John Hill

Writer; Editor; Designer / United States /

John Hill’s Notable Books of 2013

17 books
James Gulliver Hancock

If people picking up this 64-page collection of sketches are disappointed that Australian illustrator James Gulliver Hancock has only drawn one half of one percent of New York City’s buildings, his loose and playful depictions of iconic and lesser-known buildings will change their emotions to delight pretty quickly. Unlike guides that give insight into a city, this one lets us see inside Hancock’s mind; we see how he sees. Perspective, proportion, and color may be divorced from reality, but his artistic takes capture the details and essences of important and otherwise overlooked buildings. His sketches also bridge the childlike and the architectural, making the book appealing for any age.

Botond Bognar

In 2012 Berlin’s DOM Publishers put out a two-volume guide (half firsthand account, half government propaganda) to Pyongyang, North Korea, an odd locale given that few people can or will ever visit the city. But this year DOM released an excellent guide to a place where architecture buffs rightfully flock: Japan. While a single guide for a country like the United States does not make sense, Japan is only 9/10 the size of California but home to three times as many people. This guide reinforces the amazing quantity of great 20th- and 21st-century architecture in the country, and Japan expert Botond Bognar’s descriptions give just the right amount of background on the 700 buildings; his introductory essay on the “course of contemporary architecture” is valuable in its own right. This is also a print guide for the digital age, with QVR codes that enable mapping of each entry on a smartphone.

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.

Wilfried Wang Editor, for the Akademie der Künste

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.

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.

Matthew Stadler
Designed and illustrated by Tae Won Yu

Deventer is a small city in the Netherlands with just under 100,000 residents—the equivalent of a Flint, Michigan, or Kenosha, Wisconsin, in population terms. The city is an unlikely setting for what is described as a novel-like retelling of two projects, one architectural and one urban planning, both on sites of hospitals and both involving Matthijs Bouw and his firm One Architecture. Bouw is also an unlikely choice, but novelist Matthew Stadler’s interests lie in the architect’s unique working process and the resulting interactions between Bouw, the clients, and the residents of Deventer.

Stadler’s narrative treatment of the true events around the two projects takes liberty with time, just one of the ways that the book departs from more traditional architectural history to make the architectural process accessible to a wider audience. As one example, Stadler visits the completed architectural project near the beginning of the book, heading back in time later in the book to discuss how Bouw and company designed their intervention. The future of the urban planning project is less certain, stemming from a number of factors, including the economic problems taking place at the time (post-2008), the desire of the developers to take their winning bid and depart from Bouw’s brilliant yet highly prescriptive plan, and the fact that masterplans typically leave room for change in architecture and other forms (think of Daniel Libeskind’s winning masterplan for the World Trade Center site compared to what is being built today).

While the highly specific projects and scenarios revolving around Matthijs Bouw mean this book cannot serve as a template for narrative treatments of other buildings, it does illustrate that architecture can be made interesting for wider consumption. Films, TV shows, books, and other forms of narration prefer doctors, lawyers, police, and other life-or-death professions, to the chagrin of architects who find what they do just as fascinating. Architectural projects unfold through myriad conflicts and compromises by a large and complex cast of characters; the decisions that occur along the way may not be life or death, but their influence is great and last for years and decades. If there is one thing that can be exported from Stadler’s enjoyable story it is the value in having somebody from outside the architectural profession observe and document the process, so that other books would appeal to more than just architects and—like Deventer—be cognizant of the people who will ultimately occupy an architect’s creation.

Edward Dimendberg

I own and have read four books on New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro—three overviews (Flesh, Scanning, and The Ciliary Function) and a case study (Blur)—so what pleases me most about film professor Edward Dimendberg’s analysis of their 1976-2008 oeuvre is that there is still so much to learn about the trio’s work. Early, pre-Renfro projects not documented in the other books are presented here, as are the mundane yet fascinating details of how later projects either came to be or fizzled. Not surprisingly Dimendberg approaches the trio’s work in terms of imagery and their investigations into contemporary visual and spatial realities. Yet his analysis does not weigh heavily on the book, so it is an enjoyable read that carefully traces their growth and evolution.

