John Hill

Writer; Editor; Designer / United States /

John Hill’s Notable Books of 2013

2 books
Henry Plummer

In 2013, The Museum of Modern Art examined the career of Le Corbusier in a comprehensive exhibition and a hefty companion book featuring numerous scholarly and critical essays charting the Swiss-French architect’s six-decade career. Yet like other great modern architects (Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn), even the most exhaustive account of Le Corbusier’s output cannot derail new explorations of his buildings and new books being released on the visionary architect every season.

An antithesis of MoMA’s unwieldy show and book can be found in Henry Plummer’s photographic and personal account of three religious structures in France designed by Le Corbusier: the chapel at Ronchamp, the monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, and the parish church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy-Vert. Light, as the title makes clear, is the subject of the book. Le Corbusier famously declared that “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes assembled in space,” and nowhere is that more moving than in these three concrete buildings designed after 1950, one of them (Firminy-Vert) completed posthumously.

While this statement is interpreted usually as an argument for the bright white surfaces of Le Corbusier’s “heroic” period in the 1920s and early ’30s, the idea resonates in these three buildings primarily because they are so dark—shadow is just as important as light. That these are places of prayer and introspection, and not houses or schools, is hardly accidental, even though Le Corbusier was, as Plummer puts it in this introductory essay, “an outspoken agnostic.”

Buildings like Villa Savoye whitewash their brick and concrete construction to create platonic abstractions, but the three béton brut structures that are the subject of this book are stripped of superficialities and bear the process of making. Further, light takes on an almost tangible quality to heighten one’s perception in the otherwise empty spaces. Plummer’s photos—taken over a period of 20 years—capture the way light turns these plastic creations (unprecedented in form and detached from religious precedents) into meaningful sacred spaces. Plummer manages to convey the way Le Corbusier puts us in touch with the light that comes from beyond—out of reach but all too real.

Valerio Olgiati Editor

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.

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.

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.

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