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Books

Mobitecture: Architecture on the Move
Rebecca Roke
Phaidon, 2017
Reviewed by Aeron Hodges AIA

My friend Addison lives in the woods most of the year. He builds tiny cabins on wheels for wary urban dwellers looking to reconnect with nature. One of the first he built is called Ovida, a sleekly designed room similar to the size of a van that provides all the modern accommodations you might expect from a hotel room.

Ovida is one of the 250 projects author Rebecca Roke features in Mobitecture, which documents a collection of movable dwellings and installations organized by how they are transported. These objects range from the most nimble structures to those that need various numbers of wheels. A delightful book, it sparks the imagination with case studies of mobile objects that can be made to provide shelter, activate public spaces, and make artistic statements.

A typical project is displayed on one palm-sized page, its story told with an exterior photo and a paragraph of text. With succinct, well researched content as well as a quirky writing style, Roke takes the reader on a journey packed with unexpected inventions—such as tents that fold into stylish coats and cargo vehicles powered by two cyclists.

Many set out to solve serious and widespread problems. U-Dome by World Shelters is a practical, lightweight dome structure made with durable and waterproof materials ready to be deployed in refugee zones. Warka Water 01 is a cylindrical bamboo-supported mesh structure that captures water conden-sation in Ethiopian deserts to support irrigation and provide drinking water. I-H Cruiser by artist Winfried Baumann is a dignified portable homeless shelter made with sturdy aluminum framing and a quilted thermo cover.

A large subset of the selected projects are more lighthearted yet effective when deployed to activate public spaces. Parkcycle Swarm by Dutch design group N55 is a collection of lawn spaces integrated with tricycles that, when transported, can transform any asphalt parking lot into a backyard party. Caterpillar by Lambert Kamps is a film theater in the form of a long vaulted ceiling; when inflated, the puffy shape resembles a cartoonlike caterpillar.

The book demonstrates that mobile architecture can be built with a wide range of materials and structurally supported and transported using the most bizarre methods imaginable. Although it fails to delve into theoretical aspects or explore digital fabrication technologies and craftsmanship, it successfully illustrates the strength of mobile design. The sheer variety and exuberance of the featured projects strike an optimistic tone for this unconventional architectural typology, with its ability to improve people’s living experience via increased flexibility and lower costs. As Roke points out, the impetus for mobile architecture stems from the challenges of our time: “Cities are becoming increasingly crowded, and every alley and rooftop is under greater pressure to perform with maximum effect... many of the projects are a direct effort to alleviate this tension.”

Since Ovida, Addison has built 75 more mobile cabins, creating a fleet of little vacation caravans that are often occupied throughout the year. His story, together with all the other examples included in Mobitecture, is evidence of the immense possibilities of agile design thinking and the excitement generated by architecture on the move.

Aeron Hodges AIA designs urban housing at Stantec and is cofounder of WHAT’S IN, a research initiative looking to solve housing affordability using compact urban living designs.

No Small Plans
Gabrielle Lyon et al.
Chicago Architecture Foundation, 2017
Reviewed by Peter Kuttner FAIA

I have to state right up front that everything about No Small Plans is both a surprise and a delight. As a fan of graphic novels, I was more than pleased to discover the existence of one packed with architecture, framing an intriguing introduction to community-based urban planning, in such a beautifully drafted book.

I was subsequently impressed to find it was a product of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), working with the Chicago public schools and the public library, to celebrate the foundation’s 50th anniversary. It’s the architectural foundation to aspire to, and this book and its ambitions raised CAF’s stature another notch for me.

Realizing this book was about Chicago (where I attended suburban grade school), it dawned on me that the title might be paraphrasing Daniel Burnham’s admonition: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood... make big plans; aim high in hope and work... . ” In fact, it’s much more than merely a reference. After Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago was released, an avid supporter named Charles Wacker, then chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, enlisted Walter Moody to publish Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago. This 1911 booklet, popularly known as Wacker’s Manual, was used as a textbook in schools throughout the city to enlighten children about the impor-tance of planning and that they had a stake in planning for their future.

The historic precedent and focus on planning enrich this project, but it wouldn’t be enough without a great story and terrific illustrations by a team of young Chicago artists. The novel follows various students from different neighborhoods who explore the city and its urban issues in three chapters. The breakthrough idea: The stories take place in 1928, 2017, and 2211. Looking at Chicago through the eyes of these young people—rooted in the past, present, and future—is a fascinating glimpse into issues that change over time, those that persevere, and the role everyone can play in planning for their city.

