What's the purpose of a $160 book?

What we build.
July 1 2004 11:06 AM

Fetish Items of the Rich and Famous

The Phaidon Atlas may be beautiful, but what does it tell you about architecture?

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Royal Library, Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen, Copenhagen

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 shock.

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.

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Hydra-Pier, Asymptote architects, Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands

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 liability.

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Pedestrian tunnel, Josef Pleskot AP Atelier, Prague

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.

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Carter Tucker House, Sean Godsell Architects, Melbourne

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 somewhere.

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.