John Hill

Writer; Editor; Designer / United States /

John Hill’s Notable Books of 2012

Compiling a year-end list of notable books can be a tricky affair, given that publishing works in waves—spring and fall releases, to be precise. Furthermore, the wave that hits stores in the late fall and early winter just before the holidays tend to crowd out consideration toward earlier titles, much like the density of Oscar-worthy films bunched up at the end of the year vying for nominations in the short-term minds of Academy members. While this effect forces one to revisit books that were released earlier in the year, so as not to fall prey to year-end hype, it also makes it difficult to find trends that arise from books fitting into the 12-month calendar. Regardless, I’ve taken a stab at highlighting a few characteristics shared by titles on my list of ten notable books in 2012.

The monograph is far from dead. The architectural monograph has been touted as an “endangered species” (by Martin Filler in Architectural Record last year, among others), but three titles on my list fit into the category, and a fourth would be in there if my list extended to, say, a dozen. Monographs are particularly valuable when they compile information not readily available elsewhere (especially online sources), exploit the potential in controlling how text and images relate on a page, and become beautiful objects to hold. The monographs below are not groundbreaking, but they exhibit a lot of care in being made.

The juxtaposition of images and text in illustrated books is key. Increasingly books are talked about relative to online content, especially in terms of attention span, often expressed in word counts—a phrase like “nobody reads more than 5,000 words anymore” is common, an argument for shorter prose. Yet books benefit from being able to build up arguments across many pages that combine words and images, be it by one or a number of sources. Essays in related books from my list are often short, making them more readable to the digitally minded; and set between visual essays, for example, they take on new meanings. These books benefit by shifting between text and image, and between different voices, to comment on significant topics, be it healthcare, rampant urbanization, or living in a shrinking city.

Telling stories is not just for novels. When an architect or designer wants to get something across to a reader—be it a project, an argument, or just a point of view—wrapping it in a story is an effective tactic. It personalizes a design or experience and brings the reader closer to the content; one book below even uses the second-person voice to do such a thing. Close to half of the books on my list incorporate narrative in some manner: as a comic (the only bit of fiction on my list), as case studies, or as monographs. While image predominates these days, good writing is still important. When writing cuts through theory to help explicate matters it is often (but not always) effective.

9 books
Robert McCarter

The authors of this primer on architecture contend that experience “is the only valid means of evaluating a work of architecture.” Of course, a book’s reliance on photographs means that the visual takes precedence in one’s appreciation of buildings and spaces. To help overcome this predilection, each of the 72 works in this sweeping view of architecture spanning millennia is accompanied by a floor plan that locates the photographs and traces the body’s movement through the spaces. Photos are also keyed within the texts, which are rich in description and analysis, going well beyond the simple formal descriptions in Phaidon’s contemporaneous 20th Century World Architecture atlas.

Cathelijne Nuijsink

Japanese houses are some of the most popular pieces of architecture today, witnessed by a nearly endless stream of inventive designs found on blogs and in magazines. This book highlights more than 20 unmistakably Japanese houses designed by three generations of the country’s architects. Loads of insight into the issues behind the innovative designs—regarding the clients, cultural aspects, urban planning, etc.—comes through in interviews with the architects, carried out by Nuijsink after she moved from the Netherlands to Japan.

Lance Hosey

Architect and author Lance Hosey mines the history of ideas—Aldo Leopold, Christopher Alexander, Diane Ackerman, E.O. Wilson, among many others—to shape an argument about the aesthetics of sustainability. It’s a convincing argument that moves from the small scale to the large, from forks and cars to landscapes and cities. Architecture makes up the bulk of the book, but the whole undertaking works well in bringing form and appearance into discussions that tend to focus solely on performance as an indicator of sustainability.

Giovanna Borasi Editor
Mirko Zardini Editor

Just about every exhibition these days is accompanied by a print catalogue, but very few are valuable artifacts in their own right. This companion to the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s exhibition of the same name expands upon the gallery content through the inclusion of essays also focused on the relationship between architecture, cities, and health—a rarely explored topic ripe for investigation. The juxtaposition of visual imagery and academic writing accentuates the differences between the many takes on the topic, some direct but many subtly nuanced.

Bernard Tschumi

This hefty tome (776 pages, just shy of 7 pounds) spans five decades of Bernard Tschumi’s architecture and writing and reveals that plus-sized monographs—à la Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,L,XL—still have their place (Thomas Heatherwick: Making is another biggie worth commending). Across five sections in roughly chronological order, Tschumi recounts the creation of his varied output (from the Manhattan Transcripts to a zoo under construction in Paris). Curiously he writes in the second person, a tactic that is intended, among other things, to “draw the reader in,” and which ultimately is successful due to the text’s conversational tone and its thoughtful integration with numerous illustrations.

Peter Bialobrzeski

Photographer Peter Bialobrzeski takes us on a voyage through Asian megacities in this large-format book, moving from the periphery to the center, from what will be torn down to what will replace it; moments of tension between the two are particularly striking. By placing the key to the names of the cities at the back of the book, we don’t perceive the difference between one place and the next; a fictional city results. In this Baudelairean stroll, night looks like day and the cities have never looked so simultaneously complex and beautiful.

Danielle Aubert Editor
Lana Cavar Editor
Natasha Chandani Editor

It’s safe to say that the Lafayette Park housing development near downtown Detroit is not one of Mies van der Rohe’s more well-known works, but the treatment that it is given by the trio at Placement (in their first project) should change that and make it the most readily understood building in his oeuvre. This well-researched and designed compilation of all-new interviews, essays, and photographs, accompanied by archival material, paints a vivid picture not only of the buildings and landscapes but also of the residents and how they see and live at Lafayette Park. It’s an enlightening picture of a modernist oasis that is greatly appreciated and cared for by its residents.

Hannes Rössler Editor
Michael Buhrs Editor

Published on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition at Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, this book is a welcome addition to the few titles on the Japanese architect who started practicing architecture at the age of 42, after two decades of teaching architectural history. Fujimori’s distinctly personal architecture balances his long view of architecture (especially his appreciation of prehistoric “standing stones”) with a desire to wrap modern buildings in nature. It’s great to have documentation of over 20 of his completed projects in one place, alongside urban planning projects, photos from the Street Observation Society he started with artist Genpei Akasegawa, and essays by prominent architects and writers.

Robert McCarter
Designed by Irma Boom

One of the greatest feelings with a book is to know that it is something special even before cracking it open. Such is the case with Irma Boom’s methodical yet lovely design of this book on Dutch architect and educator Wiel Arets. Located somewhere between a monograph and a theoretical treatise, the book’s mix of projects, lectures, debates and interviews is carefully organized through color-coded tabs across five chapters. Thankfully the quality content is deserving of such a design.

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