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AN’s 2021 in review(s): Buildings, books, video games, exhibitions, and more

Review Revue

AN’s 2021 in review(s): Buildings, books, video games, exhibitions, and more

(Jan Kahanek/Unsplash)

Following many uncertain months of pandemic-delayed exhibition openings and building debuts, 2021 was a particularly active year when it came to populating AN’s print and web publications with insightful critiques and commentary. Over the past 12 months, high-profile architectural projects and shows of all stripes that were supposed to open last year finally achieved lift-off, and we were busy ensuring that readers were provided with discerning—and often deeply personal—assessments of each.

Joining these appraisals of newly opened exhibitions and marquee building projects, AN also offered analysis on a slew of books, video games, and much more.

(Thank you to the many contributors across the United States and beyond who lent their critical voices to the publication this year.) Below you’ll find 10 of the most popular reviews AN published in 2021:

Cyberpunk 2077 is an architecture critique with nothing to say

Looking out of a window in cyberpunk 2077
The view from V’s apartment, the player’s starting home base in Cyberpunk 2077. (Ryan Scavnicky/CD Projekt RED)

In his January 4 review of CD Projekt RED’s hotly-anticipated open-world action-adventure video game Cyberpunk 2077, Ryan Scavnicky ventured through Night City to offer the following assessment of a game that’s “criticism of contemporary culture mostly falls flat but inadvertently […] has some scathing things to say about architecture.” He wrote that:

Cyberpunk 2077 is a great example of late capitalism’s ability to turn commentary into a commodifiable aesthetic experience. Its spaces invite criticism for their incompleteness, but they also offer a sinister relationship between architecture and the plight of contemporary society. The discipline as we know it today is warped by the figure of the starchitect, and by the increasingly great lengths that companies go to secure business, even with shady clients. It was Philip Johnson who said “The people with money to build today are corporations. They are our Popes and Medicis.” In the past year we’ve seen Bjarke Ingels photographed with Jair Bolsonaro, major British firms like Foster + Partners pull out of the climate agreement Architects Declare, and Coop Himmelblau designing an opera house in Russia-occupied Crimea. Such a business-forward attitude leaves architecture as a transactional exchange with certain ingrained political and institutional alliances and exceedingly slim potential for its use as a critical tool.

This condition suffocates any imagination of an alternative world even when playing in one in a video game. In addition to the municipal plans examiner, it might be useful to interrogate Night City’s architects who produced its buildings, assuming architects were even involved. The game is an outdated critique on culture as a whole, but its disinterest and underinvestment in its architectural presentation is something architects should consider a serious challenge. It isn’t just that architecture is impotent in the Cyberpunk 2077 universe, that’s by design. It’s that architecture is missing out in the creation of alternative worlds.”

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America finds transformative potential in the collective

a grassland photo from Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America
Featured in Reconstructions, the digital collage Wiregrass WAHO was prepared by architectural office AD–WO, whose cofounder Emanuel Admassu was born in Addis Ababa before relocating to an Atlanta suburb with his family. (Courtesy AD–WO/The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

In February, Jess Myers offered her appraisal of the Mabel O. Wilson- and Sean Anderson-curated Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, a groundbreaking group show that opened earlier this year as the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition to explore the relationship between architecture and the spaces of African American and African diaspora communities. She wrote:

“The exhibition is designed such that no piece is viewed in isolation; instead, the design implies sightlines to related projects, further emphasizing collectivity. These pieces and the process that brought them together hint at the possibility that institutions like MoMA can produce new forms of knowledge. But Robin D. G. Kelley, who wrote the field guide’s preface after an ailing Toni Morrison graciously declined, disagrees. ‘The people carry that mandate,’ he said before clarifying that ‘collectivity must also be a place of tension.’

In other words, being in the collective is not always being in agreement. The tension that arises from this is the recognition of difference, which creates the opportunity to react to and build on that difference. Those reactions, those debates, those frictions that collectivity exposes can facilitate transformation. This is exactly what Wynter encourages the cultural sector to reach for. Transformation is the cost of being human together differently.

The collectivity of Reconstructions is an invitation to transform. The question now is whether the institution will take the collective up on it or, in refusing, atrophy before the evolving crises of our time. When I asked Anderson whether Black critical thought would be part of the architectural department’s curatorial approach going forward, he wavered. ‘It has no doubt transformed my thinking,’ he said. ‘Does Black critical thought get situated in a more fundamental manner in the institute writ large? Hard to tell.’ With Philip Johnson’s name still prominently featured on the museum’s galleries and offices, it is, indeed, hard to tell.”

