Bobby Open has written for numerous publications, including the Architectural Review, Architect's Journal, Architecture Today, Cambridge Architecture gazette (also joint editor for issues 56-63), and Scroope - the journal of the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture, for which he was joint editor in 1997. He was also one of the authors of the South Cambridgeshire District Design Guide, which is available on the South Cambs planning website.
Exhibition Review (Architecture Today July 2012): Peter Zumthor Models at the Kunsthaus Bregenz
“Now, that’s how to convince a client” was an immediate reaction on entering the new exhibition of Peter Zumthor’s architectural models in Bregenz. The model in question was of the Kunsthaus Bregenz (KUB), the building itself visible next-door through the windows of the exhibition room. Aside from its powers of persuasion, the 1:50 KUB cutaway model delves deeply into the complex section and lighting strategy, clarifying aspects that remain elusive in a first-hand experience of the building: one of the more descriptive sides of model-making highlighted by this fascinating exhibition. The two exhibition rooms are arranged chronologically, offering an impressive – and sometimes surprising – overview of Zumthor’s work since 1985. Competition entries are presented alongside models of unbuilt commissions, realized buildings and ongoing projects, in virtually every conceivable material, scale and technique. Architecture students are often encouraged to explore their ideas through physical models, as one of the most effective ways of learning about space, material and light. The models of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne happily illustrate this lesson as they jump from small to large scale, including a 1:10 model of one of the key rooms, complete with furniture and curtains. This doll’s house aspect is a tricky one to navigate in architectural models, but there is no doubt that the absence of drawings in Bregenz is compensated for with the inhabitation of many of the models, clearly describing aspects of function alongside more abstract architectural concerns.
One such example – with its piano, fireplace and dining room furniture – is the Secular Retreat for Living Architecture, also highlighting a recurring theme of the exhibition: that of the exploration of primitive or essential modes of construction, particularly the contrast between frame and monolithic structures and, perhaps ultimately, the temple and the cave. This raises the idea of a ‘model building,’ as in ‘model student.’ The matter of getting to the essence of things is at the core of Zumthor’s work, and is visible in the studio’s approach to modeling. Analogous modeling techniques including casting and moulding in clay, plaster, concrete or resin (e.g. Bruder Klaus Chapel), investigating a structure in frame only (Zinc Mine Museum), or building up a series of thin layers (Sumvitg), help to inform a greater understanding of the physicality of a proposal. At times, these techniques translate literally into the built work, as at the Saint Benedict Chapel near Sumvitg with its foil-backed timber columns bouncing light onto walls coated in silver-painted lining paper. Elsewhere, models resemble archaeological artefacts that wouldn’t appear out of place in a museum. Theatricality is present too in the model of the abandoned Topography of Terror, which invites the viewer to peer through holes to experience a columned hall receding into infinity, effected with mirrors that also reflect the viewer’s disembodied eye, floating in space. This sense of the uncanny recalls David Fielding’s stage-set for the opera André Chénier, currently floating in lake Constance near the KUB; here is a super-sized 3d model of Jacques-Louis David’s painting ‘The Death of Marat’, with lake as bathtub, eyes and mouth that open, and a head that folds back at a severed neck to expose the tribunal set for Act 3. To end on one of the most poignant models of the exhibition: a large cast urban model of Isny in Germany. Zumthor’s remarkable proposal for a new city gate tower stands proudly at centre-stage, with a 1:1 glass brick fragment hinting at what might have been had a residents’ vote not recently vetoed the project. This scheme, along with others in the exhibition, challenges preconceived ideas of what a Zumthor building is or might be, and highlights the importance of models in this kind of experimental work. Physical models offer architects a unique method of exploration, where conceptual leaps can be achieved and projects can be gradually refined in the creative space that exists in the slow process of making.
Book Review: Tom Spector - The Ethical Architect
What is the value of architecture? What constitutes good design? What is an architect’s duty? These are fundamental questions which this ambitious book aims to address. Spector’s intention is no less than a restructuring of the practice of architecture through a unified design ethic.
The first two chapters cleverly align practice and theory. The role of the moral professional is the focus of the chapter entitled “Practice” and explores concepts like professionalism, duty and contract. “Theory” introduces the Vitruvian values of utilitas, venustas and firmitas (utility, beauty and firmness) and shows that little consensus exists over their relative importance. Recent theories (after Modernism) which endeavour to separate morality from artistic merit are then placed in a context which demonstrates that architects today face ethical dilemmas over their professional position, which are intimately linked to a lack of agreement over what constitutes good architecture.
