo would have been impressed by the fertility of his invention.
Thomas Heatherwick: Making
The Monacelli Press, $75
Provocative, timely, and compellingly readable: this is an even more valuable survey than Victoria Newhouse’s 1998 study, Towards a New Museum (updated in 2007). There, she explored the relationship of art and architecture with a keen critical eye; now she adds the sense of hearing, examining the design and performance of new halls, as experienced by players and audience, and as they respond to (or ignore) their surroundings. It’s timely because, for better and worse, grandiose music venues have begun to supplant museums as must-have trophy buildings, even in China where they have no relevance to traditional culture and are often mis-used. It’s provocative, because Newhouse is unflinching in her criticisms, and it’s readable because she distills a mass of information and observation in lively prose.
There’s a historical survey of the musical theater, from ancient Greece to the 19th-century landmarks in Vienna, Amsterdam and Boston that provide a standard of excellence to which every new hall is compared. Then come chapters on the transformation of Lincoln Center, the eclecticism of recent work, the hubris of the Chinese authorities, and prestige projects in the making. Thirty new and upcoming projects are analyzed in detail, with input from musicians who have performed in these spaces, and the acousticians who worked on them. Newhouse questions the disconnect between boldly expressive architecture and conventional theater plans, and asks whether good design can rejuvenate the audience (as it clearly has in Gehry’s New World Center in Miami, and Walt Disney Hall). Her book will be an invaluable resource for architects, acousticians, clients, and music-lovers, and inspire everyone to look and listen with the passion she summons.