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Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information

Manuel Lima
Princeton Architectural Press, 2011
reviewed by Ryan Sullivan

Pie charts, line graphs, bar charts: For the last 200 years, since their invention by Scottish economist William Playfair, this small set of tools has allowed us to turn data into visualizations. That began to change in 1982, when author and former Yale professor Edward Tufte brought popular attention to the field of data visualization with his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, best known for its impressive range of examples including a maplike diagram depicting the tragic story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In recent years, a combination of new technologies and the Web’s insatiable thirst for visual communication have created an explosion in the field and an accompanying avalanche of new books, magazines, and blogs devoted to the topic.

One of the first blogs, Manuel Lima’s popular, features a searchable archive of images focused specifically on network visualizations. Network visualization is a specific type of information graphic that aspires to display not only data but also connections and relationships between different pieces of information. Examples range from Jer Thorp’s map of flight activity based on Twitter users posting the phrase “just landed in” to Mark Lombardi’s attempt to illustrate financial and political fraud among power brokers such as the CIA, the Mafia, and the Bush family. Not surprisingly, these kinds of visualizations have gained new relevance as networks have become an everyday part of our lives, thanks to the Internet, cellular devices, and social media. Lima, now a senior user experience designer at Microsoft’s Bing and former TED speaker, has recently expanded his blog into a new book that includes his well-curated collection of examples, now given deeper context by providing historical background, best practices, and critical essays by contributors.

The book strikes a balance between form and function. The images are large and striking, and are produced at a much higher resolution than those on Lima’s website. The image captions provide insights into the graphics as well as source information. Surprisingly—to me at least—the book is not formatted as an archive of examples but as a narrative that includes the historic development of this type of visualization, recommendations for creating effective network graphics, and an attempt to organize the charts into several distinct typologies. Essays by Nathan Yau, Andrew Vande Moere, Christopher Kirwan, and David McConville speculate about the value of network visualizations in the future, as technology and its impact on daily life evolve.

The wide range of examples alone — and accompanying attribution information — make this book an excellent resource for designers. But the author’s thorough history and the gorgeous images will likely appeal to nondesigners, too, and provide them with a well-rounded introduction to this emerging field.

The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google

Eric Gordon
University Press of New England, 2010
reviewed by Ian Baldwin

For many architects, there’s nothing more compelling than the city. But how do we see it? Why do we picture it the way we do?

The image of the city, Eric Gordon argues, is the city: Many of us know cities through our visual understanding of them, a point made by MIT planner Kevin Lynch and others 40 years ago. Visual representations serve to manage experiences and let us reconcile the complicated flux of urban life so we can catalogue, remember, map, and know urban experience as our own.

The book’s somewhat opaque title borrows a phrase from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. The concept-city is a hybrid of the real and the mediated, where commodified images prompt our interactions with the physical present.

Nowhere is this more true than in America. Here, the city’s lack of old-world context and its coming of age alongside technological advances in photography and cinema made it especially dependent on image making and image taking, “a construct that could only be manufactured through possessive spectatorship.”

Whether or not they fancy the intellectual frosting of Gordon’s thesis (the resonance of which decreases in direct proportion to the fame of the city one inhabits), keen readers will find several worthwhile layers of urban history.

Gordon begins with the compelling tale of photography’s central role in publicizing the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (The fair’s official photographers battled amateurs armed with the new Kodak camera, introduced just five years earlier.) The White City was an idealized quasi-urban composition explicitly designed for its own images, projecting through space and time an architectural vision greatly exceeding the six-month life of the buildings themselves.

The next century brought the first films, or “actualities,” which captured and replayed on screen the speed and commotion of subways, trains, and crowded streets to rapt audiences; the contemporaneous rise of Times Square’s electric “sky signs” established a form of mass entertainment based on the shared experience of urban spectacle. From there, The Urban Spectator switches to more familiar scholarly narratives: New York futurism from Hugh Ferriss and the 1939 World’s Fair, urban renewal and its early critics, and the urbanism of nostalgia and commerce at Faneuil Hall.

The closing chapter’s attempt to fuse Hollywood and the Web into a “database city” seems surprisingly musty for a book published only last year. If Gordon’s argument is correct, then it is the mobile Web and embedded computing, not Web 2.0 and social networking, that matters. The arrival of GPS, real-time mapping, and augmented reality on pocket-sized smartphones threatens to make “possessive spectatorship” meaningless in its ubiquity. As continual feeds of contextual data and the ever-present ability to communicate and record chip away at our dependence on the singular image for urban meaning, a new urban spectator emerges, as liberated and as novel as the Kodak tourists of 1893.

Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White — Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age

Mosette Broderick
Knopf, 2010
reviewed by Matthew J. Kiefer

It is tempting to view architecture through the lens of its towering practitioners, and it’s hard to conjure two more dissimilar ones than Charles McKim and Stanford White. McKim, the son of Quaker abolitionists, was trained at the École des Beaux-Arts and became a pillar of the profession. White, a self-taught roué, died as flamboyantly as he lived—shot dead at the popular roof garden of his breakthrough work, Madison Square Garden, by the obsessed husband of a showgirl White had seduced when she was 16.

As the title suggests, Mosette Broderick, an architectural historian at New York University, has attempted a genre-bending work: part social history, part architectural history, and part biography. Her depiction of the late-19th-century social milieu that nurtured the firm — indeed, the architecture profession itself—is as important to understanding her subjects as their biographies or stylistic influences.
McKim and White met in 1870, in the office of H.H. Richardson, the “starchitect” of the day. Within the decade, White joined McKim and the diligent, nearly invisible William Mead to form the triad that spoke the design language of the Gilded Age more fluently than any other. They fashioned this language from European precedents—relying on occasional overseas travel but mostly on pattern books, photographs, and talented assistants — and established architecture as the dominant medium for expressing social aspiration.

At first they crafted “picturesque” summer houses in wood. Soon, they were synthesizing Italian Renaissance idioms in stone for major commissions in New York and Boston. Though not stylistic innovators—the age didn’t want that—they were early adopters of central heating, structural steel, elevators, and plate glass.

The sober, even depressive McKim helped Daniel Burnham plan the 1893 Columbian Exposition and designed iconic buildings, from the Boston Public Library (since named after him) to Pennsylvania Station (demolished only 50 years after it was dedicated). He became the president of the fledgling AIA. He mastered form and volume, sometimes with an almost archaeological severity.

The more colorful White was in steady demand, despite erratic work habits, for the Fifth Avenue mansions and private clubs of the captains of commerce. He brought the same mastery of surface and fluidity of style to their edifices that John Singer Sargent brought to their portraits. Unlike today’s newly wealthy, who are mostly design-forward, White’s newly rich clients craved a venerable Old World image. This often contrasted starkly with the business and personal upheaval in their lives—it’s striking how many of White’s grand houses were barely occupied by his clients before being sold off or torn down.

At 515 pages, the book has the feel of a work of total immersion—a meandering skein of vignettes, without a central narrative arc or a new perspective about the significance of the firm’s work. It’s juicy social history with great architecture as its subtext.