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Architects Today

by Kester Rattenbury, Rob Bevan, Kieran Long, Laurence King Publishing in association with Harper Design International, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, pp. 240, 2004, $29.95

Book cover

Book cover, showing Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, 2000 by Morphosis, phtoo © Atelier Kim Zwarts

By Carter B. Horsley

This very fine, small format book is crammed with 400 excellent illustrations of which 300 are in color and 100 contemporary architects are given two pages each with excellent commentary. Most of the entries show three projects and the entries in alphabetical order by architect, each accompanied by a photograph of the architect. Many of the highlighted projects are not brand new and many readers will not be familiar with all the architects. While the texts accompanying the entries for each architect are relatively short, they are very sophisticated and knowledgeable and generally superb.

Kester Rattenbury trained as an architect and writes for Building Design and teaches architecture at the University of Westminster. Robert Bevan is a former editor of Building Design and athe author of a forthcoming book on the destruction of architecture in conflicts. Kieran Long is deputy editor of Icon magazine and has taught architecture at London Metropolitan Unversity, Kingston University and the University of Greenwich.

The National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Ashton Raggatt McDougall in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan, 2001

As a vast variety of building types are included, it is difficult to single out the best project, but certainly one of the most flamboyant, colorful and interesting is the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, shown above, that was built in 2001 and designed by Ashton Raggatt McDougall in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan.

The book's commentary on this project is pithy:

"Judging by their design..., Ashton Raggatt McDougall's work is the architectural equivalent of dance music, sampling other architects' work with a bouncy freedom that is infectious but puzzling. The musuem looks at the cultural history of the 'Lucky County' which does not seem so lucky from an Aboriginal point of view. ARM were not scared of the controversy inherent in these questions of Australian identity, and their 'quoting' of Daniel Liebeskind's fractured Berlin Jewish Museum has obvious resonances - although Libeskind was not best pleased. The museum and the associated Institute of Aborinigal Studies also incorporate sections of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie (painted black instead of white) and the Sydney Opera House (by way of Aldo Rossi and James Stirling among others). It is as audacious and in-your-face as ARM's previous work. The Melbourne-based practice was formed in 1986 by partners Stephen Ashton, Howard Raggatt and Ian McDougall.... and, despite the populist veneer to the work, they have been driving an Australian architecture that is about ideas rather than a pragmatic or poetic response to landscape. They are out to prove that Australia's cultural 'cringe', which has been a dearth of great public architecture can be overcome....it is cultural projects that have given them the profile and freedom to make their voice heard. And boy do they shout. Their 1996 reworking and extension to Storey Hall, at the RMIT University in Melbourne, carried their name overeseas. It is like an extraordinary green chameleon, transforming a neoclassical building into a gallery and an auditorium encrusted with a scaly internal and external skin, informed by an exploration of mathematical and computer-based models. More recently a cultural centre for the city of Marion, South Australia (2001) has used the place name literally to organize the buildings: the M and the A are angular folded elements that run through the building; the R is a curvaceous metal-clad porte-corchère. By the time you get to the N ( a free-standing sculpture of steel trusses) the conceit is wearing a bit thin. Anyone looking for subtlety should look elsewhere.....Despite, or perhaps because of, the nudge-nudge quotations and jokes, the Australians have taken the practice and their clever work to heart, even if the conservative establishment are not happy with ARM's archiectural outspokenness. Two of their schemes have been made it onto postage stamps. Lick that."

Heinz Galinski School in Berlin

Heinz Galinski School, Berlin, 1995, Zvi Hecker

The Heinz Galinski School was the first Jewish school to be built in Berlin since the Second World War. It was built in 1995 and designed by Zvi Hecker, who the authors note "has long been preoccupied with spirals and sunflowers (which formed part of his wartime diet) and the Heinz Galinski School is based on the petals of the sunflower with their spiralling 'celestial construction' - Hecker's take on design is part of Expressionism's return curve to Berlin. As with all his projects, the scheme evolved even as it was built and as it grew, the Berlin school began to take the form of the open pages of a book...."

East Wing, National Gallery of Art

East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 1978, I. M. Pei

The authors state that I. M. Pei's "great projects are some of the most important of their time," adding that "the crisp geometric monumentality of the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, DC (1978), has been called the first late-modern building." "The Louvre (1989), with its steel and glass pyramid and its rational reworking of the chaotic museum, is one of the sights of Paris. And the Bank of China, in Hong Kong (1989), with its triangular geometry, is one of the few really memorable super-high-rises. 'He's not a design influence,' said Philip Johnson, "He's just Mr. Success.' Yet from the fringes of high architecture, he has done more than most to shape the world." His greatest building is unquestionably the East Wing, a thrilling adventure in angularity.