In 1928, Reggie, Elisa, and Bernard escape their neighborhoods and the racial, ethnic, and economic factors that limit them. They head out to explore downtown, making their way to the era’s new symbol of infrastructure prowess, the Michigan Avenue Bridge. In the 2017 chapter, Jesse, David, and Christina study planning in school, but it’s only when their friend Natalie is being evicted that they begin to see the impact of unplanned development. They quickly learn to organize and resist. By 2211, virtually connected kids Gabriela, Codex, Octavius, Tsang, and Rafael are selected for the City Planning Council on Civic Assignment Day. They cautiously step into the real world to meet one another and the real Chicago, to make tough development decisions.

What the CAF calls a “Burnham Interlude” punctuates the end of each chapter: There is a map of the city for that time frame, and Burnham himself takes a moment to talk about his vision of planning and what it means.

After the foundation launched a Kickstarter campaign last year, it took only 10 days to reach its goal of $20,000, and the CAF eventually raised $65,000—enough to distribute 5,000 free copies to students. There’s a “Reader’s Guide,” “Media Kit,” and “No Small Plans Toolkit” for schools. The book has room for notes. You can buy it at the CAF online store. Get two, and give one to a student.

Peter Kuttner FAIA is a principal at Cambridge Seven Associates and a member of the BSA Foundation board.

Portman’s America & Other Speculations
Edited by Mohsen Mostafavi
Lars Müller Publishers, 2017
Reviewed by Chris Grimley

We’ve all been there, in one form or another. Their presence in cities, gleaming like silver screens. Their vision on the screen, being exploded during heists. They reappear in books, standing in silent guilt, accused of refusing to engage with the surroundings they land in, only to be considered a hermetic nonspace, elevator-gazing spectacle. How do we ignore their megastructural lack of connection with the urban, coming at a time when cities were desperate to find reinvention through architecture? What do we do, then, with this slim volume of an interview, essays, (and mostly) photos that appeared almost simultaneously with the architect’s death? It’s a strange—and narcissistic—production, a floating menagerie of guests and cleaners, meeting passively in the rotating restaurant while the chaos of the “real” world bustles around them.

The photos unfold at a rapid pace, tracing the easy seduction of repetition, as they take up more than 200 pages. Even though they’re by the preeminent architectural photographer Iwan Baan, they swipe by you at a pace that is consumed in rapid-fire simulacra. They are wonderfully composed—all swooping lines, reflective surfaces, glossy. Some specific scenes: in Atlanta, the relentless aggregated splendor of Peachtree Center’s surfaces; The Regency’s regal purple carpet not looking a day older than when that other photographer monumentalized it in 1996; the anthro-pomorphic ribs of the Marriott Marquis, threatening in their embrace; in Detroit, the alienating presence of the Renaissance Center, dropped along the light string of a closed-loop people mover, a vision of the future still struggling to appear; in San Francisco, the Embarcadero Center, a longtime favorite for this concrete fetishist; and in Los Angeles, the Bonaventure—oh the Bonaventure—embedded on the retina, gleaming and reflective on the page, remembrances from screens and calls of “Action!”, an easily beautiful contradiction, a symbol of everything that is right, and wrong, with itself and architecture.

Portman’s unexpected, smaller buildings for campuses have a lighter presence, where the reduction of the monumental seems to distill the radical gesture to a much more empathetic nuance. The Atlanta Decorative Arts Center, the only building presented without a plan or section, is a seeming oasis of cascading greens in empty white space, and a student center delivers the right scene in which to be seen.

All this work has been the subject of much (rightfully) speculative derision, in which the decisions of the architect seem to abdicate responsibility to the larger issues of the cities in which the works appear. But are we being too reactionary? Portman himself contributes only a short exposition on the nature of his work: “Architecture is not about preconceptions, it is about understanding relationship and context. A city is rarely built all at once. One building goes up, and another, then others, and the city evolves in an organic fashion.”

This is an architecture of travel, of the in-between, of late arrivals, and departures. The appearance of Jennifer Bonner’s essay, “Nine Persuasions Towards Architectural Pizzazz” frames a different take—that of the native, of growing up within, and a departure from voyeuristic interpretation. I’ll let her have the last words: “If the debate between ‘less is more’ and ‘less is a bore’ is still alive (and the stark differences among camps in contemporary architecture tell us it is), then architectural pizzazz is more closely aligned with the latter, since Portman’s architecture radiates with charm, oomph, and allure.”

Chris Grimely is a principal at the Boston-based interdisciplinary practice over,under.