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A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial
James Reston, Jr.
Arcade Publishing, 2017
Reviewed by Robert Campbell FAIA

Show architects an undoubted masterpiece and they want to know one thing above all: What was the design process? Step by step, how did the concept make its way from early doodle to built reality?

This new book on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, is readable and often fascinating. But it’s not, alas, about design process. It’s mostly the story of the nationwide political controversy that erupted when, in May 1981, the proposed design was announced to the public.

A 21-year-old Yale senior, Maya Ying Lin, won the job over 1,470 other entrants in a national competition. Her design appeared to be little more than a black granite wall dug into the lawnscape of the National Mall. A lot of Americans felt it didn’t speak to them. It was artsy, it was abstract, it was not heroic. The conflict was eventually resolved by a compromise that added three modest military statues.

That’s a story of cultural politics, and James Reston, Jr. tells it in rich detail. But the Memorial is also the story of the creation of a miracle of art. That’s the more important story, and he skimps on it.

Andy Burr was then, and still is today, an architect in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In 1980 he was teaching a design studio at Yale on “Funerary Architecture,” in which students would be asked to create designs for such subjects as a World War III memorial. Nine signed up, including Lin. They were already at work when the announce­ment came of the Vietnam Memorial design competition. Burr shifted focus. Now each student would create a potential entry to this real-world event.

Reston covers Lin’s work in the studio in only a sketchy way, teasing the reader with unanswered questions. What were Lin’s ideas when, in an early stage, she proposed a row of collapsing dominoes? What did she discuss with Vincent Scully, Yale’s legendary scholar and writer, when she sought his advice in writing the “statement of purpose” that the competition required? Why was Lin’s the only design from the Burr studio that was entered in the compe­tition? (Well, Burr sent one in, too. It didn’t place.) How did she arrive at the concept (brilliant in my view) of placing the names where the first to die and the last would meet at the spine of the Wall? Reston touches all these issues but doesn’t delve.

Lin herself is partly to blame for the paucity of information. Reston says, not citing a source, that she was “an indifferent, prickly and difficult student” who “neglected to finish assignments.” She partly ignored a requirement to record her ideas in a sketchbook as they evolved. At semester’s end, before the competition results were known, Burr gave her a grade of “Incomplete.” Reston says she stormed into his office demanding an upgrade. He relented to the extent of a B plus.

Lin’s entry consisted of nine amateurish drawings and one written text (the “statement of purpose”), all arranged randomly on two presentation boards. I’ve been told by others that the jurors assumed this entry was the work of someone with no visual training, probably a veteran.

Architecture is always a collabo­ration. It doesn’t diminish Lin’s authorship to note some other sources of her design. Two of the competition rules, for instance, are key. First, the winning design must include, somewhere or other, all 58,000 names of those Americans who fell in Vietnam. Second, the “statement of purpose” must be lettered by hand, not by machine, the hand in question presumably being that of the designer and no one else.

Whoever dreamed up those two extraordinary rules deserves some of the credit for the great design. Lin took full advantage. The names are inscribed on a polished black granite wall that opens at its spine like a book. The names are words, of course, and they make the panels feel like pages from a chronicle long buried in the earth.

As for the statement of purpose, she knocks it out of the park. Lettered by hand on a sheet of paper that’s pasted like a kitchen memo on one of the boards, it must have struck the jurors as homespun truth.

Reston accurately states that “it was her writing that won the competition for her.” But again, he teases us with too little information. Except for a quoted sentence or two, Reston never spells out what the statement said.

Robert Campbell FAIA is an architecture critic who has received a Pulitzer Prize and a BSA Award of Honor.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
Edited by Paul Hawken
Penguin Books, 2017
Reviewed by Jim Stanislaski AIA

A few years ago, I was at a lecture in Boston to hear Paul Hawken: entrepreneur, environmental activist, and one-half of his namesake garden-supply company. He said something I will never forget: “Hope is the pretty mask of fear,” alleging that to have hope, you must first fear something. To be honest, it left me a bit confused, wrestling with how these emotions inform our opinions and actions.

It was with this baggage that I read Drawdown, a term that refers to the inflection point at which greenhouse gases peak and start a consistent decline. Edited by Hawken, the book is a compendium of 100 strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in digestible two-page spreads — enough to get the gist without feeling like you are reading a technical white paper. The second part of the title, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, takes liberties; although the book is a well-researched inventory and projection, it is not a plan. Drawdown contains no milestone goals, regulatory models, or success metrics that would constitute a plan. These, after all, are monumental tasks for world leaders, organizations, nations, and communities.

