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Architecture: Some for the Books

Sam Hall Kaplan

December 07, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The books shelves bulge this holiday season with a wide variety of offerings for those interested in cities, architecture and design.

The offerings reflect a heartening response by publishers to an increasing public awareness of, and concern for, the built environment and, no doubt, to the fact that sales of these book also are increasing.

But reviews and news of the books still tend to be confined to professional journals, or brief mentions in the back pages of book review sections. Unfortunately, architecture, planning and design continues to be the stepchild of the popular press.

With this in mind I must for the next few weeks put aside reports of architectural abuses and achievements, municipal malfeasance and citizen concerns to devote this space to the recognition of other print efforts to raise the public's design consciousness.

Among the more noteworthy recent offerings is Cities and Civilization by Christopher Hibbert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $24.95), a fascinating, if arbitrary, portrait of select cities at select times in their history when their art and architecture, and power and prestige, flourished.

Here are glimpses of Thebes in the time of the Pharaohs; Jerusalem in the days of King David and King Herod; Rome under the rule of the Emperor Trajan; the Medici's Florence, Rembrandt's Amsterdam, the London of Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren, and the St. Petersburg of Peter the Great, among others.

Included in the relatively modern cities surveyed is New Orleans in the 19th Century, Tokyo during the Meiji restoration and Berlin in the 1920s and '30s. And, of course, there are New York, Moscow and Sydney. Sydney? British historian Hibbert does have his prejudices.

Hibbert's sweeping scholarship also has its weaknesses, for the more current the municipal phenomena gets, unfortunately, the flimsier the text. Not helping as much as they should are the illustrations and an uninspired design.

Hibbert seems much more at home, and at ease, in Paris in the days of Louis XIV or in Vienna under the rule of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef.

Uneven as the effort is, it still is a beguiling trip through time, architecture and ideas, and recommended.

Surveying select cities also in their prime, but more focused and detailed, and more successful, is The City As A Work of Art by Donald J. Olsen. (Yale University Press: $35).

Concentrating on London, Paris and Vienna in and about the 19th Century, Olsen, a professor of history at Vassar College, makes his case convincingly that the shape and style of each of the cities was a very self-conscious effort, reflecting the predominate cultural and political values of the times. The result is a provocative piece of urban history, well researched, organized, argued, written and designed.

Excellent and recommended also is Vienna 1900 by Franco Borsi and Ezio Godoli (Rizzoli: $45), which was published as a catalogue accompanying an exhibit on Viennese architecture and design, held earlier this year at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Explored are the designs of Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and others, and the city and time in which they flourished.

Though not exactly on par with the London, Paris or Vienna of the 19th Century, or Athens in the days or Pericles, or Constantinople in the days of Justinian, Brooklyn from 1920 to 1957 nevertheless was a great urban delight in a glorious time.

Capturing the spirit and style of that time with passion and perception, layered with nostalgia, is Elliot Willensky's When Brooklyn Was The World (Harmony: $19.95). The result is a rich piece of urban sociology and history, served up like a juicy kosher hot dog on a fluffy bun, coated with mustard and sauerkraut. Delicious, and a marvelous treat for those like myself and the seemingly thousands of other naturalized Angelenos who grew up in that special time and place.

Happily for those interested in the rich architectural heritage of the West Coast, back in print is Harold Kirker's California's Architectural Frontier (Gibbs M. Smith: $12.95, paperback). First published in 1960, the book explores the social and cultural origins and aspirations that shaped 19th-Century California's architectural styles.

Of interest locally should be Freestyle by Tim Street-Porter (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $30), which, according to its subtitle explores "The New Architecture and Interior Design from Los Angeles," albeit uncritically and somewhat haphazardly.

Street-Porter is first and foremost a gifted architectural photographer, and his color photographs illustrating the frail text and its inconsistent design are excellent, capturing in detail and compositions the arbitrary styles of architects Frank Gehry, Eric Moss, Brian Murphy and others.

The work of select interior designers and artists also are explored, including that of Annie Kelly, the author's wife. The mood is very clubby and the tone "House & Garden."

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