Philip Johnson's Glass House

Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949, Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson died not long after the book was published and he is represented in it by his fabled "Glass House" in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949) and the A. T. & T. Tower in New York (1983) (see The City Review article). The book notes that Johnson "has presided over the rise of the International Style, Postmodernism and, through his protégés, Deconstructivism. Along the way, he has designed some of the US's most recognizable landmarks....In many ways, however, it is not Johnson's buildings that have made him so influential (though of course they have helped) but his work as an educator and exhibition curator....His conversion to Postmodernism was astounding to many: hee was the man who had helped create the climate for Modernism dirtying his hands with flimsy historicism. Certainly his buildings since have never attained their former glory, even if, as with AT&T, they have had an impact....under his tutelage at Yale, the witty East Coast patrician has fostered the talents of his 'kids' - Robert Stern, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier and Michael Graves among others - who in turn have invested his own work with new twists....his talents as a promoter of architects and architecture lend him greatness, like the host of an exceptional salon that has lasted several years."

Johnson, of course, was the dean of American architects for almost half a century and many of his works are underestimated.

Bibliotechna Alexandrina in Alexandria

Bibliotecha Alexandrina, Alexandria, 2002, Snøhetta

One of the handsomest designs in this book is the Bibliotecha Alexandrina in Alexandria, which was designed Snøhetta. "Oslo-based Snøhetta," the book observes, "take their name from a mountain in central Norway - not just a beautiful peak but also the seat of the Norse gods. Mysticism, metaphor and mountain, indeed landscapes generally, come together in the work of the practice, established in 1987 for the competion to build a new library in Alexandria, Egypt - a building to replace one of the wonders of the ancient world. They won. Completed in 2002, the library is, to date, their magnum opus - a giant 160-metre-diameter glazed disc that emerges out of the layers of history and tilts its face to a northern light. Its solid granite drum is inscribed with alphabets that represent 10,000 years and 500 cultures. The great amphitheater of the reading room sits 2,000 readers. Next door a spherical planetarium is suspended above the ground so that, like Atlas, you can take the world on your shoulders. A bridge across the site invokes the steak of a comet." The partners of Snøhetta are Craig Dykers, Christoph Kapeller and Kjetil Thorsen.

Selfridges Department Store, Birmingham, West Midlands, England, Future Systems, 2003

The most ungainly but undeniably impressive project in the book is Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham, West Midlands, England, that was designed by Future Systems and completed in 2003. Future Systems is led by Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete, both veterans of Richard Rogers' practice. "Some see Future Systems as space-age retro: theirs is a vision of the future people have been seeing for decades. But it is the first time this image has really been built - probably because building these ideas for real involves involves a huge amount of hard work," the book argues. The Selfridges project's bulbous facade of shiny aluminum disks may appeal greatly to bottle-cap collectors, but its hulk bursts upon the city much like Beaubourg does in Paris.

Fuji Television Building by Tange

Fuji Television Building, Tokyo, 1996, Kenzo Tange

Kenzo Tange is one of the great Japanese architects whose major works began in 1950 with the Hiroshima Peace Centre and his influence on such other architects as Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki. Tange was linked with the promotion of megastructures which he incorporated in his 1960 Tokyo Plan that was not implemented but very influential. The book's authors noted that "many critics consider much of the recent output of his office to be corporate fodder lacking the spark of his earlier work," adding that "the oversized grids, struts and suspended polished sphere of the Fuji Television Building in Tokyo (1996), while gimmicky, still pack a punch, and the sheer scale of the paired towers of the 1991 Tokyo City Hall complex is staggering."

Hotel du Department des Bouches-en-Rhone, Marseilles

Hôtel du Départment des Bouches-du-Rhône ("The Big Blue"), Marseilles, 1993, Will Alsop

Easily the most colorful project in the book is Will Alsop's marvelous ultramarine-colored Hôtel du Départment des Bouches-du-Rhône in Marseilles, which is known as "The Big Blue" and was completed in 1993. The authors describe the project as "abrasively romantic" and note that "Despite its many redesigns, the Marseilles building is a powerful manifestation of the original idea: the early eco-principles of the atrium and blocks; the articulation of the 'Déliberatif' (as Alsop calls the council chamber) and the 'fish' in the foyer'; the structural toughness of the X-grid legs. Its transfomer-aged Modernism somehow echoes Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in the same town. The beautiful Yves Klein ultramarine ties it into the dazzling craggy industrial land and seascape of Marseilles....Alsop's image as a great artist-architect remains greater outside his native territory. He is part of a European world in which culture and power are not antithetical. At home, he has maybe built too much, with too much concern for sheer shape-making, to be seen as a true apostle of Archigram or Price.....Outside the UK he is a vindication of Englishness, with his clever, lyrical, tough, wry, big projects."

