In 2023 AN reviewed books by established voices and rising authors. From a guide on decolonizing design practice to an oeuvre on the politics of embassies to a manual for anti-racist architecture education—2023 produced a slew of books that will leave a lasting impact. Here is a selection of books reviewed this year by AN editors and contributors.
Henry Grabar’s new book Paved Paradise was rolled out this year to great fanfare, leaving many frustrated about the country’s antiquated laws related to parking, and how myriad American cities were destroyed by the zoning rules. M. Nolan Gray reviewed Grabar’s polemic for AN.
Grabar’s subtitle promises “How parking explains the world,” and it certainly has no trouble explaining how parking broke the American city. Over the course of the 20th century, Americans bought cars en masse, with little notion of where they would put them. The result was a mess: Streets quickly went into cardiac arrest, clogged up by endless rows of double-parked cars and drivers hunting for a spot. Many American drivers eventually gave up and departed for subsidized postwar suburbs, which were built from the ground up to accommodate cars.
For Cold War history buffs, David Peterson’s US Embassies of the Cold War: The Architecture of Democracy, Diplomacy and Defense proffered an overview of Modernist embassies built overseas. Reviewed by former AN assistant editor Chris Walton, the book emphasizes that architecture is always at the service of power.
After a speed-run introduction to Cold War history, Peterson devotes most of the book to documenting 14 U.S. embassies constructed under the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations between 1948 and 1957: Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen, New Delhi, and London, among others. This was a brief era in which the State Department devoted significant funds to commission embassies, hiring a suite of canonical talents including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, and Josep Lluís Sert to represent America through design. Peterson argued that the work, and history of the OBO, remains underappreciated; his new book therefore documents “the architecture of diplomacy and democracy embodied in some of the most important buildings built by some of the country’s greatest architects.”
There are few people in architecture with legacies as contested and debated as Denise Scott Brown’s. In Denise Scott Brown In Other Eyes, Frida Grahn invited Mary McLeod, Sylvia Lavin, Jacques Herzog, James Yellin, Sarah Moses, and others to posit their own accounts of Scott Brown, and expand on her myriad contributions to architecture. Grahn’s anthology was reviewed by AN’s Daniel Roche.
To fully render her subject, Grahn’s kaleidoscopic bricolage oscillates between the densely theoretical and the deeply personal. But perhaps Grahn’s greatest achievement is showing how truly heroic Scott Brown is, while resisting the tendency to lionize her. This is achieved by inviting a wide spectrum of commentators, as opposed to a single interlocutor, to tell Scott Brown’s story; a genre defying experiment. The result is a cacophony of voices that each provide their own unique perspective and flavor about an individual they admire greatly, and a story of perseverance against a system not made for you.
When Inscriptions: Architecture Before Speech, an anthology edited by Harvard GSD’s Andrew Holder and K. Michael Hays, debuted, it made waves. Some applauded the duo for trying to encapsulate contemporary architecture’s zeitgeist by analyzing projects by 112 contemporary practices, while others argued it was out of touch. Enrique Ramirez reviewed the polemic for AN, calling it a “624-page doorstopper reminiscent of the shelf-busting tomes published in the anni mirabiles of the late 1990s.”
It is filled with excellent work, much of it exhibited in a show staged at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Druker Gallery in 2018, also called Inscriptions. Both efforts attempt to extract a theory of contemporary architecture from a constellation of 112 practices—some young, others more well-known—that fill faculty rosters in architectural schools throughout the world. Many of the designers and practices come from the GSD’s ranks or have studied there. However, Inscriptions does not feel burdened by a sense of disproportionate representation. In looking at the 750 images chosen by K. Michael Hays and Andrew Holder for Inscriptions, what emerges is a snapshot of a moment in contemporary practice invested (as usual) in forms, materials, and tectonics.
Like New Orleans, the city of Houston has been forced to reckon with rising sea levels and global warming. More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas edited by Lacy M. Johnson and Cheryl Beckett gave readers a glimpse into how the Bayou City is adapting. Rice University professor Lars Lerup reviewed it for AN.
Within the atlas’s pages, we are on dry land. In Washington’s text, the high ground is the ultimate resort of a flooding city, which sends folks back to bed. That is until a hurricane climbs the bed legs. Houstonians do prepare for storms, but it’s the generic storm we have in mind, not this one, the storm that is mine or, as in Washington’s case, his family’s. The question remains: How long will we have to rely on the fickle high ground as a pacifier? Especially since the sky is the limit.
“What might decolonizing design mean to my firm/institution/organization?” This was Dori Tunstall’s point of departure in her book with MIT Press, Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook, from which the author constructs her powerful critique of the design field’s complicated relationship with capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It was reviewed by AN’s Daniel Roche.
In turn, Decolonizing Design asks “how design can help repair the damage that design has caused?” an act which Tunstall says can be amended through design reparations. In the book’s last chapter, Tunstall quantifies the financial debt settler-colonial states owe Indigenous people, describing the “unpayable debt” between U.S. and Canadian governments and those that were violently displaced by them. “Even if we know our debt is limitless, how do we begin to pay, especially if we do not have a lot of resources?” Tunstall asks in her impassioned plea for designers to help right this wrong.
Commodity, Firmness, and Delight. These are the main virtues typically associated with Vitruvius, the military engineer-turned-eternally cited architecture theorist. Vitruvius Without Context: The Biography of a Book by André Tavares offered a new interpretation of Vitruvius and what building Classical Architecture means in 2023, covered for AN by Mario Carpo.
Medical doctors today are well familiar with the medical science of Hippocrates, or Galen; they still study it at school, but they don’t use it to treat their patients. Many engineers today are fascinated by the machines that Heron of Alexandria designed and built around Vitruvius’s time, but they don’t follow Heron’s science to design electric cars. Architects are unique among all modern professionals in thinking that some theories from classical antiquity may still be of direct and practical use today—for example, that Vitruvius’s rules on the proportion of Doric temples may serve to design social housing, or an airport.
Those interested in urban planning and landscape architecture have been intrigued by AN’s review of Against the Commons, which traces the beginning of urban planning from its industrial roots to its agrarian past. Along the way it reveals the intricacies of oppressed and marginalized histories and ultimately a view on postcapitalist urban planning. A review from Joshua McWhirter delved into author Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago’s arguments.
As a way to think through democratic and decommodified ways of life, particularly for oppressed and marginalized groups, the commons have been used to frame struggles over resources as varied as public space or source code; in the process, they have become a kind of shorthand for an anti- or postcapitalist future. But despite a growing body of scholarship and set of IRL organizing tactics that seeks to articulate those potentials in real situations—alongside a growing understanding of the term’s origins in rural England—“the commons” can still often appear as a diffuse catch-all, more a slogan or abstract utopian ideal than a real schema for a liberated society or a plan for how we get there.