Instead, the book is better described as an executive summary for the larger “Project Drawdown” coalition consisting of 70 research fellows from 22 countries and a 120-person multidisciplinary advisory board. Anyone doing secondary research can create a synthesis of potential strategies; what makes this effort unique is the modeling. For each solution, the gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, net cost, and net savings are modeled and put through a three-stage review. This results in a ranking of effective strategies, further classified into “Plausible, Drawdown, and Optimum” scenarios. The relative impacts are eye-opening and credible, considering all the solutions are already invented, but just require implementation at scale. The user-friendly companion website gives us all the research data and detail that wouldn’t fit in print.

This is an important book with accessible research, simple graphics, and a refreshing lack of technical jargon. Without a storyline that connects the strategies, it is not a book that most will read cover to cover, but its concise format and beautiful pictures make it a great coffee table book, easy to pick up when you have 20 minutes. There are many ways to read it: Meanderers’ thumbs will land on interesting strategies outside their circles of knowledge. Those looking for headlines may skip to the rankings and return to read just the top 10.

Many of the strategies are technology based, such as Concentrated Solar (#25). Fewer are lifestyle based, such as Plant-Rich Diet (#4), which are personal choices in the way we live every day. Issues around women and girls are weighty enough to occupy their own chapter: Educating Girls (#6), Family Planning (#7), and Women Small Holders (#62). I was surprised to see Net Zero Buildings (#79) and Building Retrofitting (#80) limping in at the bottom, but there are footnotes citing forecasting challenges. My favorite part of Drawdown is “Coming Attractions,” which includes solutions such as the Hyperloop, Repopulating the Mammoth Steppe, Marine Permaculture, and A Cow Walks onto a Beach.

Fear and hope are complex human emotions. Fear can be paralyzing or motivating, while hope can be hollow or fortifying. Around the world, there are thousands of smart people working on every strategy listed in Drawdown. Maybe you are one of them. For this, I am hopeful.

Jim Stanislaski AIA is an architect at Gensler and president of AIA Massachusetts.

Never Use Futura
Douglas Thomas
Princeton Architectural Press, 2017
Reviewed by James McCown

Like Modern architecture, Modernist type has many passionate followers. This is no more so than with Futura, the boldly geometric sans serif font that emerged from the Bauhaus only to become the ubiquitous choice for everything from American corporate logos to bumper stickers for conservative political can­di­dates to a plaque on the moon. In the same way that Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier were creating heroic architecture, Futura is a heroic type, completely broken from the past. This engaging new book by Douglas Thomas, a graphic designer and historian, is a biography of the typeface that explores what its wide usage means and why it is so popular.

Designed in the heady 1920s by the German graphic artist Paul Renner, the first Futura was a play on basic geometry. “Renner was attempting to create a new typeface to fit the age,” writes Thomas. “The allure was clear: simple shapes could be produced mechanically and bore little visceral reference to preindustrial, human-centric modes of production (handwriting, calligraphy), which undergirded centuries of conventional typography.”

A feast for type geeks, Never Use Futura is at its best in the first half, which could be called a brief history of German typography. We learn that Renner’s first drafts were positively radical, forming lowercase g with a circle and a triangle; a lowercase a with a circle and a right angle; and so on. Subsequent iterations were given more conventional shapes. Thomas positions Futura as a polar opposite of the ancient Fraktur fonts so associated with between-the-wars Germany and which many in the Nazi party considered “true Aryan” type.

But those who think Futura was put in service only as a revolutionary force for good will be disappointed. During World War II, it was used for purposes as sinister as identification cards for Jews being sent off to concentration camps; here in America, it was chosen for posters to round up citizens of Japanese descent and corral them into “relocation” camps in the country’s heartland.

Thomas, who also designed the book, offers highly detailed artwork that, among other things, puts in graphic form the wide differences among the many iterations of Futura that have developed over the decades. He details the breathtaking ubiquity of the font in modern corporate America, especially within the fashion and retail industries. But, having steeped the book in typo­graph­ical esoterica, oddly Thomas has not gone far enough. I would have preferred more discussion of the nitty-gritty of type design, from the movable metal type of the early-20th century to the digital graphic designer’s concern about anti-aliasing, a process for smoothing pixelated typefaces, and other graphic interface issues.

The book’s title is, of course, puckish and provocative. Toward the end, Thomas encourages Futura use, but only if mindful of its historic background. “This book was born out of my own experience grappling with Futura’s ongoing popularity and trying to answer the question of when it is appropriate to use,” he writes. “Framing the past through this single typeface opens up an alternative history of graphic design and culture.”

This breezy read will result in the fact that no trip to the grocery store will ever be the same again. As you reach for the cereal box, you’ll ask yourself, “Hmm . . . is that Helvetica or Futura? Whatever, it looks like they kerned it a bit . . . ”

We are all, it seems, typographers now.

James McCown is a writer and marketing consultant who lives in Newton, Massachusetts.