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The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings
Marc Kushner
A TED Original with Simon & Schuster, 2015
Reviewed by Rami el Samahy

On the face of it, a book with such an audacious title should be a great read for those of us who gravitate toward the cheeky. It promises to push the discourse on architecture beyond the narrow confines of practitioners and professional critics in order to make it accessible —  and relevant — to the general public. And yet I find myself supportive of the mission but irritated by the message, the medium, and the messenger.

As cofounder of the New York–based firm hwkn and the online hub for architecture known as Architizer, Marc Kushner strives to “reconnect the public with architecture.” His TED Talk, “Why the buildings of the future will be shaped by . . . you” (1.5 million views at the time of this writing), is an optimistic treatise (or, cast in a different light, an insipid infomercial) on new media’s role in bringing architects and the public together. This book, a greatest hits of future-looking projects, arrives on the heels of his spoken success. Each entry consists of one image (a really special entry gets two), a title posed as a question that ranges from the provocative (“Can small housing be great housing?”) to the preposterous (“Can grass paint a city?”), a single paragraph descriptor, and a final one-line summation — conveniently highlighted in red, should one find reading an entire paragraph too taxing.

Ultimately, the sensation of reading this book best approximates browsing through a website (Architizer, perhaps): glam shots accompanied by zippy descriptions and one-liners. It’s a pocket-sized book that aspires to bigger things, but because TED wants to make it affordable ($16.99), it remains a coffee table book for short-attention-span Lilliputians. Most of the chosen projects (title aside, there are actually 123 of them, although many aren’t buildings) are interesting, some even inspirational. However, without prior knowledge of the projects, it would be hard to tell from the limited presentation of content.

Some of us remain unconvinced that social media is the savior of architecture. No doubt it is a powerful tool in engaging public opinion, and what is now available online or in apps has widened the possibilities for design dramatically. However, the idea that future architecture will (or should) be fueled by Facebook “likes” seems fraught with practical and philosophical pitfalls. Can you imagine how absurd that last sentence would be if “architecture” were replaced with “medicine” or “law”? Should we really be pushing this complex profession into a simplistic popularity contest?

I also harbor doubts that the future of architecture is so radically different from the present that it necessitates a complete abrogation of the materials, forms, and tectonics of the past. For better or worse, these materials have a long history, the forms resonate with meaning, and the tectonics are dependent on existing economic structures — not to mention some basic laws of physics, such as gravity.

The book makes the claim that “we’re asking more of architecture than ever before,” but are we really? In my experience, we’re asking more of architects (more is demanded in shorter time frames, with smaller budgets and smaller fees), but on the whole we’re actually asking less of architecture. By and large our buildings are less meaningful, less interesting, and less well built than ever before.

The author’s rosy view of the future is not just ineffectual, it’s potentially detrimental. Unless addressed directly, the more likely scenario is one in which architecture further bifurcates into two streams: for the haves, mediocre and watered-down replicas of familiar forms, with disposable materials of limited shelf life; for the have-nots, an even shorter shelf life in increasingly dense surroundings. Engaging with the causes of these trajectories — as many of the best projects in the collection do — is the only way to avoid condemning us to a bleak future. A false faith in our processing speed will not.

Perhaps it is the medium. Can you repackage a website or a TED Talk in such an old-school format? Or does the medium merely lay bare the thinness of the other formats? The publisher touts TEDBooks as “small books about big ideas. They’re short enough to read in a single sitting but long enough to delve deep into a topic.” The depth of this volume is only milliliters more than the original talk.

If this seems like a depressing prognosis, it’s partly a response to such a relentlessly cheerful prescription, facts to the contrary be damned. We cannot truthfully manage to face the future until we fully understand the degree of the problems we are facing. With all its plucky optimism and curatorial aspiration, this book fails to do what books are best at. It doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

Rami El Samahy is a principal of the architecture and design firm over,under and an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Language of Houses
Alison Lurie Delphinium, 2014
Reviewed by Melissa A. Simonetti

For some, a house is just a simple shelter, a space that accommodates. For others, it is a place laden with emotional significance. “There should be as many kinds of houses as there are kinds of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals,” Frank Lloyd Wright once said. “A man who has individuality has a right to its expression and his own environment.”

Alison Lurie would agree with this statement. She uses the term “house” broadly and sees all dwellings as specimens that are layered with meaning and weighted with details, signs, and traces of the inhabitants that dwell inside. To explore this concept, she develops a series of vignettes that not only examine the significance of the structures around us but also reveal that dwellings are a two-way street, as they also shape us as humans. Lurie believes spaces can affect our physical health, the way we feel, and how we learn. Our environment can also determine every- day decisions, such as how much money we will spend or how long we will stay at a job.

