Best buildings

By DAVID EISEN  |  April 10, 2007

For those who prefer their architecture with a twist of lime or 400-thread count sheets, there is Wallpaper magazine’s CITY GUIDE (Phaidon, $8.95) series. Current volumes — actually more like oversize pamphlets — cover trendy hotels, restaurants, shops, and urban life in more than 40 cities around the world, with new ones coming out all the time. They are probably weakest on capital “A” architecture, highlighting mostly familiar icons, and strongest on fashionable — and well-designed — places to spend your money. Fold-out maps of “hot ’hoods” and lists of essential information will come in handy next time you are in Dubai, Istanbul, or New York.

The Taschen “Contemporary Architecture by Country” series by Philip Jodidio (all 192 pages, $24.95) surveys recent modern architecture that can offer experiences as extraordinary as the cathedrals and historic sites that make up the typical traveler’s itinerary. Since great contemporary design rarely grows out of a vacuum, featured projects are often cited in up-and-coming communities where the social milieu is as interesting as the individual works of architecture. A tiny restaurant by LTL Architects in ARCHITECTURE IN THE UNITED STATES is in Manhattan’s edgy Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where trendy cafés, bars, and clubs are opening every day, whereas Eric Owen Moss’s exuberant Beehive building is a pioneering effort in LA’s emerging Culver City area.

The Netherlands may be known for wooden shoes and wind mills, but it is also the source of some of the most inventive architecture being done today. Architects like Rem Koolhas and Wiel Arets combine prodigious imagination, a humanistic spirit, and technical savvy that are a continuation of the Dutch tradition rendered in modern materials and forms. Europeans are more secure in their history than Americans. ARCHITECTURE IN THE NETHERLANDS, along with ARCHITECTURE IN FRANCE and ARCHITECTURE IN THE U.K., showcases uncompromisingly modern buildings within historic centers that rely on sensitivity to scale and craftsmanship rather than Disneyland historicism to stitch new and old together. Each book includes a map (unfortunately crude) and text (suitably terse) that guide the reader, or visitor, through each building’s history and important features.

Like most publications on architecture, these books offer luscious photos where beautiful buildings inhabit an ethereal world far from how life is actually lived. Dramatic forms are an end in themselves, and are to be accepted on their own unquestioned terms. Charles Jencks takes a stab at addressing broader concerns in ICONIC BUILDINGS (Rizzoli, 224 pages, $35.00). Jencks has been both a popularizer and critic of avant-garde architecture since his Language of Postmodern Architecture came out in 1978. His approach may reduce the complexities of architectural thought to bumper-sticker concepts, but he tells a good story in the process.

Jencks’s new book puts today’s architecture in the context of a celebrity-worshipping consumer culture that looks for meaning in the new and outrageous rather than in the traditional values on which architecture once focused. He attempts to decode recent buildings that strive for “iconic” status by revealing the associations they make and the buttons they press. Some, like Norman Foster’s phallic tower, dubbed the “gherkin” in London, don’t need much of an explanation. Others, like the new Scottish Parliament, benefit from his thoughtful analysis and a well-told back-story of outsize personalities and monetary and political conflict. Jencks provides the kind of interesting anecdotes and opinionated criticism that the best travel books offer for the Tower of London or the Eiffel Tower. It’s about time more recent architectural monuments received the attention long given to the ancient icons.

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