Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

Gimme Shelter
by James Croak
The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture, Phaidon, 2008, 800 pp., $195.

I have a weakness for large books. I don’t mean things like Janson’s History of Art or Webster’s Third International, I mean the real bad boys, Taschen’s GOAT, or MIT’s hut-size Bhutan, these new bruisers that arrive on refrigerator dollies and demand their own stand, their utter size defying the internet by creating a private museum experience of information.

When I hoisted the 15-pound Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture and its Jetsons carrying case out of the crate, my first thought was that I had misread the title. 21st century? We’re on the front end of this thing, the locomotive just passed and we won’t see the caboose for another 91 years, why a history of something that just started? True, the dramatic expansion of commercial and residential building since 2000 does warrant its own "atlas," indeed if for no other reason than to reminisce about how good the boom was while it lasted. One can even imagine that a Phaidon update of, say, 2012 will be a Pamphlet of Room Additions, or a Flyer of Carpet Replacement.

As it is, this beautiful compendium of current architecture, an update of the publishing firm’s 2004 Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, is organized like a set of architectural plans: big to small, geography to detail. First are the continent divisions that are cleverly edge-printed with a color-coding, making it easier to move about in the 800-page book. These areas are further divided into regions, then cities, and then individual buildings. The book is then further divided into plan drawings (looking down), elevations (viewing sideways) and sections (a slice). Thus, one can review the foundation sections on new buildings in Oceania and then compare them quickly with the latest offering from Riyadh. Each of 1,057 featured structures is published with its latitude and longitude, fun for looking up on Google Earth, and soon to be much more fun when Phaidon completes its mobile phone application and your iPhone can walk you to the nearest included building.

Phaidon reports that it began the project with over 10,000 new structures and then a "jury of international experts" sifted them down to 1,000 or so of the "best buildings." When I hear the word "best," I get nervous, and as I worked my way through the Atlas my worry increased. Michael Phelps is the "best" because he can outswim the Coast Guard, and Muhammad Ali is the "best" because the other guy falls down, but what makes something a "best" building?

To function or not to function, that is the question. Although Vitruvian functionalism, the antecedent of Louis Kahn’s form-shall-follow-function maxim that dominated 20th-century architecture, has receded as the modus operandi in new building design, for this jury the combination of formalism and minimalism that came to embody Kahn’s idea remains the yardstick, and fills this book, or most of it. Kahn’s buildings were purpose-driven and ornament was cleaved to a bare minimum, a world-view that ultimately led to the International Style of Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies, and influenced generations of other architects. Why bare buildings were more useful was never fully reasoned; presently we are undergoing a tidal shift and the consensus is that the use of a building will change over time and purpose is best left to the furniture and tenants. Today’s architecture is to be a human stage, a platform upon which the poor owner struts and frets his five-year lease and is gone and. . . well, you get the idea. But that acknowledged, why do we still need a minimalist formalist stage?

The large share Phaidon’s "best" buildings are in Europe: 348 pages dedicated to recent buildings in the European Union and 66 pages for those in the much larger American Union, a ratio of 44 to 8 percent. In the European half of the book I found mostly the aforementioned style bias making the outliers the real standouts: the perfectly sculpted Turning Torso Tower in Malmo by Santiago Calatrava is a stunner, as is the cigar-shaped 30 St. Mary Axe by Foster & Partners. Lucky is the architect who has an adventurous client to finance these masterworks. My favorite European architectural creation is not a building at all but a bridge, which Phaidon smartly includes, the one-and-a-half-mile-long Millau Viaduct over the River Tarn, also by Mr. Foster. A structure in a class by itself, at 984 feet above the ground the roadway is the height of the flight pattern at American airports.

