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Book Review : Personal Foundations in Volumes on Architecture

January 31, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Design Critic

Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography by Franz Schulze, University of Chicago Press: $39.95) and Mies Van Der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses by Wolf Tegethoff (Museum of Modern Art/MIT: $55)

The role of architecture as more than a form of an isolated building but rather as a frame for a quality of life is becoming more apparent as cities continue to expand and press in on people. The result of this increasing awareness is an increasing volume of books exploring architects and architecture.

A master in his time, Mies van der Rohe gave form to the modern city, for which he has been both praised and condemned. In this the centennial year of his birth the modernist's contributions are being examined in two definitive studies, "Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography" by Franz Schulze, and "Mies Van Der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses" by Wolf Tegethoff.

An Uneven Portrait

Drawing upon the archives of Museum of Modern Art and personal interviews, Schulze has composed a respectful, if uneven portrait of an uneven genius, the forces that shaped him and that he in turn used to shape a design philosophy. Less ambitious in its scope but more revealing of Mies' tortured creative process and gifted hand is Tegethoff's well-illustrated study. Particularly fascinating are Mies' superb sketches.

Most of the projects Frank Lloyd Wright designed in his prodigious career that spanned 70 years and about 1,000 commissions were built. Some 76 of them that were not have been collected and stunningly displayed in "Treasures of Taliesin" by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer (Southern Illinois University: $60). The unbuilt projects included houses for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, "The Fountainhead" author Ayn Rand, two for Wright himself, a cultural center in Baghdad, a state Capitol for Arizona, a mile-high skyscraper in Chicago, a hotel in Dallas and a theater and a variety of other striking structures in and around Los Angeles. The total makes for an exquisite collection.

Another master in his time though until recently sadly neglected was Viennese designer Josef Hoffman, a founder of the turn-of-the century avant-garde Secession movement. His life and designs are well surveyed and profusely illustrated in "Josef Hoffman: The Architectural Work" by Eduard F. Sekler (Princeton University: $130). Of particular interest is the detailing of Hoffman's creation of the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, a house that hints of the Postmodern movement 70 years before its time.

If ever a life was marked by a single project it was Gustave Eiffel's design for a monument symbolizing art and industry at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. How the distinguished career of the entrepeneurial engineer led to this crowning achievement that still symbolizes and dominates Paris and how he executed it is engagingly presented and well-illustrated in "Gustave Eiffel" by Henri Loyrette (Rizzoli: $35).

Quite parochial until a few years ago, Japanese architects are now moving onto the international stage, displaying a heady grasp of the shifting dynamics of design. This in turn has prompted new interest in design as practiced in Japan. "Contemporary Architecture of Japan: 1958-1984," with contributions by Hiroyuki Suzuki, Reyner Banham and Katsuhiro Kobayashi (Rizzoli: $45) offers a general introduction, followed by the detailing of 92 projects and a listing of brief biographies of select architects. The effort is not inspiring. More comprehensive, informative and ultimately interesting is "Contemporary Japanese Architecture: Its Development and Challenge" by Botond Bognar (Van Nostrand Reinhold: $39.95).

Pretentious Text

Given its provocative title, "The Secret Life of Buildings: An American Mythology for Modern Architecture" by Gavin Macrae-Gibson (MIT: $25), the effort deserved a reading. Unfortunately revealed was a pretentious text in which the author strains to read into select designs a hidden morphology. Along with minor errors in detail are major misconception of what architecture is all about.

In contrast, "Aldo Rossi: Buildings and Projects, Essays" by Vincent Scully and Rafael Moneo (Rizzoli: hardback, $45; paperback, $29.95) is a rare monograph that despite the editing by Peer Arnell and Ted Bickford sparkles with ideas and drawings. As Scully writes of the Italian architect, "Rossi makes places, piazze, stages for humanity, all illuminated by an Italian metaphysical light. Action is imminent, suggesting some tragic splendor, perhaps an apparition unimagined before." And indeed Rossi does, making for some exciting architecture.

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