The subsequent three chapters apply aspects of moral philosophy to evaluations centring on Vitruvius’ values, which in turn are structured around relevant case studies. Intermittently, the discussion encourages developing a subjective ethic based on personal values and virtues, and promotes truth to this ethic as a means of resolving design dilemmas. This notion is elaborated by asserting that architects should develop a personal style, although the epilogue raises an ambiguity: is this style as architects traditionally understand, or style as process? Spector is convincing when he argues that buying into established stylistic conventions facilitates community dialogue and societal development; but, one is left unsure that such objective arguments could alone explain the reality of Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp or Zumthor’s Thermal Baths at Vals, unique buildings which are married to their context in subtle and elemental ways. Indeed, essential notions like space, place and dwelling are consistently underplayed. Nevertheless, the book establishes itself as important for professionals and students alike, and of wider importance than to just architecture.
Book Review (AJ 2002): Juhani Pallasmaa - The Architecture of Image
Juhani Pallasmaa has a style of writing, bordering on poetry, which inspires new ways of seeing things. In his new book “The Architecture of Image - existential space in cinema” he explores the relationship between cinema and architecture, and how such art-forms help us to place ourselves in the world, in particular through their use of poetic images.
Pallasmaa’s text consistently invokes a craving for fresh experience in much the same way as the literature of artists like Jack Kerouac. Furthermore, with his statement that the primary role of art is in its activation of the imagination, one is put in mind of the imagery of books like “On the Road” by Kerouac: the evocation of crowded, sweaty San Francisco jazz clubs, the smell of steel, and the excitement of moving through the landscapes, cities and small towns of 1950’s America. Pallasmaa writes: “These images of places, created by the reader, are not detached pictorial images, they are experiences of embodied and lived space.” His description of the book’s key notion of ‘lived space’ intertwines the actual experience of physical places with subjective feelings, memories and associations, often evoked by these spaces and their artistic representations, but just as often by unconnected life events. The existential space which we inhabit thus becomes a mixture of physical sensation and mental imagination.
To flesh out this idea, the particular characteristics of cinematic imagery and its place within the experience, creation and understanding of lived space are examined with reference to five films: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Rear Window, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. These five essays, along with the more wide-ranging introductory essay, form essential reading for anyone interested in cinema or architecture. They inspire close study of the chosen films, but also draw on precedents within Renaissance and Surrealist painting, and texts by Gaston Bachelard, Rainer Maria Rilke, Italo Calvino and Walter Benjamin, to name a few. The essays are excellently illustrated throughout, invariably with precisely the right frame or picture on the correct page alongside the relevant text. Evidently there was a problem in obtaining permission for the use of photographed frames from The Shining, but this is effectively overcome with the commission of vibrantly coloured paintings; indeed, for anyone who has seen the film, these are perhaps even more disturbing than the use of the actual frames, cleverly drawing on the reader’s buried memories, internal imagery and imagination. Pallasmaa expands the notion that the physical definition of space is related to our mental state through the study of phenomena like claustrophobia, repression, psychosis, voyeurism, longing for home, self-identity and understanding, madness, insanity, sexuality, alienation and fragility of experience. These subjective sensations are related to physical spatiality through the directors’ poetic use of colour, texture, abstraction, depth of field, light, materiality and of course the built form. The latter ranges from Hitchcock’s and Kubrick’s meticulously planned large scale stage-sets to the more intuitive use of mainly existing spaces and locations by Antonioni and Tarkovsky.
Thankfully, Pallasmaa steers well clear of advocating conceits like the literal projection of cinematic images onto the fabric of buildings, the practice of which has become a tiresome expression of the ephemerality and instability of architecture and experience. Instead, he succeeds admirably in demonstrating cinema’s ability to re-awaken the architect’s understanding of place-making, encouraging an exploration of extremes of sensation and perception. The book inspires consideration of how architectural space can be formed with dense layers of meaning and ideas, overlaid with physical characteristics like smell, noise, touch, materiality and the use of extremes of light and dark, big and small. And, like Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space”, it encourages an essential questioning of what it means to define space or create a dwelling. “The artistic stages of architecture are always something other than the total of their material structures,” Pallasmaa writes. “Even these are primarily mental spaces, architectural representations, and images of the perfect life. Architecture, too, leads our imagination to another reality.”
