Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
150 specialists, 750 buildings, 5,500 photographs, 100 years. Plus a crucial carrying case with a handle.
It seems silly to characterize 20th Century World Architecture: The Phaidon Atlas as concise, since it profiles 750 buildings and weighs almost 17 pounds. But for the busiest hundred years of human history, that’s a remarkable exercise in refinement: one building per continent, per year.
Everyone likes to argue over best-of lists. But the admirable quality of Phaidon's hefty new offering, and this is not to demean the efforts of the 150 specialists who helped narrow down the selection, is not that it picks the winners correctly, but that it picks at all. The Atlas boxes in a century’s worth of building design. (The book also comes with a carrying box, to make transport less cumbersome.) That effort alone is worth celebrating; as it turns out, the results are as well.
It was the golden age of public architecture. Never before were so many things built for so many people, really pro bono publico rather than the hand-me-downs of the 19th century (palaces that became museums, private gardens that became public parks), or the corporate sponsorship (next stop, Barclay’s Center!) that may define the 21st.
Private homes, stores, skyscrapers and factories are well-represented – and we did build some stunning factories – but so are museums, libraries, gymnasiums, metro systems, airports, and public housing. And perhaps the selection sells the public realm short: because this book prioritizes design’s influence on architects (and its pedigree) rather than its influence on people, some of the iconic, semi-anonymous structures of the great century of urbanization – a Paris Metro station, say, or a New York City housing project – are not included.
What is included is a geographic range -- and 5,500 photos -- to stoke the fires of the inner traveler. A flip through took me to Vienna’s Goldman and Salatch Store (1911), by Adolph Loos, a proto-Modern building that Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly found so offensive he could not bear to look at it until window boxes were added below the windows. (“The building has no eyebrows!”) Even after the modifications the Hapsburg ruler avoided it.
Next I found the palatial stations of the Moscow Metro, each designed by a different architect, and traveled up to the frightening and beautiful Central Building of Moskva State University, intended as a Soviet response to American skyscrapers.
Here too is the almost Mesopotamian silhouette of Arthur Gordon Shoosmith’s Garrison Church of St. Martin in New Delhi; a giant government complex in the foothills of Islamabad; the world’s most aggressive dental clinic in Kyoto.
Yet these may be the last days of sorting architecture geographically, as this book does. From cookie-cutter fast food chains to bespoke modern museums, architecture has become as globalized as any other cultural output, perhaps more so. As the internet more deeply connects the world’s building community, it seems inevitable that local distinctions in style – employment of traditional forms or materials, stylistic oddities or anachronisms – will fade even further than during the heyday of Modernism. In 50 years, what visual bulwarks will stop one world capital from looking just like the next?
That would take some of the fun out of travelling. But one of the pleasures of perusing these pages, turning from anonymous houses to iconic monuments, is being reminded that architecture defines place as much as culture and tradition determine style. There was nothing particularly Parisian about the Eiffel Tower, until there was. The same could be said of the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim Bilbao. Iconoclasts become icons.
It is tempting to treat such a book as a historical encyclopedia. Glossy pages and hard covers lend an air of permanence to buildings as all else. But even the most celebrated structures are subject to context. Ricardo Porro’s Cuban National Arts Schools sink in to the jungle; suburban housing tracts encroach on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Condominium towers dwarf the Flatiron Building, the Great Mosque of Djenné endures gunfire, Giuseppe Pettazzi’s Fiat Service Station in Asmara lies shuttered and vacant.
Even the best architecture -- the buildings themselves and the critical consensus that anoints them -- is changing all the time. This book is an atlas but it's also a snapshot: the 20th century as seen from 2012. What a view.
20th Century World Architecture ($200) is out November 1 from Phaidon Press.
Top image: Sheats House, Los Angeles, 1963. John Lautner. Photo courtesy Phaidon Press.
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