[FoRK] Our first book that came with its *own* manual!

Rohit Khare Rohit at ICS.uci.edu
Wed Aug 4 19:45:35 PDT 2004

The book itself is the fetish item the article is referring to, not the 
icons pictured within... and yes, we had been eyeing it before one of 
our very close friends bought it as a wedding gift this summer. The 
absolutely cherry on top, beyond even the laptop-styled packaging, is 
that the book has its own flyer detailing *how to read it*! :-)

Of course, all we need now is a coffee table to read it on... that is, 
one clear enough to even open it up!


Fetish Items of the Rich and Famous
The Phaidon Atlas may be beautiful, but what does it tell you about 
By Christopher Hawthorne
Posted Thursday, July 1, 2004, at 8:06 AM PT

If you think the gorgeous new Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World 
Architecture would make a great coffee table book, you're right. But 
you might need a bigger coffee table. At a total of 824 pages, the 
Atlas includes entries on 1,052 buildings built over the last six years 
by 656 architects in 75 countries. The text is accompanied by 62 maps 
and 7,000 illustrations. The book comes in its own clear plastic 
carrying case, and is a foot and a half tall and 12 inches wide and 
weighs about 18 pounds. At $160 plus tax, it also comes with sticker 

Though it's priced in reference-book territory, most copies won't ever 
see the inside of an architecture firm or library. Phaidon—a high-end 
publisher based in London and New York—is widely and energetically 
promoting the Atlas. Clearly it hopes the book will become a fetish 
item for the swelling ranks of design aficionados who buy their 
dining-room chairs from Moss or DWR and can offer sophisticated 
commentary on Zaha Hadid's architecture even though they work in a law 
firm. (This group has already been anesthetized to the idea of 
ridiculously large and expensive coffee table tomes. Taschen has 
published a book on Muhammad Ali that sells for $3,000 in a limited 
edition—and weighs 35 pounds—and one on Helmut Newton that's as big as 
its title, Sumo, would suggest.) As a comprehensive collection, though, 
the Phaidon book gives those readers a pretty limited sense of the work 
being done by the most talented architects in the world. It's a slice 
of contemporary architecture disguised as the whole pie.

Above all else, the Atlas is pure eye candy, with a cover the same 
shimmery silver as an Apple PowerBook, and roomy, often stunning 
photographs. The average entry includes five or six pictures of a 
particular building, its plan, and about 150 to 200 words of 
descriptive text. The prose is mostly clear and free of jargon but 
rarely rises above the status of caption. The 175-word entry on Frank 
Gehry's new Walt Disney Concert Hall—to pick one of the best-known 
buildings in the book—includes 10 photographs but tells us nothing 
about Gehry's relationship with Los Angeles, where he lives, or the 
fact that this building, his first major commission in the city, was 
nearly killed by financing problems and doubts about the project's 
feasibility. That last tidbit is probably too pessimistic for an 
up-tempo architectural hit parade like this one. Still, it would have 
been nice to include a couple of references to Gehry's other work, 
including his iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which looks like the 
concert hall's older sibling but was in fact designed after it. Doing 
without just one of the smaller photos would have freed up enough space 
for that bit of background.

In an entry about Steven Holl's Bellevue Art Museum, a few miles east 
of Seattle, the text neglects to mention that the museum, which 
stretched its resources thin by spending $23 million executing Holl's 
design, closed last year after the ambitious architecture failed to 
attract as many visitors as the board had anticipated. It has become a 
compelling piece of evidence for those who would argue that there are 
limits to the appeal of so-called star-chitecture, and that expensive, 
handsome buildings like the ones that fill this book can sometimes be a 

The Atlas apparently went to press before the museum announced the 
closing last fall. But it's the kind of omission that might have 
happened anyway, given the tone that prevails here, suggesting a 
perma-bright world where buildings never age or decay. The identities 
of the editors and contributors responsible for conjuring that world 
are downplayed: Their names don't appear on the cover or any of the 
opening spreads. But they're finally outed, in tiny print, on the very 
last page. The list is headed by Deyan Sudjic, a British critic and 
curator who's probably the most influential figure in architecture 
you've never heard of. It also includes Reed Kroloff, a former editor 
of Architecture magazine who was recently named dean of the 
architecture school at Tulane, and Aaron Betsky, once curator of 
architecture and design at San Francisco MoMA and now head of the 
Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.

These are savvy people with their own individual, even idiosyncratic 
tastes. They don't march in some aesthetic lockstep. But they do, 
significantly, share a preference for a certain recognizable 
architectural type: the updated brand of modernism—streamlined, 
formally adventurous and supremely photogenic—that fills the pages of 
every design magazine from Dwell to Surface these days.

I like a lot of this souped-up neomodernism quite a bit, and I don't 
have any real argument with the buildings—the anointed thousand—that 
make up the Atlas, describing an arc from blobby to boxy to daringly 
angular. There are plenty of exciting projects here that deserve 
serious attention. And it's true enough that coffee table books of all 
varieties are rarely interested in showing anything but shiny, 
airbrushed visions.

Still, the book implicitly argues not only that there's a kinship among 
these jewels of sophisticated architecture around the globe, but that 
each example has more in common with the other ones here than it does 
with the buildings next door or around the corner—or even with the less 
showy bulk of each architect's work. That's a pretty detached, rarefied 
view of how architecture works—especially for a book that trumpets its 
global reach and its comprehensiveness. And it shows the degree to 
which the philosophy that underpinned the first International Style—and 
that made "context" such a dirty word in architecture for a good chunk 
of the 20th century—is back in vogue, at least among the tiny-type 
types listed at the back. Even as a high-end design book meant to be 
flipped through, the Atlas communicates very little sense of how 
buildings operate in the world. Wait, let me rephrase that: It 
communicates very little sense even that they do operate in the world. 
The entire thing might have been photographed on a sound stage 

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