Book Review: Vicky Richardson - New Vernacular Architecture
“New Vernacular Architecture” assumes its place amongst a growing library of books exploring the production and future of architecture after Modernism. Richardson states that “... new vernacular architects express ambivalence about the Modernist notion of progress in society ... Vernacular architecture, or architecture in denial, is perhaps the most appropriate mode of expression for an era that lacks a sense of transformative historic change.”
Thirty-seven building case studies - of arguably varying architectural merit - are grouped by theme into six chapters, each chapter starting with a short essay covering subjects like “Building with the Landscape” and “Giving Shape to Identity.” Although at times the book reads like a series of magazines, the case studies contain a wealth of provocative ideas which are subtly developed in the context of the chapter essays. Richardson seems to thrive on this eclectic mix of approaches from around the world, and favours implication through carefully chosen comparison over the definition of a distinct way forward for architecture. Thus, it is suggested that regionalism and globalisation are perhaps not as mutually exclusive as may be assumed.
What it means to be ‘newly’ vernacular is also defined with the broadest of brushes, and eventually one is left slightly bemused with this tenuous concept. Sverre Fehn is quoted as saying: “The (primitive) architecture works perfectly because it exists in a timeless space. Its signature is anonymous, for it is nature itself.” Fehn’s Ivan Aasen Centre stands out precisely because it defies what may be theoretically useful, but ultimately become generalised and restrictive labels. The best architecture presented here is certainly not in denial.
Book Review: Alexander Tzonis - Le Corbusier, The Poetics of Machine and Metaphor
This is a refreshingly concise and focused overview of the life and work of Le Corbusier. Tzonis establishes a traditional chronological framework, using life events and building projects to explore the nature of Corb’s creative process. He looks at the relationship between memory, precedent, analysis and analogy in the formation of poetic objects. Rational modes of thought and critique, and their creation of formal and compositional tools (free plan, pilotis) are thus set against and intertwined with more intuitive processes of analogy. This sets up the titular dialogue between machine and metaphor, which in this book has its climax in the description of the Unite d’Habitation.
The Unite thus combines years of “patient research” in the 1920’s villas with ideas on city design, mass production and social housing to produce a machine for living which is vying for importance with analogies of ocean liners, bottle racks and Homeric landscapes. Tzonis does not shy away from exposing the failures of such buildings along with their successes, and suggests that their continued appeal at times stems from their invoked inspiration rather than their imposed way of life. He describes the Unite as a “monument-metaphor for human life ... judgements and inciters are generated [and] like a poem, a story or a play, they frame settings and point to situations of human condition.”
Elsewhere, Tzonis focuses on Corb’s dialectical mode of thought, which explored universal and regionalist ideas, and the values of individual creation and craft compared with mass production and industrialisation. Critically, Corb’s open-mindedness on such matters is placed in a political, social and financial context which looks at his client relationships, self-promotional skills, political affinities, and methods of procurement within interdisciplinary collaborations. If there is a criticism with the book, it is in its somewhat lazy approach to correcting spelling and grammar, but this is more than made up for in its evocative design and breadth of discussion.
Book Review: David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi -Surface Architecture
Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi’s “Surface Architecture” takes as its premise the contemporary conflict between architectural production methods and representation or, taken to its extreme, modernity and tradition. They ask: “How can design utilise the opportunities of current industrial production so that the practice of architectural representation is neither independent of nor subjugated to the domination of technology?”
To answer this question they trace a fascinating path through architectural history, concentrating on the progression from symbolic load-bearing massive edifices to the conceptual and physical separation of skin and structure in modern architecture. The tension between the latter has in recent years been focused on the building’s surface, which has become a canvas for stylistic extremes, generating vacuous and anonymous city office blocks and redundant historical pastiche. In contrast to these extremes, however, Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi present a wealth of architectural examples which explore the potential inherent in the resolution of the apparent incompatibility of mass production technology and architectural expression, and which offer possibilities for a future architecture of material and surface richness, and of meaning.
The final Postscript situates the debate within a philosophical, mythological and ecological context, contemplating what can be achieved through the appropriation of technological potential into the realm of human praxis and its specific conditions. This kind of reciprocal arrangement is shown as essential in giving architecture its relevance to the continually evolving process of human existence. Most refreshing is the attention given to previously marginalised architects and buildings, for example George Howe and William Lescaze’s Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, and Alejandro de la Sota’s Civil Government Building in Tarragona. It is also a credit to the authors’ skill that the content is kept utterly accessible. Meticulously and beautifully conceived and presented, “Surface Architecture” rewards reading and re-reading, inspiring the pursuit of new possibilities in the creation of architecture.