Keller Easterling’s Medium Design ignores the role of power in design

The cover of Medium Design, a splotchy red book
(Courtesy Verso Books)

In his review of Keller Easterling’s much-talked-about Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso, 2021), Kevin Rogan concluded:

“Easterling’s medium designer is not the parent or the pool player, let alone the principled activist. Rather, they are the functionary who dreams of possessing the lathe of heaven. Medium Design is written as a palliative for these good employees who are biding their time and, in a self-help fashion, consoles the same by offering ludicrous dreams masquerading as common sense. Easterling writes that ‘it may even be the case that land discarded or neglected by capital has the greatest opportunity to acquire design value,’ but what land fits this description? What scrap of the globe is not owned? There is none. The medium designer does not exist and never will exist; capital executes the plan and the designer must dance along as they always have. This book is a bedtime story for those trying to forget they have work in the morning.”

ANIME ARCHITECTURE constructs the future by pulling from the past

Sprawling background of a multilayer anime architecture metropolis depicting soaring towers and lowly slums
Metropolis, scene 12, cut no. 7 et al., final production background, Shuichi Kusamori, poster color on paper, 19 3/4 inches x 27 7/8 inches. (© 2001 TEZUKA PRODUCTIONS / METROPOLIS COMMITTEE. Licensed from BANDAI NAMCO Arts Inc. All Rights Reserved)

AN web editor Jonathan Hilburg sat down with ANIME ARCHITECTURE: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities by Stefan Riekeles (Thames & Hudson, 2020) and offered his take, concluding:

“The only stumbling block of Riekeles’s collection is its format. As a book about anime’s overlooked aspects and processes, ANIME ARCHITECTURE is, well, constrained by that fact. Arranged in the typical vertical coffee-table book ratio of 8.8-inches-by-11.4-inches, the finer details of the collected background paintings, sketches, and concept and process drawings can sometimes be hard to make out. In order to faithfully reproduce materials created for a wide-screen format, images are often shrunk to fit on a single page (barring some nicer full-bleed reproductions) or, worse, stretched to full size across both pages, condemning the middle of a highly technical and detailed drawing to the dreaded spine crack. A more horizontally aligned volume would have been appreciated.

Still, that’s not a deal-breaker. ANIME ARCHITECTURE is a valuable resource for anime, film, and video game aficionados, who will likely marvel at the chains of influence linking their favorite media. For architects, the book contains not only a repository of magnificent megastructures but valuable insight into the hard, iterative work of world-building. Even the anarchic conglomerations of Neo-Tokyo need a plan.”

Moynihan Train Hall is a new type of civic space for New York, a place for arriving and departing, moving and standing still

interior photograph of a contemporary train station with a suspended decorative clock at center in Moynihan train hall
(Lucas Blair Simpson/Courtesy SOM)

Following not one but two pilgrimages to Manhattan’s newly opened Moynihan Train Hall, Eva Hagberg reflected on her own rail-based comings-and-goings—and eventual arrival— in New York City:

“There is perhaps no New York civic project currently more discussed than Moynihan, which is supplanting its neighbor Hudson Yards as the large urban topic of the day. And why not! It’s got it all: a $1.6 billion price tag, original steel trusses, a massive skylight, tons of escalators, a lot of redone columns, and soon a Magnolia Bakery—all of it part of an adaptive reuse of the 1912 Beaux-Arts–style McKim, Mead & White–designed James A. Farley Post Office in a design led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) with ticketed waiting room interiors by Rockwell Group. It’s exciting because it’s been underway for 30-something years, something acknowledged in one of the wall texts that greets you at the north entryway and reads, in a zanily looping font, ‘It Always SEEMS Impossible UNTIL IT’S DONE.’ It’s exciting because Penn Station, the other, more proximate neighbor that Moynihan is adding to/replacing, fucking sucks. And it’s exciting because the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall really feels like a new typology for the city—a sort of private but mostly public space, for anyone and everyone, with a specific purpose (transportation) but producing unspecific results (grandeur, awe, collective social experiences, office lunches).