Philip Jodidio
Elizabeth Dowling

Books explaining architecture to a general audience are a commendable if tiny segment of books on the subject. Yet as architects ask for a more educated public in matters of architecture, there is room for much improvement. For every Understanding Architecture or How Architecture Works there is Architecture for Dummies or some other title that is lacking in how to convey the most elementary information. So Philip Jodidio’s Discovering Architecture is a welcome addition to the genre, with its wide-ranging selection of buildings, large color photos, and inventive captions.

Jodidio (a prolific author who seems to pen ten books on a slow year) normally focuses on contemporary buildings by big-name architects, but less than twenty of the fifty buildings collected in this coffee table book were completed after 1900; only two since 2000. Most of the selection “from the Christian era to the present” is fairly obvious, be it Hagia Sophia, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, the Bauhaus, or the Guggenheim Bilbao. This is to be expected with such an overview. And while Jodidio is not afraid to venture to Asia beyond the usual European and North American masterpieces, only one building in Australia and South America each are found, and none from Africa. But this does not detract from the book’s strong presentation.

Each of the 50 buildings is treated in the same manner: one page of descriptive text faces a full-bleed, full-page photo (many, but not all of the projects have two more pages of photos). In between the text and photo is a gray page with rectangular die cuts and captions describing the respective views onto the photo underneath. These die-cut captions highlight the important formal aspects of each building (the photos typically show the exterior, but sometimes the interior, such as with Grand Central Terminal), but they also educate the reader on how to “read” architecture through photographs. This tactic makes a good deal of sense given today’s preference for documenting buildings, old and new, through photography.

The die cuts and captions elevate the book above a fairly cursory presentation of 50 great buildings—in addition to the above criticism about geography, I wish there were just more photos. On first reading the windows in the gray pages also add a bit of surprise to the chronological journey through architecture, making it fun even for the most knowledgeable architecture buffs.

Peter MacKeith Editor

Any book by the Finnish architect, educator, and writer Juhani Pallasmaa is cause for celebration, be it part of his trilogy on the senses, a history of architecture, or a collection of essays. This second volume of Encounters collects 26 articles and lectures from 1998 to 2011 on subjects local and international, physical and abstract; it is a mélange anchored by Pallasmaa’s familiar and nuanced views, most easily described as phenomenological. The essays exhibit the remarkable consistency of his ideas, his conceptual rigor, and his use of writing as a studied means to explore the essential tasks of architecture. Like the first Encounters, I find myself returning to the essays to get grounded and be reminded of what is really important in architecture.

Ben Katchor

A highlight of Metropolis magazine since 1998 has been Ben Katchor’s comic strips that grace the monthly’s back page. The funny and nostalgic stories describe our multifaceted relationships with the world of design, be it the implements we wield, the spaces we inhabit, or the cities we move through. The broad range of subjects parallels the concerns of Metropolis itself, making the relationship between the magazine and illustrator a fitting one.

This book collects 15 years worth of strips that capture Katchor’s amazing consistency in churning out pieces that draw us into a parallel world that resembles New York City but is made up of oddly named places and even odder characters. The strips also trace the magazine’s evolution over the same period, most overtly in “The Tragic History of the Oversized Magazines,” which takes up a two-page spread roughly in the center of the book (newer readers may not know it, but Metropolis used to be an impressive, tabloid-sized magazine), and in the way the comics change in size from beginning to end.

Without an introductory or any other essay to be found, the collection lets the strips stand on their own. And they do so extremely well, even though on repeated readings (in order or jumping around) most of the strips do reveal a structural and narrative logic. But to imbibe, in one place, stories about the design of a “new building ruined by the sound of the common wall light switch" and “boys wielding cheap bristle brushes and pails of 14-karat gold paint” roaming the streets to fulfill their “decorative impulse” on surfaces of neutral color, among many other memorable strips, is one of the greatest treats of 2013.

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.

Michael Govan
Christine Y. Kim et al.

Artist James Turrell is being given the superstar treatment in 2013 with three major exhibitions on the coasts and in the middle of the United States: “James Turrell: A Retrospective” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), “James Turrell” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and “James Turrell: The Light Inside” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To accompany the first, LACMA has created an impressive catalogue that charts the artist's five-decade-long career and beautifully documents his skyspaces” and other architectural constructions, most notably the ongoing Roden Crater project in Arizona.