Book Review: Chris Thurlbourne - The Ephemeral of Real: An Architectural Novelette
Author Chris Thurlbourne has impressive credentials: Associate Professor at Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark, former winner of the RIBA Silver Medal, and founder of practice Alt.itude, following work with Hopkins and Partners. One is therefore expecting a lot from his ‘Architectural Novelette,’ and in a sense that’s exactly what one gets: a lot, some of which is interesting, much of which is impossible to follow, parts of which are beautiful, even poetic, but at the same time frustrating. I shall attempt to explain.
The narrative is largely based around four conceptual characters: Decadence (“the body of creation”), The Learner (“the infant of knowledge, the sponge soaking in everything”), The Shadow (“the keeper...creator of boundaries”), and a fourth character which takes the form of an obscure unpronouncable squiggle, representing “a creature existing and inhabiting the text...an informer if you like, choosing the moments to unfold from the body of information, the internal world of the imaginary...(etc)” These metaphorical characters take the reader through a very personal presentation of what constitutes architecture. At its best, this involves consideration of the five human senses, and the impact that the dimension of time has on architectural experience. At its most conceptual it involves highly abstract, subjective descriptions of veils, models and laminations, presented in various text forms: poetry, pure description, prose.
Within all of this are a seemingly inexhaustible number of ideas, some of which have parallels with the writing style of James Joyce, or Libeskind’s early essays. I really liked the reading of Asplund’s Gothenburg Law Court building, and the tangible descriptions of materials like stone, timber and mud. But much of the conceptual writing is hampered by spelling and grammatical errors which, frankly, take the enjoyment out of reading already difficult text. As Thurlbourne himself writes: “Maybe it will grow to a greater understanding of physicality, to a new way The Learner can see and perceive space and the boundaries that make space. Maybe.” Exactly. Maybe.
Book Review: Jonathan Hill - Actions of Architecture: Architects and Creative Users
The creativity of the user is typically overlooked in the production of architecture. In an effort to redress the balance, Hill takes as his starting point the assertion that “architecture is made by use and design.” The term ‘user’ is taken in its widest sense, essentially meaning everyone that may come into contact with a building. Similarly, the creative act may range from a shift in the perception of a space, to physical interaction, to material transformation of a structure. Central to the argument is a reading of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, in which he argued for a writer aware of the reader’s creativity.
The book is split into two sections which, broadly speaking, divide the theory from the practice. “The Role of the User” introduces the passive, reactive, and creative user, and carefully outlines the ways in which architectural production can place increased emphasis on user creativity. These means to inspiring appropriation include designing in flexibility, and the pursuit of uselessness and disjunction, these last two drawing on Tschumi’s work. The second section “Montage After Shock” draws heavily on the writings of Walter Benjamin, which advocate montage as a means to the dissolution of the autonomy of art, and its projection of bourgeois values. However, in contrast to Benjamin’s focus on the shock value of montage, Hill emphasises the montage of fragments, which can encourage interpretation, revision and appropriation. Three of six case studies demonstrate Hill’s ideas in built form, including Diller and Scofidio’s Swiss Expo Blur Building, Hecker and Segal’s Tel Aviv Palmach Centre, and Holl and Acconci’s Storefront for the New York Art and Architecture gallery. The other three projects - two intriguing proposals by Hill, and Electromagnetic Weather by Dunne + Raby - focus on the manifestation of phenomena not normally recognised in design, but arguably with the ability to inspire creativity in the user. A book as important for its theoretical grounding as for its relevance to the future of the profession.
Book Review: Simon Parker - Urban Theory and the Urban Experience:
Encountering the City
‘Encountering the City’ aims to realign the activities of experiencing and theorising on the urban condition, in order to seek a way through the complex maze of the future of the city. To this end, Parker recounts the history of ‘modern’ urban theory alongside an analysis of the key aspects of today’s urbanity, and places these in the context of real-world experience.
The book traces a roughly chronological path through the last 150 years, from early theories of urbanity by Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel and Henri Lefebvre, through the writings of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, to more recent thinking by Jürgen Habermas, Richard Sennett and Michel Foucault. It covers the main built forms and utopian proposals of modernist town planning, including the garden cities movement and Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine visions, and explores the ‘New Urbanist’ movement that has led to developments like Seaside and Celebration in the US, and Poundbury in the UK.