Embankment Place in London

Embankment Place, London, 1990, Terry Farrell

"Wild swings of critical opinion have moved" Terry Farrell "from hero to demon and back," the authors note:

"As co-founder of Farrell Grimshaw Partners in 1965, he was a darling of the UK 1960s-1970s revolution, with funky, clip-on, lateral thought. Their Sussex Gardens housing, London (1968) was a 1960s classic with its proto-high-tech, spiral stack bathroom pod tower outside the existing building and the total remodelling of circulation and spaces inside, plus pull-out furniture on a trolley. When FGP painfully split, Farrell was reborn as the friendly face of UK Postmodernism. Playful and inventive projects like TV AM London (1982), with its built-in logo and eggcup finials, or the clever, pop-on technology of Clifton Nurseries in Covent Garden (1980) were hits, combining architectural invention and wit with popular taste. Then he became hero of the conservation and community movements with clever reuse and redevelopment plans for a block of theatened buildings in London's Seven Dials (1976). Then came 'alternative' proposals for big developments like the hugely controversial Mies van der Rohe Mansion House scheme in London (1983). So in the factional UK of the 1980s and 1990s, the sudden appearance of huge Postmodernist office buildings was seen as shocking treachery. Postmodernism had been seen as a voice for democracy against developers: Farrell seemed to have sold it down the river. In fact, Farrell was never part of the style-ethic factionalism into which the UK had split. His wide-ranging thought adopted a different approach to every project and every situation, and, increasingly an unfashionably inclusive love of style. The first big offices, most notably Embankment Place, London (1990) - a huge, almost Metabolist office palazzo over Charing Cross Station with some expert shifts of urban scale from river view to side street - were followed by a period when he built almost nothing in the Uk. He worked instead in Hong Kong and the Far East, where his buildings got even bigger and even more Metabolist in their combination of huge Expressionist forms with a detailed, urban scale, as in the yellow, amphibian-like Kowloon Ferry Terminal Buidling (1996). Huge popular in Asia, when Farrell returned to the UK - with projects like the Deep Aquarium in Hull (2002) with its Expressinist forms, or witty, Soane-inspired remodellings as in the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh (1998) - critics no longer knew what to make of him.....Many of his early arguments on energy, resue of buildings, urban design and enlightened commercialism were way ahead of their time."

Blur Building by Diller + Scofidio

Blur Building, Swiss Expo, 2002, Diller + Scofidio

Diller + Scofidio gained fame for its Blur Building at the Swiss Expo in 2002 where, the book notes, "31,400 needlepoint jets emitted tiny droplets to form a ghostly and magical mist that enveloped vistiors in an artificial cloud hovering above a lake." "New York husband-and-wife team Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio," the authors continued, "inhabit that fuzzy grey zone that exists between architecture and art, between creating 'real' buildings and designing experiences that illuminate the meaning of architecture. They have been described as 'Duchampian guerilla architects' because of their early penchant for seizing vacant lots and erecting art-architecture installations...." See The City Review article on the firm's plans to redo Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Zentralparksasse Headquarters, Vienna

Zentralparksasse Headquarters, Vienna, 1979, Günther Domenig

Günther Domenig is the founder of the Graz School and, according to the book, "a proto-Deconstructivist a good ten years ahead of the field." "He studied in Graz but immediately rebelled against the complacent commercialism of contemporary practice. His Zentralparksasse Headquarters (1979) broke this mould, with its melted-looking articulated facade - like a knight's gauntlet slipping off - and huge abstracted 'hand' inside. It is extraordinary in any light, not just for breaking orthogonal forms but for its overt metaphorical intentions and its location in a banal suburb of repressive Vienna....The Z-bank was the best known of a portfiolio of fiercely expressive buildings, overloaded with meaning and physically ferocious in their explosive forms..."

"Clusters in the Air" project by Isozaki

Clusters in the Air project, 1962, Arata Isozaki

One of the most spectacular and important unbuilt projects of the 20th Century was Arata Isozaki's "Clusters in the Air" scheme in 1962 in which he proposed cantilevering housing units from a central spine in a far more radical fashion than the plan by Santiago Calatrava for South Street in New York that ignited architectural imaginations more than four decades later. Isozaki's plan was the most futuristic of several schemes that would be advanced based on the notion of "megastructures" and the potential of lowering housing costs through industrialized capsules.

"Like many of his contemporaries," the authors noted, "Isozaki trained with Kenzo Tange at Tokyo University and was a product of the postwar rebuiling years....But of all those contemparies, he has made the most significant break with a technocratic Modernism, embracing Postmodernism with zest. In the 1970's, Isozaki was in the Modernist mainstream, producing buildings such as the Gunma Museum of Modern Art, Takasaki (191974), based on a cubic grid reaching out over the surrounding parkland and reflecting pool. As the decade progressed he struggled more and more with orthogonal orthodoxy and began experimenting with new shapes, especially the circle, which he used in both plan and section. By the time he came to build the Tsukuba Civic Centre in the early 1980s at a new town outside Tokyo, which freely quotes everything from the neoclassical to Robert Venturi, he was clearly in a new phase of his life and work."

