Architecture from the Armchair

Architecture from the Armchair

Sheats House, Los Angeles (1963) by John Lautner.
Courtesy Phaidon

20th Century World Architecture: The Phaidon Atlas

The new book 20th Century World Architecture is a monumental tome that weighs in at 25 pounds, matching in format and heft the two Phaidon Atlases of 21st Century Architecture. Those successive volumes offered an overview of contemporary work that was soon out of date, whereas the previous century can be viewed as a whole and with a reasonable perspective. Critical opinions will change, but most of the architects and buildings shown here have won their place in the pantheon. And it was a useful exercise to limit the selection to 757 from all over the world, and to feature the familiar and obscure side by side. Each example occupies a page with photographs, plans, and sections, GPS coordinates, and a factual description. That makes this jumbo an impressive work of reference and the travel edition that’s sure to come—$25 for a 12 once version of the most recent 21st-Century Atlas—will offer the added attraction of portability.

Interior of the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia (1973) by Jørn Utzon (left). St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo, Japan (1964) by Kenzo Tange Associates (right).

Hundreds of people collaborated on the writing and production of this book, including Jean-Louis Cohen, who recently covered some of the same territory in Phaidon’s The Future of Architecture Since 1889. It is fascinating to compare his erudite and idiosyncratic study with a regimented survey that was filtered through committees. No question that Cohen’s book is more engaging and provocative, but the atlas is surprisingly eclectic and inclusive, and the two volumes complement each other very well. The 20th century was supposed to represent the triumph of modernism, but tradition ruled for the first half, except in a few favored locations. The editors pay lip service to that inconvenient fact by including token examples of retro design, including the vernacular Djenne Mosque of 1907 and the Beaux Arts Palacio Barolo of 1923 in Buenos Aires. Postmodernism is represented by Michael Graves’ Portland Office Building and Philip Johnson’s AT&T tower; eccentricity by Bruce Goff and Herb Greene houses in Oklahoma. A few buildings are included as exemplars of a type (the Northland Regional Shopping Center near Detroit) or as pioneers of an approach (Hannes Meyer’s cooperative village of 1921 near Basel). But the vast majority of entries belong in the mainstream of modernism.

Sidi Othman Apartment Buildings, Casablanca, Morocco (1954) by André M. Studer.

Inevitably, there are errors, including the omission of Hong Kong on the map of China, and the failure to mention that Amancio Williams’ House over the Bridge in Argentina was destroyed by fire several years ago. It is easy to question some of the 60 entries for Africa (affirmative action favoring a continent that rarely appears in the history of modernism) and such pedestrian examples as the bleak new town of Milton Keynes and Pelli’s banal Canary Wharf tower in the UK section. Oscar Niemeyer rates ten entries; Eero Saarinen only two, with no mention of Dulles Airport or the Jefferson Memorial Arch. But these are minor criticisms, far outweighed by the corralling of nearly all the usual suspects and many agreeable surprises. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for hidden treasures around the world and was delighted to find many personal favorites that deserve to be better known. Here is Arthur Shoosmith’s Garrison Church of St Martin in Delhi, a model of monumental grandeur combined with austere minimalism. The glorious interior of the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw, the crumbling Grand Hotel on the island of Lopud, and the post-earthquake reconstruction of Agadir all complement the classics.

European countries are generously represented, though Scotland rates only two pages; Brazil is handsomely documented, but the modernist shrine of Montevideo is short-changed—all good subjects for debate or a revised edition. Meanwhile, start plotting your next trip abroad or cross-country to see a dozen buildings you never heard of or missed on earlier forays.