Simon Parker is Lecturer in Politics at the University of York in the UK, which is evident in the excellent chapter on ‘Politics, People and Power’, and his position outside the world of architectural debate somehow lends weight to the sections on social reform, the capitalist city, globalisation, and identity.
Beware, OMAcolytes, for Rem Koolhaas is only granted a passing mention in the conclusion, in relation to discussions on post-9/11 New York, the Pearl River Delta and Lagos; he doesn’t even get an index entry. In fact, it is only really in the conclusion that Parker pulls everything together and highlights the enormous challenge with which we are faced today in the widely varying urban conditions in Asia, South America, and Russia, let alone Europe and North America. This is less a criticism of the book – which is very good indeed – than recognition of the immense collaborative effort that is required by theoreticians and practitioners to forge successful urban centres in the 21st century.
Book Review: Anne Beim - Tectonic Visions in Architecture
Anne Beim is Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture, and is head of its Centre of Industrial Architecture. This book - a revised version of her PhD thesis - deals in detail with the issue of tectonic visions, a concept Beim describes as “visionary investigations into new materials, technologies, structures, and practices of construction, as means to construct (new) meaning in architecture.”
The book follows a case study format with introductory chapters outlining the key concepts, central chapters exploring these concepts through six case studies, and a conclusion that reflects on the ethical dimensions of tectonics. Five of the case studies are of well-known examples of built work: Mies’ Lake Shore Drive towers, Corb’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Eames House, Utzon’s Espansiva House, and Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Building. The sixth case study concerns the lesser-known Alexandria Library proposal by the Smithsons. There are many important points made throughout the book, overwritten by a pervasive, healthy and thought provoking sense that architects have an ethical duty to carefully consider all aspects of construction. Without this consideration, architecture’s potential as a total work of art that can reflect its (and our) context and position in history can never be realised, leading to a series of lost opportunities for society.
However - and this is not intended as a criticism of the author - the book’s production all but prevents these points from reaching the surface. Instead, normally invisible publishing standards constantly demand attention, such as ‘widows and orphans’, and grammar, spelling, and translation errors: the word ‘og’ making numerous appearances, for example in the chapter on Charles og Ray Eames. The distracting result clouds the clarity that the otherwise intelligent discussion demands.
Book Review: Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka - Sensory Design
‘Sensory Design’ is an excellent book, although I have to admit to being slightly confused by its title. Initially, I expected a rather prosaic discussion of why designers should concentrate as much on, for example, smell and soundscapes as vision and form. True, the book does exactly this in chapters called ‘Sensory Cues’ and ‘Sensory Schematics,’ offering methods of understanding and designing architecture based on the full range of human senses. But there is so much more besides.
In fact, it’s as much ‘Poetics of Space’ and ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ as ‘Sensory Design.’ Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty have been merged with Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Freud and Jung to create a literary, poetic and scientific analysis of how and why we experience spaces and places in the way we do. This involves personal memory and cultural grounding, as well as perception and sensory experience; sense in this instance notably including the expanded notion of hapticity, regarding touch, muscular tension, spatial compression and expansion, and awareness of temperature and humidity. The authors’ train of thought is wide-ranging and engaging, all the while bringing us back to hard facts concerning real design elements like material, light, colour, threshold and decoration.
This is a serious body of work, and a rewarding object of study. Following a methodical path, the authors move from theoretical grounding (the difficult early chapters), to applied understanding (the most interesting middle chapters), and practical advice on how we could all design better buildings and places. Lip service is paid to Steven Holl, Herzog and de Meuron, Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor, so we instinctively know we are in safe hands. Students of architecture and urban design should read it, and it has the empirical content to be relevant to planning authorities and the formation of their legislation. ‘Sensory Design’ is an important and thoroughly considered design polemic.
Book Review: Ed Melet and Eric Vreedenburgh -
Rooftop Architecture: Building on an Elevated Surface
Many of our best loved cities now rely heavily on tourism and shopping to sustain their historic cores. What were once dynamic, evolving centres for living, working and socialising have been designated conservation areas, where infrastructure, land cost and space considerations have encouraged residential and business functions to occupy out-of-town suburbs and city fringes. What are left are urban museums: beautiful collections of old buildings to look at and shop in. Recent changes in planning legislation have gone some way to encourage mixed-use urban diversity, but at the same time remain largely conservative in stylistic terms.
