Notable Design Books: Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: August Reviews

August 2, 2013

Our August reviews cover a wide range of design reading, from a new e-book to Adrian Shaughnessy’s essays on graphic design to an Álvaro Siza omnibus. These Notable Design Books of 2013 have been selected by members of our Book Board. You can also view the complete list of Notable Design Books of 2013, in our signature grid format.

Book Board members who have participated in selecting titles for our August post are John Hill, Mark Lamster, Ellen Lupton, and Norman Weinstein.

Philip Jodidio
Álvaro Siza: Complete Works 1952–2013

By Philip Jodidio
TASCHEN (June 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Álvaro Siza: Complete Works 1952–2013 by Philip Jodidio (TASCHEN)

The monumental heft and dimensions (12-by-15-inch format) of this six-decade retrospective of the great Portuguese modernist architect Álvaro Siza offers a surprisingly charming window into Siza’s talent. A wealth of drawings, a major component of this designer’s creative process, appears in playful profusion in all their outrageous glory.

Siza’s drawings maintain a singularity transcending their pragmatic utility in bringing his concepts into sharp architectural forms. Human figures—or perhaps fanciful mythic spirits, his architectural muses?—peek out of his architectural sketches. Often proportionally larger than his drawn buildings, they seem to comprise a “Greek chorus” capable of commenting on Siza’s first creative impulses.

While the uniformly high-quality color photographs of Siza’s buildings are welcome and expected in this volume summarizing a remarkably fertile career, the architect’s sketches offer a complex counterpoint. Siza’s buildings embody stark white rectilinear forms seemingly springing out of the rocky ground of his native soil, but in his sketches Siza discloses a different sensibility than that of his obvious precursors, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Not involved with Le Corbusier’s utopian reveries or Kahn’s classically inflected, archetypal, spiritually driven architecture, Siza operates by mingling inspiration from the sensual textures of nature with the conceptual rigors of geometry. Arguably his masterwork, the Îbere Camargo Foundation Museum combines an undulating facade, perhaps evoking the Atlantic constantly reshaping Portugal’s coast, with an interior full of dramatic light and shadow play, the spectacle of high-tech and natural lighting strategies creating brilliant corners inviting museumgoers’ contemplation of art.

Iberê Camargo Foundation Museum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, designed by Siza. From Álvaro Siza: Complete Works 1952–2013. Photo © Duccio Malagamba

Siza tends to speak of his designs by offering concise Zen-like quips that puzzle as much as clarify. Philip Jodidio does well in offering very brief descriptive paragraphs linked to large-scale photographs, apparently in consultation with Siza. Packaged in a cardboard suitcase, this is a massive tome inviting the mind to travel through an architectural opus that defines simple description, yet affirms the constant appeal of clean minimalist design that draws meaning from the jagged ground it rests upon.

Superior School of Education in Setúbal, Portugal, designed by Siza. From  Álvaro Siza: Complete Works 1952–2013. Photo © Duccio Malagamba


Vishaan Chakrabarti
A Country of Cities

By Vishaan Chakrabarti
Metropolis Books (May 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Mark Lamster (Dallas Morning News, Design Observer, Architectural Review)

A Country of Cities, by Vishaan Chakrabarti, 2013 (Metropolis Books)

Urban planning is the topic de jour in the design field, the subject of a raft of new titles from authors with diverse agendas. Chakrabarti's is among the most readable and cogent of the recent offerings. Pitched as a manifesto, A Country of Cities is at its best when arguing for the dense city (as against the suburbs and rural areas), as the most sustainable, ecologically responsible form of habitation for the coming century. Material that can be dry (the mechanics of tax-increment financing, or the relative ecological impact of various housing densities) are enlivened by excellent infographics and enough aphoristic slogans to please a latenight pitchman on cable TV.

Chakrabarti is both an academic planner and a practitioner (he is a partner at SHoP Architects, in New York), and he makes no secret of his belief in real-estate development as the key to the city's future. New Urbanists may not agree with his prescription of tall buildings as an elixir to urban problems, and there are occasional moments when the book seems a bit self-promotional, but it nevertheless stands as a critically important argument, fully worthy of attention.