The fetish for concrete and glass is fatiguing and before long I longed for the wild decoration of a new Casa Batlló from a 21st-century Antoni Gaudi or an Einsteinturm by a new Erich Mendelsohn. Instead I found the erased personality of lingering modernism flattening the scenery, with smaller buildings so anonymous that they could be swapped in the night and no one would be the wiser. I felt like Yale professor Vince "where are the sidewalks" Scully, flipping page after page of helicopter shots of shiny curtain walls.

The book works well as a travelogue, however, and contains charming structures in rural areas that I have not been to (and which I would like to visit). The Lourierpark Community Center in South Africa is a refreshing pergola hodgepodge of DayGlo colors that can be seen across the savanna for miles; built for a "placeless community," it houses everything from a library to a clinic. In Yemen the Khaylah Palace is a painter’s canvas, bright pastels against a brown cliff, an irresistible relief against a colorless desert.

The two American chapterettes, named West and East, continued the work anchored in modernism, some good, some dull, little on the short list of best buildings. Among the glaring omissions is Michael Graves, an architect of at least 14 major buildings since 2000, who is not included at all. Also, hundreds of Shingle Style homes were built in the Hamptons on Long Island during the time frame of this book, among the largest and most expensive homes on the planet, but none are here. This seashore potpourri dates to 1890s Queen Anne vacation architecture, though it disappeared with the advance of Modernism, only now to reappear to suddenly repopulate the long green pastures of Sagaponack and Nantucket with lapping cedar shingles, chord windows, Palladian fan lights, crossing gables and, quelle horreur, porches! But Atlas shrugged, the only entry for Sagaponack is a slatty lean-to that will be dragged off as soon as the neighbors get up.

The portion of the book on China is thrilling, a 5,000-year-old country having little in common with the Western conversation. Nevertheless, with the twin motors of the newest capitalist economy and the Summer Olympics, Chinese builders created the most exciting architecture in this Atlas. The Olympic National Stadium by the Swiss team Herzon & de Meuron is the hands-down favorite in this book. After winning the Pritzker Prize in architecture, HdeM designed the Allianz Arena in Munich (included in the German section), which is built of hundreds of inflated foil panels held down by cables in neat Teutonic rows, slightly reminding me of something that happened to the Reichstag recently. It’s only when the team gets to Beijing that they go the full Christo with helter-skelter steel beams wrapping a massive space. The building was nicknamed "bird’s nest" by the Chinese and presented the perfect stage for the Olympic drama; so popular was the HdeM levity that homegrown copies of it sprang up in villages around China.

One can differ on esthetic preferences -- such opinions are not facts -- and, well, to each his own. Where the book gets odd is when it starts fortune-telling, as in the colorful geographic tables that preface each section, predicting future population levels. Unfortunately the charts are a mess, an oddity for Phaidon, error-ridden, incomprehensible and fabulist. The editors admitted that, yes, they had understated the population of China by 90 percent, but pointed out that they also understated the present population of India by 90 percent, so the errors are "in proportion to each other" (yeah, that’ll get you to the tenth grade). The future population tables are so confusing that they either show a country’s density as doubling, reducing or growing, depending upon how one interprets the charts, and I gave up trying to guess.

The world maps of carbon dioxide emissions, a graphic that purports to show who is ejecting this molecule into the atmosphere, are instructive, an interesting inclusion in an architectural book, and rightly so as the operative word in architecture today is "sustainability." Fortunately, the text describes anthropogenic emissions as a "contributing factor," a smart hedge as the carbon prediction models have proven slightly less accurate than the Farmer’s Almanac.

The modernist esthetic dominates this large survey, certainly desirable for those who lean that way but slightly annoying for those who don’t. Personally, I would like to rummage through the other 9,000 structures that hit the cutting room floor, in search of a warmer eccentricity in our quest for shelter. Despite being so Eurocentric, the atlas contains lots of entries from out-of-the-way places that kept my household turning pages late into the night. All surveys are a narrative created by exclusion as much as inclusion, a difficult necessity that is used to sort the world, and with architecture, and this book, what a world that is.

JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.