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Sam Hall Kaplan

Books on Architecture Can Be Powerful Medium

December 14, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Most architectural criticism and commentary are ephemeral, existential efforts, written under deadlines in response to immediate problems or projects, for consumption today and wrapping fish tomorrow.

The most one can really hope for is that the columns will make people "see" and understand the built environment a little better, and maybe, perhaps, sway opinion on a particular proposal.

While not as immediate as columns, books about design tend to be a more powerful medium, if only for their potential of perspective, depth and illustrations.

With this and the holiday season in mind, I once again put aside the usual reports here of the shaping and misshaping of our environment to comment on current books concerning architecture, planning and design.

The most ambitious of this past year's crop of architecture books is Architecture: From Prehistory to Post-Modernism/ the Western Tradition by Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman (Abrams: $49.50), an academic survey through the ages of architectural traditions, styles, landmarks and practitoners. Well illustrated, clearly written and only moderately prejudiced when exploring modern themes, the survey makes for an excellent sourcebook.

So much for the sweeping view of architecture. For something quite specific, and needed, there is Rethinking Architecture by Ray Lifchez (University of California Press: $25 hardcover, $10.95 softcover). From a variety of perspectives, Lifchez explores how design can better serve the needs of the physically disabled.

For a readable ride through, and an engaging look at, the design decade of 1954 to 1964, with its tail fins and TV dinners, tract housing and Miami Beach hotels, Populuxe by Thomas Hine (Knopf: $29.95) is a nostalgic delight.

Like so many things in that plastic decade, the word populuxe itself is a synthetic concoction, created by Hine by combining the words populism, popularity and luxury, and tacking on an "e." For the effort, Hine also gets an "e," for being both enlightening and entertaining.

The most attractive and readable of this past year's uncritical crop of monographs is Philip Johnson/John Burgee: Architecture 1979-1985 (Rizzoli: $45).The introduction by Carleton Knight III is perceptive, the description of the impressive projects clear and most of the photographs stunning.

More fragmented and personal as perhaps appropriate, given the subject's style, but also more engaging, is Charles Moore: Buildings and Projects 1949-1986 (Rizzoli: $45, hardcover, $29.95 paperback). Moore himself sets the tone with an introductory essay entitled, "The Yin, the Yang, and the Three Bears." Also included in the richly illustrated volume is a selection of Moore's drawings. There is a marvelous spirit loose in these pages.

Much less spirited is Robert A. M. Stern: Buildings and Projects 1981-1985, edited by Luis F. Rueda (Rizzoli: $45 hardcover, 29.95 paperback). Particularly pretentious is the introduction in which Stern labels himself a "Modern Traditionalist." But beyond the frail text is a wealth of engaging projects, clearly presented and photographed.

One of the more imaginative architects practicing in England today is Terry Farrell. And though a stylistic iconoclast in a sort of low-tech tradition, Farrell indeed is practicing architecture, building buildings instead of just talking about them. A solid survey of his work is offered in Terry Farrell: An Academy Architectural Monograph, edited by Frank Russell (St. Martin's: $24.95 paperback).

Though I reviewed it elsewhere, The Architecture of Frank Gerhy (Rizzoli/ Walker Art Center, $45 hardcover, $29.95 paperback) must be included in any holiday season list for architects, especially in Southern California. Presented are Gehry's diverse projects, along with various essays and his own comments. The total helps explain Gehry's unique mix of talent and hype.

To understand what the current crop of architectural superstars are attempting, helpful would be Flight of Fancy: The Banishment and Return of Ornament by Brent C. Brolin (St. Martin's $30). A perceptive piece of architectural history and contemporary criticism calling for a more sensitive use of ornamentation, not for its own sake (as exercised by many of the Postmodernists) but to better meld the past and pesent urban fabric.

Melding past and present is very much the subject of Barbaralee Diamonstein's Remaking America: New Uses, Old Places (Crown: $30), a select survey of 48 dated buildings from across the United States that were given new life through inventive recycling. The survey is a continuation of the examination of the increasing popularity of adaptive reuse Diamonstein documented in her earlier Buildings Reborn (1979).

Among the projects detailed in the well-designed, slim effort is the Fine Arts Building and the Temporary Contemporary Museum in downtown Los Angeles. The survey was published as a companion volume to a Smithsonian exhibit that will be on view here Jan. 22 to Feb. 13 in the rotunda of City Hall.

For years, Lewis Mumford wrote about architecture and planning for the New Yorker magazine. Many of the articles in turn became the basis for about 30 books exploring the development, culture and condition of the city.

A broad selection of the critic's writings, stitched together with autobiographical commentaries, are presented in The Lewis Mumford Reader, edited by Donald L. Miller (Pantheon: $22.50 hardcover; $12.95 paperback). The total makes for an excellent survey of Mumford's insights, and a very nice holiday gift.

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