Rooftop Architecture takes as its premise the notion that “the addition of a new layer can breathe new life into the contemporary city,” and that “the roof would be an excellent basis for this.” The vision is of an architecturally exciting rooftop landscape, where architects address technical issues of building on the roof with experimental construction methods, and where the resultant increase in density means more residents and thus more need for supporting businesses and services to relocate back to city centres. Stylistically, the book encourages diversity, with examples by Coop Himmelblau and Erick van Egeraat amongst many others. Reading it is indeed akin to a trip across the rooftops of some radical cityscape.
Rooftop Architecture is certainly enjoyable, with an interesting introductory essay, and numerous inspirational examples of built and unbuilt work. Less certain, however, is who it is aimed at. Is it intended as a wake-up call to planning authorities or as inspiration to architects? In fact, it is both, but at the same time it is a manifesto and office brochure for Archipel Ontwerpers, the architectural firm of co-author Vreedenburgh, whose work is regularly referred to in the third person. Even if Rooftop Architecture raises as many questions as it answers - not least of which is why such an example of pastiche was chosen for the cover - it should be applauded for attempting to creatively engage with real questions about the future of the city.
Book Review: Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries - Massive Change
Most architects will know designer Bruce Mau from his work on S, M, L, XL. In fact, Massive Change informs us that “major attention focused on the studio in 1995 with the release of S, M, L, XL, a 1,300-page compendium of projects and texts designed and conceived by Bruce Mau Design with architect Rem Koolhaas and OMA.” An unfortunate sequence of words perhaps, but Mau’s input was undeniably influential on that book’s success. Since then he has published Life Style, an equally weighty and impressively designed and conceived cultural/design monograph.
Massive Change continues the high standard of graphic design set by its predecessors, but the subject matter has certainly changed. In a back cover tag-line that wouldn’t seem out of place on a movie poster, it boldly states that “Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.” Amazingly, it manages to live up to this assertion, with chapters based around urban, movement, energy, information, image, market, material, military, manufacturing, and living economies, and a final section on wealth and politics.
It is essentially a manifesto for global change, each chapter starting with a statement like “we will create urban shelter for the entire world population,” or “we will design evolution,” or “we will eradicate poverty.” And design is held up to be the key to each of these intentions, whether it’s the design of technology, drugs, legal systems or strategies of peace-making. Yes, it’s idealistic, but you’ll be so engrossed in the texts, images and sheer self-belief that you will forgive it.
The layout also aids in the clarity of the arguments, with single-page factual introductions and spreads of images with concise descriptions interspersed with yellow double-page interviews with prominent members of the extended “design” community. Enormous in its scope, Massive Change is a wake-up call to everyone concerned with the ‘sustainability’ of the human race on earth. And it’s only 20 quid. Incredible!
Book Review: Nicholas Ray - Alvar Aalto
Over 50 years or so, Alvar Aalto realised around 200 buildings, some now recognised to be among the greatest of the 20th Century. Combined with urban, furniture and product design, these ensure Aalto’s enduring status as one of the most important and prolific designers of the last century. This new book by Nicholas Ray is an introduction to the life and work of the Finnish architect, condensing decades of study and first hand experience into a compact volume. The book is split into three sections: a biography; a study of six of Aalto’s most important buildings (the Paimio Sanatorium, Villa Mairea, Baker House, Saynatsalo, the National Pensions Institute and Finlandia Hall); and an analysis of recurrent themes and theories.
In a market already well-represented by a few very good Aalto monographs, the unique selling point of Ray’s book lies in neither the biography, although this is a concise and engaging read, nor the case studies, even though well judged and illustrated, with previously unpublished photos by the author showing the buildings in use (although one occasionally has to look beyond fuzzy focusing to appreciate the quality of the spaces).
The originality is in the last section, which reappraises Aalto’s ingenuity and influence in relation to five themes: nature, function, means, style and positive scepticism. Although Aalto’s intense relationship with the landscape of Finland, and his overtly humanist and individual vocabulary have been discussed before, Ray’s skill here is in grounding Aalto’s complex and disparate theory (and theories of Aalto) within his built product, culminating in a summary of his legacy. The latter outlines his impact on architects like Venturi, Siza, Moneo and Miralles, and the way in which themes that were important to Aalto are being explored today. In fact, it would be welcome if this last chapter were longer; perhaps this is something to expand in future editions, allowing an ongoing critical reassessment of what can be seen as a particular strand of the modernist project. What comes through in force throughout the book is the author’s passion for his subject, finely balanced with solid research and theory, resulting in an important text on this most enigmatic of architects.