“High-Speed Rail Can Work in Large Countries,” from A Country of Cities


Akademie der Künste; Wilfried Wang, Editor

By Wilfried Wang, editor for the Akademie der Künste
Lars Müller Publishers (April 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Culture:City: How Culture Leaves Its Mark on Cities and Architecture Around the World, edited by Wilfried Wang for the Akademie der Künste, 2013 (Lars Müller Publishers)

In spring 2013, Berlin’s Akademie der Künste hosted the exhibition “Culture:City,” curated by architect Matthias Sauerbruch. Through a presentation of 37 architectural projects from the last few decades, accompanied by 15 specially commissioned short films, the exhibition asked: “Does culture today still function as a guiding principle [for cities], or does it merely serve as a catalyst for spectacular buildings?” Or to put it another way, is there validity in the “Bilbao Effect” and the trend of cities to commission well-known architects to design elaborate buildings in order to lure tourists and their money? This is a trend in serious need of critical analysis, making this companion book to the exhibition a valuable document.

The book is split into two halves: a presentation of the 37 projects following essays by Ricky Burdett, William J. R. Curtis, Richard Sennett, and many others (Sennett's piece on “the open city” is particularly good), including introductory essays by editor Wilfred Wang and Sauerbruch. The projects make up the bulk of the book, but they are not presented merely as eye candy, as architectural publications are wont to do today. Peter Eisenman’s design for the Cidade da Cultura de Galicia in Spain, for example, is discussed in both the project section and within the essays in regard to the fact that it’s only partially complete but substantially over budget. This is but one case where misinterpreting and overextending the influence of the Bilbao Effect can be disastrous.

Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Kolhass, from Culture:City (Lars Müller Publishers)

Beyond familiar icons like Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon, and icons-in-the-making like Eisenman’s City of Culture and Norman Foster’s West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, the selection of projects is indicative of a preference on the part of Wang and Sauerbruch for cultural production over cultural consumption. A couple of cases in point are Cedric Price’s Inter-Action Centre (completed in 1977, demolished in 2003), whose flexibility invited unscripted communal activities, and Detroit Soup, a monthly dinner aimed at sparking and financing cultural initiatives in that city today. If the editors and contributors to the book had their way, our cities would have more projects like these in the coming years, instead of budget-busting institutions in avant-garde wrappers.

Carmen Espegel
Eileen Gray: Objects and Furniture Design

Introduction by Carmen Espegel; edited by Sandra Dachs
Ediciones Polígrafa (April 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

Eileen Gray: Objects and Furniture Design, introduction by Carmen Espegel, 2013 (Ediciones Polígrafa)

This compact and well-illustrated introduction to objects and furniture designed by Eileen Gray was published at a propitious time. The largest exhibition ever presented of Gray’s designs was presented by the Centre Pompidou, attracting widespread popular and critical attention at the beginning of 2013. If the catalogue associated with that extensive exhibition were more widely available outside of France, there might be no rationale for this well-informed, devout, but slim introductory survey. But despite that catalogue, and the half-dozen previously penned books on this elusive designer, there is always room for another text to shed light.

Consider Gray the Emily Dickinson of design: reclusive, simultaneously ancient, modern, and timeless, a relentless questioner of conventional aesthetic wisdom, and a loner beyond simple categorization. Even the title of this text can arouse controversy. Other books about Gray label her as “architect/designer,” although she lacked any formal architectural training, and only three of her architectural projects were completed during her lifetime. Yet arguably her best-known work is E-1027 Villa, an influential modernist house Gray designed with the architectural critic Jean Badovici, soon to be reopened on the southern French coast after a laborious restoration process.

Non-Conformist Chair, designed by Eileen Gray, 1926–1929. Philippe Garner Archives

She was protean: initially creating original lacquered screens mingling Art Deco and Orientalism, inventing carpet designs suggesting cubist geometry, and designing scores of memorably offbeat lamps, mirrors, chairs, and tables. One of her chairs invited two different manners of sitting. She aptly named it “Non-Conformist Chair.” Of the Transat Chair, unfortunately currently in storage at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the architect and furniture designer Amanda Levete spoke with great clarity when she noted that Gray’s chair is “like architecture in miniature. Because every piece of it is doing exactly what it should be doing.” The authors of this survey don’t wax as eloquently about Gray’s furniture as Levete, but their emphasis on Gray as a restless explorer of “every possible use that a piece of furniture could be put to” makes for a mesmerizing read.