Space is a loaded term for architects, since their designs define the extents, flow, and character of the spaces that people inhabit. For Turrell, space is as important, but in a different way. He admits to being involved with the architecture of space and the creation of form, but says, “When I prepare walls I make them so perfect that you actually don’t pay attention to them.” People in his installations and skyspaces are therefore drawn to the color of the light and the sky. For Turrell, light is his material and perception is his medium, so space is where the two converge.

Architects and other designers can learn a lot from Turrell’s poetic and quiet manipulations of light, color, and space. The former should also appreciate the occasional architectural drawings found in the book. Like a magician’s secrets, they reveal what is hidden and what enables the spaces to be perceived in certain ways, while also illustrating how they are physical constructions that rely on particularly complex details.

Not surprisingly, Turrell’s installations and skyspaces are best experienced firsthand. They can be discussed and documented, as they are in this book, but that is hardly a substitute for the tangible effects that happen when sensing one of his works, ideally for long durations. That said, kudos should go to Florian Holzherr, whose large color photos grace most pages of the book and help to make it such a remarkable document of an artist worth all the attention.

Christoph a. Kumpusch Editor

Lebbeus Woods died the month (October 2012) before the completion of Steven Holl’s massive Sliced Porosity Block in Chengu, China. Situated partly within and in front of one of the five mixed-use towers is the “Light Pavilion” (dubbed “Time Light” by locals), Woods’s only permanent construction, carried out with New York-based architect Christoph a. Kumpusch. This slim, handsome volume documents the installation through sketches, construction drawings, photographs (during construction and after completion), and words from Woods, Holl, Kumpusch, and others. The installation fractures the regular grid of Holl’s building into angular lines of light and color. Its power and intensity is undeniable, apparent in photos where the Sliced Porosity Block is the subject but the installation attracts the eye.

Zeuler Rocha Mello de Almeida Lima
Foreword by Barry Bergdoll

Today Lina Bo Bardi is considered one of the most important 20th-century Brazilian architects—with Lucia Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha—yet her buildings and other creations have received relatively little exposure, with the result that she is not as common a name outside the country she emigrated to in 1946 at the age of 32. This thrift can be attributed to her late blooming as an architect (her first building, a house for her and her husband, Pietro Bardi, was completed two years before she turned 40; and her first major commission, MASP, wasn’t realized until 1968, 14 years later) and the small number of built works (14 are discussed, modeled, and mapped in this book) before her death in 1992. But I’d wager she hasn’t received the proper attention until now because, while she is remembered for two important pieces of architecture (MASP-Museu de Arte de São Paulo and SESC Pompeia Leisure Center, also in São Paulo), she was more than just an architect; she wrote, taught, edited and laid out magazines, curated and designed exhibitions, and created some of the most beautiful chairs of the last 60 years.

Assembling her story and accomplishments into a book could not have been a simple task, but architect and Washington University professor Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima has astutely navigated the complexity of Bo Bardi’s life and crafted a deeply researched yet highly pleasurable book. Lima’s historical narrative—neither straight history nor monograph—responds appropriately to Bo Bardi’s multitasking nature, intertwining her actions and creations through short, chronological chapters that gracefully pull the reader along on her voyage from Italy to Brazil, and the frustrations and developments that shaped her particular position in her adopted country.

Admittedly there is a palpable unease in Bo Bardi’s architecture, as if the late start and sporadic commissions did not give her enough chances to develop a consistent formal language. Yet already in Italy, where she wrote and edited publications more than anything else, she had adopted a stance that favored the activities of people occupying spaces rather than the form architecture should take (her wonderful drawings of street life express this position particularly well). And because she embraced history and the continuity of culture through construction and other means, her buildings could be vague about time, authorship, and where architecture ends and scenography or exhibition begins. 

Yet Lima discovers and describes the strands that give meaning to Bo Bardi’s life by, among other things, finding importance in the smallest, and often poetic, details—a particular sentence she wrote or the way a stair tread connected to a stringer. Speaking of details, it’s worth noting the excellent design (by Thumb/Luke Bulman) of Lina Bo Bardi, from the chipboard cover and sturdy, matte paper to the page layouts and the dictionary-like index tabs marking the short chapters that trace Bo Bardi’s multifaceted life.