It’s not Grand Central, which feels like it’s explicitly about trains—what with the tracks directly off the central hall, the ancient ticket counters lining a wall, the soaring ceiling looked at only once in a blue moon—and where I’ve spent a lot of time getting ready to take the Hudson to go visit my parents in Rhinebeck. And it’s definitely not Penn, which I spent a lot of time in that internship summer when I was going back and forth from New York to Pennsylvania to see that college boyfriend, taking the New Jersey Corridor to Trenton, switching to the SEPTA to Philadelphia, and then taking another SEPTA to Radnor. I was a true commuter, on my way to and from someone else’s bedroom community, sometimes, on rare occasions, letting myself take the Amtrak straight to Philly. Penn Station was biscuits from Roy Rogers and an ice cream cone from Carvel. I drafted my first-ever magazine piece in the Amtrak waiting room in the year 2003, which is the year I showed up in—though still never arrived at—New York.”

A new book about architecture and capitalism reveals the problem with today’s mode of criticism

Black and white photo of thin Miami towers next to each other against the sky
Zaha Hadid Architects’ svelte One Thousand Museum stands amid a cluster of condominium towers in downtown Miami. The genre comes under fire in Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin. (Hufton+Crow/Courtesy ZAHA HADID ARCHITECTS)

In April, Ian Volner critiqued Matthw Soules’s Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Architectural Press, 2021), a tome he described as a “whirlwind tour of the outrageous physical distortions, urban warp zones, and typological mutants wreaked upon the global landscape by the international finance industry.”

“We are shown the ghost cities of China, left over from the pre-2008 boom, and the luxury condo compounds of Vancouver, where the wealthy live in splendid isolation atop amenity-packed pedestals. We are informed, and on good evidence, that these and other aberrant products of contemporary architecture are the fruits of a hypertrophied global banking sector that has become the cart pulling the real estate horse. This is to say—notwithstanding Soules’s obvious depth of knowledge and occasional flashes of wit—that for 207 pages, we are mostly shown things we have already seen and told things we already knew. Until suddenly, unaccountably, Soules tells us something else.

While the author is traipsing through familiar terrain, he also brings along some very familiar guides. The above-listed luminaries all put in appearances (alongside Karl himself); this is not always to the book’s benefit, as Soules’s prose does not necessarily shine by comparison. More worrisomely, Icebergs exposes a curious rhetorical catch in the application of some varieties of negative dialectic to architecture. Over and over, Soules regales readers with stories of the investment-mat developments of Spain, ‘flowing over the Mediterranean landscape like lava,’ or of the vacant housing estates of Ireland, where ‘the carcasses of half-finished shopping malls hulk on the horizon.’ Then, inevitably, he proceeds to unpack these phenomena, usually in such terms as ‘Asset urbanism needs to be understood in relation to both global and local parameters’ or ‘Post-metropolitan islands are megadevelopments that are discrete and geographically separate.’ In each instance, the illustrations are fairly compelling, while the explanations are a bit of a drudge—the more Soules tries to debunk these bizarre excrescences of the free market, the more they gain the upper hand. Milton did something similar for Satan.”

An experimental biography of Minoru Yamasaki runs counter to the familiar—and tragic—appraisals of his career

the demolition of the pruitt-igoe housing complexes, one of many projects by minoru yamasaki that was ultimately demolished
From the televised demolition of the Minoru Yamasaki-designed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis on April 17, 1972, after a decade of decline and neglected maintenance (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research/Public Domain)

Sandfuture by Justin Beal (MIT Press, 2021) left a distinct impression on Enrique Ramirez, who writes in his review for AN:

“While reading Sandfuture, I thought about Marcel Schwob, the French symbolist writer experiencing a bit of a resurgence thanks to a brand-new translation of his compilation of fictional biographies, Imaginary Lives (1896). In his introduction, Schwob writes: “The book that describes a man in all his irregularities will be a work of art…. The history books remain silent on these things.” Schwob writes as if he were addressing a need that was somehow ignored by literature, longing for writing that focused on lives otherwise forgotten and, by doing so, elevated them to something higher.

Sandfuture may be aiming for something of this magnitude. Beal writes, ‘Humble as it may have been, A Life in Architecture was Yamasaki’s final attempt to regain control of the narrative of his career and profess his steadfast belief in architecture’s ability to do good.’ Beal is also controlling the narrative in such a way as to show that Yamasaki’s beliefs were well-founded. As a writer and reader, I found Beal’s writing absorbing, often electrifying. I cannot think of an architectural monograph that weaves the physiology and etiology of migraines, stories about the art scene in New York, and Minoru Yamasaki’s archives, all while rightly vilifying Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue—within the span of a few pages, no less. I imagine that architectural scholars and historians may find Sandfuture’s literary ambitions somewhat off-putting. Let them! Writing about architecture can be scholarly and erudite, even as it exists in multiple spheres and is available to as many audiences as possible.”