Valerio Olgiati
The Images of Architects

By Valerio Olgiati, editor
Quart Architektur (June 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

The Images of Architects, edited by Valerio Olgiati, 2013 (Quart Architektur)

As part of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati responded to curator David Chipperfield’s theme of Common Ground by asking 44 architects to contribute images that reveal “views into the mind of the architect's visual world.” The Polaroid-size “pictographs” were assembled on a large white table sitting below a low white ceiling inserted at one end of the large Arsenale space. Visitors would enter the space defined by the two parallel planes and get intimate with “The images of architects.”

Given the thought put into the Biennale installation, it’s fitting that the printed version would be a special object to hold, from the shiny linen cover and velvet endpapers to the heavyweight paper and built-in ribbon bookmark. The images selected by the architects (usually 10 but sometimes less, and in one case more) are presented one to a page in alphabetical order by the architect's last name. Fittingly, there is very little text in the book—only a short introduction by Olgiati, the name of the respective architect at the bottom of each page, and bios on the architects and image captions and credits at the back of the book.

Exhibition view. Photo: John Hill

The book’s structure allows people to, like the exhibition, get intimate with the images. That each image is a vehicle for inspiration rather than of marketing (as so many images are these days, architectural or otherwise) means that the book invites and rewards prolonged gazes at the images. Why are they important to the architects? This is not explained, so it is up to us to interpret the selections and what the subjects say about the architect and contemporary architecture in general.

Images from Glen Murcutt from The Images of Architects

An interesting way of “reading” the book is to find the strands that link the individual images in an architects selection. Some are obvious, such as Jürgen Mayer H.'s “collection of data protection patterns” (security envelopes) and Alvaro Siza’s familiar sketches, but some are less so, prompting us to think about the role of images as means of inspiration. A couple favorites in this vein are David Adjaye’s photos of African architecture and landscapes, and Momoyo Kajima's and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto’s (Atelier Bow-Wow) photos of spaces full of people. Not surprisingly, photos of architecture pervade the selections, but there is enough variety that the images are only rarely obvious.

Jean-Louis Cohen
Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes

By Jean-Louis Cohen
Introduction by Barry Bergdoll
The Museum of Modern Art (June 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Mark Lamster (Dallas Morning News, Design Observer, Architectural Review)

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, by Jean-Louis Cohen, 2013 (The Museum of Modern Art)

This book accompanies an unwieldily scattershot show that was not successful in defending its thesis that Le Corbusier was “profoundly rooted in nature in landscape,” except in the most anodyne reading of that phrase. The catalogue is similarly unwieldy, but in this case diversity is a strength.

A great omnibus of Le Corbusier scholarship, it presents nearly 75 essays on the master’s works, organized in “atlas” form. (Each continent is represented with a wonderful graphic showing built and unbuilt works, and the architect's travels.) The essays vary in relative interest and brio, but the whole makes for an indispensable and handsome resource to be sampled with great pleasure.

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) (French, born Switzerland. 1887-1965). Plans for Algiers and Barcelona and “vertical garden-city,” drawing made during a lecture in Chicago. November 27, 1935. Pastel on paper. 39 3/4” x 109 1/2” (101 x 278.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Robert A. Jacobs. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / FLC


Michael Rock
Multiple Signatures

By Michael Rock
Rizzoli (May 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Ellen Lupton (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Maryland Institute College of Art)

Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers and Users by Michael Rock. 2013 (Rizzoli)

Michael Rock's Multiple Signatures belongs to a new breed of monograph that showcases the work of a designer or studio through a diverse collage of documents rather than through lavish reproductions. Multiple Signatures attempts to perform the work rather than merely represent it. Some projects appear in tiny reference shots inserted into a discursive text (reminiscent of Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture), while others enter the stage as large-scale images that are not so much reproduced as re-enacted. 2x4, the design consultancy co-founded by Rock in 1994, emerges as the book’s primary subject; the book situates the studio’s influential practice within a larger discussion about design authorship and the techniques and clichés of visual form-making.

A rich picture emerges of how design is practiced in a large multidisciplinary firm with a unique critical voice. One essay features a cartoon-style conversation between Rock and his partners Susan Sellers and Georgie Stout; each character is illustrated with a deadpan drawing of a talking head. The ensuing conversation feels at once honest and contrived—like good theater. One head pronounces, “Our enthusiasm is one of our most recognizable products . . . it has also nearly driven us out of business a few times.” The book also includes many of Rock's essays and lectures, covering a span of more than two decades.

Interior pages from Multiple Signatures, “Talking Over—Susan Sellars, Georgie Stout, and Michael Rock.” From Multiple Signatures (Rizzoli)
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