Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, London, 2013, English
Nonfiction, Architecture
8.25 x 6 inches, hardcover, 240 pages, 300 color illustrations
ISBN: 9780300197983
Suggested Retail Price: $29.00

From the Publisher. Inspired by the idea of the wunderkammer—“wonder-room” or “cabinet of curiosities”—that originated during the Renaissance, world-renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien invited 42 celebrated architects and designers from around the world to create their own wunderkammers, filling boxes with objects that inspire them. This delightful book gathers together the varied, evocative wunderkammers along with accompanying statements by their architect-creators, including such luminaries as Shigeru Ban, Toyo Ito, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, Richard Meier, Murray Moss, Diébédo Francis Keré, Juhani Pallasmaa, Elias Torres, and Peter Zumthor.  

An introduction by Williams and Tsien explains their fascination with the wunderkammer and looks at their own history of collecting. The boxes, each spotlighted in its own section, are explored through each architect’s essay; working drawings and sketchbook pages; construction and installation photos; a list of the items contained; and a photograph of the final box. Wunderkammer offers a new way to think about art and inventiveness, collection and meaning in everyday objects.  

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are the founding members of the New York-based architecture firm in their name. Their built works include the recently relocated Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

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John Hill

One of the most lasting impressions from last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale was the Wunderkammer installation, curated by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Specifically it was the smell of incense pulling me into the ivy-covered Casa Scaffali, the “House of Shelves” that housed seeds and gardening equipment at the far corner of the Arsenale. Inside I discovered the source of the incense: one of the thirty-four boxes arrayed on the shelves and in the middle of the small space, each one a personal collection of artifacts that exhibited their maker’s personalities and priorities.

A book of the same name documents the Wunderkammer installation, which started with Williams and Tsien soliciting friends, family, former employees, former employers, and others (architects mainly, but also artists and critics) to fill a sturdy gray box made by cabinetmaker Stephen Iino with “objects that inspire them.” Importantly, the objects were not to be architecture. Like Valerio Olgiati’s The Images of Architects, the boxes responded to Biennale curator David Chipperfield’s theme of “Common Ground.” Yet in the case of Wunderkammer the things that inspired and connected were tangible and real rather than images of real things or places.

While visitors to the Biennale saw only the boxes staged in a particular manner in the Casa Scaffali, readers of the small book (the same size and format as Yale University Press’s Unpacking My Library books) can read statements from the contributors and see sketches and additional photos about what went into each box. The extra documentation becomes a replacement for the act of seeing the artifacts in person, but it also extends the life of the project, important since each box was returned to its maker.

To give a sense of what was inside the boxes, a few of my favorites include: the three layers of Sheila O’Donnell’s and John Tuomey’s Joseph Cornell-esque memory box; the box Francis Kéré filled with dirt and a tool from Burkina Faso; Chen Chen & Kai Williams’s deconstructed box fitted with a magic eight ball filled with the brackish water of Venice’s lagoon; and Claudy Jongstra’s 600 balls made from 10,000 meters of wool and silk dyed with 30 kilos of onion. And let’s not forget Marwan Al-Sayed, who turned the gray box into a gold “Shrine to the Shimmering Inversions of Form and Space,” where incense wafted from a black iron vase to pull visitors into Casa Scaffali’s wonderful cabinet of curiosities.

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