by Vladimir BelogolovskyJun 20, 2021
Just about any book on architecture requires a strong selling point – why should a particular project, career, movement, or even a whole city or region be of interest to a potential reader, even if with a vital appetite for anything architectural? The latest, fifth edition of Kenneth Frampton's Modern Architecture: A Critical History, published by Thames & Hudson and released this month, is a must on the bookshelf of every architect and student of architecture, period. As far as one compact, yet a fundamental survey of the evolution of the Modern movement, it is unquestionably the most complete chronicle, to the point that it is almost incomprehensible that a single author could possibly put together such an in-depth and exhaustive architectural history, the most trusted and authoritative source to date.
The much expanded, 734-page, 813-illustration, 2020 edition of the 1980 seminal book comes 13 years after its preceding 2007 edition. A lot of what is new in the latest book is affected by the 2008 world financial crisis that first decimated the profession quite literally by reducing its workforce worldwide by a significant margin and then set it on a definitive course of diverting from producing ego-centric iconic buildings that have become an admirable goal since the late 1990s to the creation of eco-conscious environments with a social purpose and intentions that are more pragmatic than artistic. Of course, history books are never up to date for long, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is an apt reminder of this fact. We don’t know how architecture is going to change this time. However, what’s safe to predict is that the next such thorough history will likely come from a group of authors.
Any history is subjective. It can’t be otherwise. Let’s briefly touch on the author’s principles to better understand his objectives and pattern of preferences. Kenneth Frampton (b. 1930) is an outstanding commentator of architecture. He maintains a constant dialogue with leading and most innovative practitioners and educators of our time. Trained as an architect, he started his career practicing architecture in London in the 1960s and then transitioned quite naturally into the role of editor, critic, teacher, and lecturer, and only recently retired from his position of the Ware Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University in New York.
Critical Regionalism and Tectonics constitute two canonical themes throughout Frampton’s writings. The central argument in his influential essay Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance is about tension between culture and civilisation, tradition and progress, prioritising the importance of specificity of place, local culture, and the relevance of being organic with the site to achieve synthesis. He insists that a building has an anachronistic aspect to it. Buildings are rooted in the ground in the most primitive ways. He is paying close attention to architects’ referencing each other. In a way, he moderates these fascinating conversations across geographic borders and generations. He reads plans like novels; the skill helps him to understand architects’ intents even better than personal visits, which he does not believe are essential.
All along Frampton was a vocal opponent of postmodernism when it was fashionable in the 1980s. He was and remains to be a critic of the star system, celebration of the individual, and is a lot more sympathetic to the cultivation of what he calls “quasi collective tendencies” that may lead to a discourse of local groups, from which architecture of common qualities may emerge. These regional traditions can be observed in such places as Portugal, Holland, Japan, and now very vividly in China, as opposed to such diverse and fuzzy landscapes of ideas as in the United States, Great Britain or Russia. He says, “I am critical of the tendency to aestheticize architecture. What is the boundary between art and architecture?” In other words, he is suspicious of conceiving buildings as huge art objects. He insists that overexaggerated cantilevers are irresponsible, wasteful, and ultimately unethical. And while he does not deny architecture’s ornamental aspect, he is critical of it being guided primarily by taste, reminding us of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion principle of achieving "maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input”.
Frampton maintains that buildings must be layered, multidimensional, measured, well integrated into their surroundings, and most of all, they have to be public and truly democratic. He is against architecture with emphasis on brand, image, surface, and disappearance of structure. Space and tectonics cannot be compromised. Now, let’s open his book.
Someone new to the history of Modern architecture will quickly discover that out of roughly 1,700 architects mentioned in the book there are just a few figures that stand out – Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, Peter Behrens,Louis Sullivan, Bruno Taut, Marcel Breuer, James Stirling, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). The last name is a reminder that Frampton starts his survey from 1750, when he says architects initiated their “search for a true style through a precise reappraisal of antiquity”. Closely behind the aforementioned dozen, there are such architects as Oscar Niemeyer, Fuller, Giuseppe Terragni, Alison and Peter Smithson, Mart Stam, and Jørn Utzon. Living architects are scarcely mentioned, often several names separated by commas, without going into details. More than others are cited, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), and Tadao Ando.
The most valuable addition to the new book is in the introduction of entirely new chapters that focus on geographic regions. This move inevitably sheds light on many before overlooked architects who operated outside of traditional centers of attention, namely Western Europe and the United States. Particularly in the last decade, this persistent effort to broaden our awareness of a variety of global practices made architecture infinitely richer and more nuanced. Four new main chapters include The Americas, Africa and the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, and Europe. They are further subdivided into 45 specific regional subchapters.