Ilka Ruby Editor
Andreas Ruby Editor

In response to the query whether this book presenting 37 buildings from the first 20 years of MVRDV is a monograph, Nathalie de Vries—one-third of the Dutch architecture firm, with Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs—says in the preface: “In a way, yes.” She then adds, relative to the numerous books on architecture and urbanism they have produced, “The agenda is simpler this time: anyone should be able to read this book.” With editors Ilka and Andreas Ruby, and writer Natalie Janson, MVRDV has created an un-monograph monograph, one that emphasizes the people who use its buildings.

Even before reading Nathalie’s above statement on page 7, the reader is tipped off as to the unique format of the book through a photograph on page 1: a woman in the open-air ground-floor space of the Matsudai Cultural Village Center in Japan is vacuuming the mats that are used for performances. The building is the frame for the photo and the woman’s experience, but our attention is drawn to how she is interacting with it, rather than form, materials, and other architectural concerns.

The same orientation applies to the project descriptions, penned by Janson and a few other writers in a journalistic manner. Quotes from the architects can be found, but also those of the various buildings’ clients and users. A good example—one with both praise and criticism—can be found in a statement from the head of facilities at Villa VPRO, a broadcasting studio and MVRDV’s first project: “It is sometimes a real puzzle to find the ideal space for some teams. It’s either too noisy or too light. But you know, most of the people have worked here for a long time and they have no clue what a punishment it is to work in a normal office building.”

Beyond the focus on people and the insight gained through their words (not to mention the many photos grabbed from public-domain websites that accompany the professional shots), the book does an excellent job in conveying just how diverse MVRDV’s output is. The architects may be known for daring cantilevers (WoZoCo and Balancing Barn) and colorful forms (Hagen Island and Didden Village), but the reader gains an understanding that their projects do not evolve from preconceived notions. Function and experience drive MVRDV’s buildings, so it’s appropriate that the firm presents its buildings accordingly.

Text by Felix Burrichter

Since editor Felix Burrichter launched PIN-UP in 2006, a staple of the biannual “magazine for architectural entertainment” has been the interviews with architects, designers, artists, photographers, and other persons of interest. Often accompanied by candid photos of the subjects shot exclusively for the publication, the interviews adopt a “less serious approach” to reveal the “surprising depths” hiding below the “shallow surfaces,” as Burrichter puts it in the introduction to the 57 interviews collected in this first PIN-UP book. The same can be said of the magazine, which resembles a fashion rag more than an architectural journal—Issue 3, the first copy I purchased, features a portfolio of naked bodies in designer chairs and a perfume ad on the back cover with a topless woman cupping her breasts—but below the visual saturation is deep, insightful commentary on architectural culture.

Missing from the book is the imagery that originally accompanied the interviews—they are presented simply as words on a page, a fact to which the cover attests. But this omission does not diminish the content in any way; in fact it strengthens what is being said by focusing solely on just that. Images have a way of revealing things that words cannot describe, but they also have a way of distracting us, putting us in “skim mode” when we could be slowly absorbing more insightful information.

PIN-UP Interviews benefits from this concerted selection of words over images, but also from the choice of who converses with the likes of David Adjaye, Jeanne Gang, Rem Koolhaas, Richard Meier, ROLU, and James Wines. (I’m partial to the architects in the collection, though it should be noted they comprise about half to two-thirds of the interviews.) Burrichter and his fellow editors are frequent interviewers, but this is not like a collection of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “infinite conversations” where one voice prevails; the diversity of voices on the question side sometimes brings PIN-UP Interviews closer to Interview magazine, where big names talk to each other. Examples in this vein are Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli’s conversation with Rem Koolhaas, where each seems to be interviewing the other; and landscape artist Fritz Haeg’s interview with Julius Shulman at the photographer’s studio, in which talk of his gardens is a major ingredient. These are two highlights among many worthwhile reads.

Even though architect Hugh Hardy is known for designing and restoring buildings for the performing arts (and half of the 20 projects in this book are of such building type), the title Theater of Architecture is more a philosophical position than an encapsulation of one strand of projects in his five decades of practicing architecture. Hardy emphasizes the experience of architecture and sees it as "setting the stage" for life. His buildings are more than just scenography, and this comes across particularly in the sidebar comments from his myriad clients as well as in Hardy's thorough descriptions. This book is further proof that the architectural monograph is far from dead; it is just evolving into something more than simply rote presentations of projects.

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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