"Habitat" by Safdie

"Habitat" housing complex at the Montreal Expo, 1967, by Moshe Safdie

One of the most famous projects of its time was Moshe Safdie's Habitat at the Montreal Expo in 1967 in which he stacked housing units in seemingly random fashion. "In a housing climate of rational grids and pint and slab blocks," the authors observed, "Safdie pursued a cellular concrete building system that allowed more informal private layouts at higher densities, likened to Italian (or Israeli) hill towns. It proved an expensive approach but in later schemes in the US Safdie demonstrated its feasibility, even if Habitat '67 is now a high-salalary enclave rather than the resource for those on lower incomes that was envisaged. Habitat '67 is something of a megastructure but it strives for intimacy - an approach evident in his subsequent work.....Quebec's Musée de la Civilisation (1989) demonstrates his skill at making parts of cities rather than simply set-piece buildings.....An ongoing project that brings together these consistent themes is the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex - a museum of Sikh history in the Punjabi holy city of Anandpur. Both intimate and monumental, the complex is divided into two and joined by a bridge over a ravine. Organized around a central courtyard and pools that will reflect the stone-clad concrete galleries with their gleaming stainless-steel roofs, it promises to be a perfectly Safdie juxtaposition of civilization and oasis."

Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kurokawa

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, 1972, Kisho Kurokawa

The book provides the following commentary about this iconic building:

"While in the Uk of the 1960s the Archigram group theorized about plug-in cities and buildings, [Kisho] Kurokawa actually built some of these dreams. His astonishingly avant-garde Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo (1972) has detachable pods like giant washing machines clipped to a double core, designed to be updateable and replaceable as the building grew and changed. the tower remains an icon of its time and of the Metabolist movement that he jointly founded....Metabolism may have had aesthetic and funcitonal similarities to the nascent high-tech movement in Western Europe but it was something different. In his philosophical writings Kurokawa has been keen to separate himself from the building-as-a-machine approach that informed mainstream Modernism. His work looked to the organic and even the mystical - the Age of Life Principle, which saw buildngs and cities as living organisms with a life cycle, rather than as extensions of the industrial machine."

Tokyo Nara Tower by Yeang

Tokyo Nara Tower, 1994, Ken Yeang

"The hanging gardens of Ken Yeang," the authors maintain, "have brought a new aesthetic to the design of skyscrapers. More than that, they have brought a new ethos of sustainable design to the building type. His 'bioclimatic' towers have an an impact around the world, fusing high-tech and organic principles that have grown out of a response ot the harsh and humid climate of his native country - Malaysia....His most celebrated bioclimatic project is the fifteen-storey, louvre-clad Menara Mesiniaga tower (1992) in Kuala Lumpur, which houses IBM's office there. ...Skyscrapers, says Yeang, should be treated as cities in the sky and mapped in similar ways, looking at use, density, inhabitants and open spaces. This approach reached new heights in the eighty storeys of theTokyo Nara tower (1994). Gardens climb up the building, providing a climatic filter in terms of air quality, temperature and noise. The spiralling floor plans shade the levels beneath and create double- and even triple-height floor spaces to contain the gardens. Louvres and screens similarly mediate the environment within the building, which incorporates the latest in low energy consumption technology. The result is a scaly, organic skin rather than a shiny, smooth corporate sheath."

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong, 1986, Norman Foster

"In 1986," the authors note, "while Britain struggled to support home talent, Foster was completing the most expensive building in the world. The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, with its earthquake-proof cross-bracing and vast, public-access underbelly daylit by mammoth sunscoops, was glamorous and tough, tackling environmental, civic and architectural issues on a grand scale. It was one of the great projects that launched the UK profession into unprecedented popularity and world fame....The avant-garde...has long overtaken him. And why not? Foster has nothing left to prove. He has already conquered the world."

Other architects included in the book include Steven Holl, Peter Eisenman, Tadao Ando, Asymptote, Arquitectonica, Nigel Coates, Charles Correa, Christian de Portzmparc, Tat, Foreign Office Architects, Jean Nouvel, Rafael Moneo, Eric Owen Moss, MVRDV, Lab Architecture Studio, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Hollein, Future Systems, Renzo Piano, Antoine Predock, SOM, Rafael Vinoly, UN Studio, Ten Arquitectos, Bernard Tschumi, Tod Wiloiams Billie Tsien and Shigeru Ban.

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