Lurie begins the vignettes by dissecting the actual house, explaining how houses communicate with us, describing the many materials that can be used in construction, looking at a variety of styles, and exploring spaces inside and out. Then she takes us on a series of explorations through houses of worship, schools, prisons, hospitals, restaurants, stores, and, finally, personal space. She breezes through their histories, giving an overview of spaces and places around us, but it is her personal refletion and opinion, interspersed through-out, that most strongly captures the reader’s attention.

When she ponders how spaces and people are intertwined, she suggests: “Perhaps the ballooning of the American home is not only the result of a wish for self-aggrandizement, but also related to the more recent ballooning of the American physique.” When she chronicles the mundane, her writing is straight-forward: Like language, she says, architecture can be “beautiful or ugly,” “simple or complex,” and “regional,” with different dialects.

Lurie’s most compelling segments are those dealing with schools, social issues, and philosophical ideas about freedom and control. Our schools have progressively become more locked down and often have a “room without a view,” she says, which compounds our tendency toward extreme supervision. Will we conclude that “excitement, adventure, invention, and freedom from supervision are only available secondhand, on expensive little game-playing devices?”

Although Lurie’s writing possesses observational strengths, her musings are sometimes frustratingly vulnerable to generalization. For example, she is not immune to statements such as this: “As we grow up, we occupy more and more square feet” or “Most successful and ambitious people try to build large for both practical and psychological reasons.” What are we to make of these insights?

Despite these nuisances, The Language of Houses reads like a good novel. Lurie coaxes us to look at our world differently, reminding us we are bound and shaped by the spaces we live in.

Melissa A. Simonetti is an architect and writer in Boston.

Open Source Architecture
Carlo Ratti with Matthew Claudel
Thames and Hudson, 2015
Reviewed by Sarah Radding AIA

In this concise and beautifully designed manifesto, the writers argue for a new type of architectural design, one that draws on the open-source movement to rediscover a satisfying social relevance. The book obliges the reader to acknowledge the rarefication of contemporary architecture and offers technology-based collaboration as a means to reunite the discipline with its communal roots. In doing so, it challenges architects to confront beliefs about how end-users can contribute to the design and building process.

Carlo Ratti and his colleagues, writing with an open-source process, shape their case over seven chapters, dedicating each to a particular concept. They start with an account of Le Corbusier’s Esprit Nouveau and an analysis of Modernism’s haughty idealism and the contemporary “starchitect.” They examine anonymous vernacular architecture, the historic role of everyman in constructing our built environment, and the satisfying variety that resulted from this inherently social process. They relate failed attempts by 20th-century architects to marry these two approaches by creating a framework within which inhabitants might make their mark.

The authors then turn their attention to a history of the open-source movement, beginning with Linus Torvalds, a fitting parallel to Le Corbusier. What follows is a concise but thorough discussion of the sharing economy, the creative commons, and the materialization of open-source through fabrication labs and diy hacker culture. The argument culminates with an account of the irrelevance of contem-porary architecture to the masses and a call for its redefinition.

This book demands a reevaluation of the assumption that open-source is not a viable solution for architecture. Thought-ful analysis of recent architectural history and the open source movement strengthen the authors’ position; however, the argument is incomplete. Although the arrogance of the Modernist movement no doubt contributed to the estrangement of architectural practice from society, the commodification of residential and commercial construction is equally responsible for this schism. This type of building, now treated essentially as a consumer good, is precisely where open-source architecture could make the greatest inroads. But the book steers clear of the quotidian in favor of critiquing the aloof mastermind architect, for whom “the will to pure art is existentially incompatible with society.” In fact, the collaboration that Open Source Architecture yearns for is alive and well in civic and institutional architecture, even that produced by the current generation of celebrity architects. The unasked question is “How can we reintroduce the spirit of participation and tinkering into commonplace building design so that it is not only the province of the privileged and sophisticated?” While perhaps more time-consuming and expensive to tackle than other diy projects, our prosaic buildings are those most suited for hacking, both during design and after initial construction.

Also unfinished is a road map for how open-source collaboration could work in practice. The book identifies the need to create a structure for participation and advocates for the “choral architect,” a conductor to guide (and ultimately end) a democratized design process; yet no specifics are offered for how this might work. Although the authors provide examples of Internet-based forums and pattern sources, they do not propose a framework for open-source design of a complex project; sharing ideas and soliciting critiques over the Web are not enough.

After a century or more of the commodification of most aspects of life, we are in the midst of a cultural shift. Mass production suppressed our inner tinkerers; now they are reemerging. Unsurprisingly, architecture has been slower to respond to this trend than other disciplines. It has always been a lagging indicator, by virtue of the expense and longevity of its component parts. Rather than the paradigm shift described in the book, the advent of open-source architecture is better understood as a course correction.

Sarah Radding AIA is a senior associate at Anmahian Winton Architects in Cambridge, Massachusetts.