Personally, I am delighted that the book now has a chapter on Australia, which made it no longer possible not to mention this country’s most significant modernist architect of the 20th century Harry Seidler, although his contribution is narrowed down to his very first and tiniest project of his 60-year career, namely a house for his mother in the outskirts of Sydney. It is an example of the very first complete package of Modernist principles executed in Australia. The fact that Vienna-born Seidler, who was trained under Gropius at Harvard and apprenticed at the office of Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro, fully predesigned this project in America for a different site in Foxborough, Massachusetts, made the introduction of new Modern principles even more striking and impossible for local architects and even consumers not to refer to. Although the new book has just four short paragraphs on Sri Lanka, finally the country’s most prolific and influential architect and landscape designer, British-educated Geoffrey Bawa is introduced as “The most talented exponent of what is now known as vernacular modernism”. Bawa’s beautiful buildings and gardens not only helped to define his young country’s architectural identity, but are also being rediscovered as hugely inspirational by young architects across South and South-East Asia.
Another chapter that stands out is on China that not only discusses the work of such widely recognised mature architects as those born in the 1950s and 60s – Wang Shu, Yung Ho Chang, and Liu Jiakun – but also currently most active generation of architects who were born in the 1970s – Dong Gong of Vector Architects, Zhang Ke of ZAO/standardarchitecture, Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of Open Architecture, and DnA_Design and Architecture (although Xu Tiantian, the founder of this small female-led, Beijing-based practice is not identified by name). These and some other Chinese architects represent a fully emerged regional school of likely minded practitioners that contrasts greatly with what constitutes China’s mainstream tendencies – either building over tabula rasa sites in the countryside or destroying pre-existing historical heritage in cities to replace it with decisively modern, yet often culturally and geographically inferior buildings that could be built anywhere.
Other new important chapters cover Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, West Africa, Lebanon, India, South Korea, and former Yugoslavia. There are many talented and already prominent contemporary architects who are acknowledged for the first time. They include Alberto Kalach and Ten Arquitectos of Mexico, Giancarlo Mazzanti and Felipe Mesa of Plan:b of Colombia, Smijan Radic of Chile, Kéré Architecture of Burkina Faso, Hashim Sarkis and Nabil Gholam of Lebanon, Rahul Mehrotra and Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai of India, Peter Stutchbury and Richard Leplastrier of Australia, Grafton Architects of Ireland, Lacaton & Vassal of France, and Robbrecht & Daem of Belgium.
What I find most controversial about the book is not what it mentions but what it chooses to ignore. For starters, not only eye-catching projects in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha are not mentioned, these three cities are listed just once each and only to be identified as “phantasmagoric” and “replete with spectacular, ostentatious, quasi-oriental institutional buildings designed by a wide array of international star architects”. This is understood and this message is conveyed quite clearly even further, for example, by removing from the new book the photo of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that was featured in the fourth edition. Even such an admired sculptural architect as Eero Saarinen is not represented by a single image.
Although, there is a rare full-page photo of brick maestro Eladio Dieste of Uruguay. Santiago Calatrava is noted for his early bridges’ structural articulation; again, not a single image of his work is provided. Perhaps the most glaring absence in the book are architects associated with the green movement – Emilio Ambasz, Stefano Boeri, James Wines of SITE, and WOHA of Singapore, which is prolific in reconciling architecture and nature. Other architects missing for different reasons include Bruce Goff, John Portman, Douglas Cardinal, Maya Lin, John Wardle, Jürgen Mayer H., Thomas Heatherwick, and one of the biggest stars, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, despite the fact that there is now a new chapter on his native Denmark.
It is worth mentioning that the new book has many new drawings such as a section of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ‘67 in Montreal, which believe it or not, is mentioned for the first time, as in the past editions Safdie was only casually listed as a Postmodernist architect in a group with James Stirling, Philip Johnson, Hans Hollein, Romaldo Giorgola, and Kevin Roche – all packed in one sentence. Other new drawings include an axonometric of Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris, a section of Centre Pompidou by Piano and Richard Rogers also in Paris, and a section of Berlin Philharmonic by Hans Scharoun. But don’t look for Adalberto Libera’s otherworldly Casa Malaparte on the isle of Capri here. Many drawings are quite small and none of the photos are in colour, but these choices help to keep the book compact and its price under 30 USD. Finally, there is more than 40-page-long bibliography. The book is a fascinating adventure to go from page to page from any point and in any direction, and every sentence is enticing and is there for a reason. We know that a lot could be added, but I would not take anything out.
- Alberto Kalach
- Architectural history
- Bijoy Jain
- Douglas Cardinal
- Emilio Ambasz
- Frank Gehry
- Geoffrey Bawa
- Grafton Architects
- James Striling
- James Wines
- John Wardle
- Kenneth Frampton
- Modern Architecture: A Critical History
- Moshe Safdie
- Philip Johnson
- Smijan Radic
- Thomas Heatherwick
- Vladimir Belogolovsky