The 2021 edition of Exhibit Columbus asks “What Is the Future of the Middle City?”

metal poles in a field arranged for exhibit columbus
Dream the Combine’s Columbia, Colombo, Colòn at the 2021 exhibition of Exhibit Columbus. (Hadley Fruits)

This summer, Chicago-based Anjulie Rao fueled up and made the four-hour trek to Columbus, Indiana, where she took in the 2021 edition of the Exhibit Columbus exhibition—New Middles – From Main Street to Megalopolis, What is the Future of the Middle City?—featuring 13 site-specific pavilions and installations spread across the modernist architecture-rich Midwestern city. She concluded in her review:

“To spotlight Columbus’s historic buildings, as I’ve tried to avoid here, would be to romanticize this unique place; to bring to light buried histories or unseen populations in an artful public space is, contrarily, an act of romance. As in romance, in public spaces we negotiate with others; we are invited to navigate our beliefs and desires to discover precisely who we are and how we want to be appreciated, touched, argued with, and celebrated. We romanticize, maybe, by allowing our “architectural gems” to wink at us while we take a photo and say, ‘They don’t build ’em like they used to!’ At Exhibit Columbus, the buildings step aside; they are not romanticized. Creating a visionary future for middle places necessitates critical hindsight and attention to what has been made invisible—people, ecologies, ideas—making way for self-discovery, place-knowing, and formation of civic identities.”

The Academy Museum is open, but its standout gesture rings hollow

exterior photograph depicting a spherical building
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. (Iwan Baan)

Concluding her review of the long-awaited (and pandemic-delayed) Renzo Piano Building Workshop-designed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, Mimi Zieger wrote:

“Fans will certainly rush upstairs to see a gleaming C-3PO, yet to navigate more slowly through the displays is to go from one possible imaginary to another. For example, a room developed with director Spike Lee is an explosion of his influences set against orange walls (plus the purple tux he wore to the Oscars to tribute Kobe Bryant). The Academy Museum experience is a strange trip that veers between high and low, popular and precious. To suggest that there might be a universal message, an all-encompassing design, a bubble that unites this wealth of material other than the medium of film (and even that has fragmented into different markets, technologies, and platforms) is ill-advised.

To crib a bit from German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk: contemporary society is defined by a plurality of soap bubbles loosely networked together—a foam, not an orb. When Piano introduced his far-out sphere in 2012, it seemed like it would take a minute for us to catch up with the audacity of his architectural design. In the near-decade since, a foamy culture has overtaken the gesture, rendering it an anachronistic relic of another future.”

Gio Ponti’s incongruously stolid Denver Art Museum sprouts a space-age appendage

The denver art museum with a circular glass extension in front
The saucerlike form of the Sie Welcome Center, with its swishing glass envelope, and a new tubular entryway embody a certain space-age optimism that contrasts Ponti’s building. (Eric Stephenson/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

Finally, in his assessment of a striking new addition at the Denver Art Museum designed in collaboration between Fentress Architects and Machado Silvetti, Ian Volner opined:

“The Sie Welcome Center does not in any way distract from all this late-modernist splendor, but augments the Ponti building with new event spaces, ticketing, educational facilities, and more. Extending the older building’s glassed-in entryway toward 13th Avenue, the addition gives the museum a formal presence on the Golden Triangle’s main drag, as well as a more visible point of ingress on the quieter 14th Avenue, where a long gangplank projects over a new subgrade terrace toward a tubular entryway. The overall effect is to soften the tower’s hard landing, with the saucer-like pavilion topping the Center, acting as a kind of understated beacon, drawing in passersby as they waltz through the cultural district. Save for a grand sculptural stairway ascending into the saucer, the inside is similarly subdued, giving pride of place to the main exhibition spaces—each of which has been meticulously restored, with a brace of different firms (including OMA’s New York office, for the refreshed second-floor design galleries) getting in on the action.

It all adds up to a lot—arguably too much. During his remarks at the opening ceremony, DAM’s director, Christoph Heinrich, joked that the just-finished work represents “the last building project we’ll have to do here, at least for the next five years.” In point of fact, it might be the last project ever in the whole area. The sliver of turf between Broadway and Bannock Street is now pretty full up, and in its pitched effort to make Ponti’s building accommodate the needs of a modern museum, DAM has jammed more programming into its buildable envelope than one might have thought possible. Together with its neighboring institutions, that has turned a former Nowheresville into what might be the ultimate expression of a very recognizable urban type: the Twenty-First Century Global-City Cultural Acropolis, a model for redevelopment whose time has come and gone.”

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