Architecture Book Reviews, Ian Wall, Edinburgh, Scotland, New Publications

Architecture Book Reviews

Architectural-related Publication

Architectural Book Reviews

Reviews by Ian Wall, Edinburgh, Scotland

1. Great Fortune by Daniel Okrent
2. Aviopolis – A Book about Airports by Fuller & Harley
3. The Kill by Emile Zola
4. Arts & Crafts Gardens by Wendy Hitchmough
5. Every Day Spaces by Pauline Gallacher

1. Great Fortune
By Daniel Okrent
ISBN 0 670 03169 0

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book about one of the most important urban complexes anywhere in the world – the Rockefeller Centre, New York.
Its pleasure, in part, lies in an amazing tale, involving a range of characters from the richest man in the world to Mussolini, from Roxy (of the eponymous cinemas and theatres) to Diego Riviera, the great mural painter. The cast, as it used to say at Radio City, runs to thousands and along with the stars are every stripe of property professionals.

The Rockefeller Centre is now a listed historic building but was commenced as the biggest ever speculative development in the world during the greatest depression the world has ever known, and yet it came through as a commercial success.

Okrent’s style matches well the variety and the exuberance of the tales to be told and he manages the complexity of the process well with each apparent diversion only returning to reinforce the main thread.

The book though is more than entertaining, it is also important.

Okrent tells a tale that many in the property industry will recognise, the project itself started off as something entirely different; the development of a new opera house for New York. Rockefeller became committed, the circumstances changed but it was difficult to withdraw, it then becomes impossible to withdraw, things became even worse; each aspect of this is told in detail, site acquisition, funding, design (the great Raymond Hood as architect and alky), the procurement of the materials, its construction and its letting.

There are many heroes and villains, there are touching individual tales and moments of villainy but in a book full of heroes, although it may be unfair to pick out one group, the role of the letting agents was heroic.

They faced a situation in which vacancy rates were rocketing and rents were falling – the 53-storey Lincoln Building, completed in 1930 at a cost of $30 million passed to its bond holders in the summer of ’33 for $4.75 million, vacant; their competition included the Empire State Building, but the letting agents’ failure there had earned it the nickname the ‘Empty State Building’. The agents went for it with every trick in the book, each trick carefully described here, and each trick with varying degrees of legitimacy but all validated by success.

This is not just history, the Rockefeller Centre is a great scheme. Almost 70 years after its opening it still remains a lively public and commercial success, yet it has not been replicated, even when Nelson Rockefeller and Wallace Harrison (one of the assistant architects on the Rockefeller Centre) developed the Lincoln Centre, (including the long delayed opera house) it was a social failure, and no development in Manhattan has managed to emulate the Rockefeller.

Okrent’s analysis is simple, clear and convincing – there are an infinite number of super-imposed and unpredictable activities on the site, which is not just a destination but is organically part of the city itself; where people move through, under and across it. The public space they do use is both ‘free’ and commercial, simple and efficient and very limited in size, leading to that sense of liveliness and community that each user shares. Its only weakness, a lack of public seating, was remedied through the recent makeover by Project for Public Spaces; coupled with which it has, in the Rainbow Room, the finest cocktail bar in the world!

Manhattan has now the highest vacancy rate since the Great Depression and the site of the World Trade Centre (which like the Rockefeller has the benefit of an underground station) stands waiting – this book should be widely read and understood.

Modern Houses

2. Aviopolis – A Book about Airports
by Fuller & Harley
Black Dog Publishing
ISBN 1 904772 11 0

3. The Kill by Emile Zola
translated by Brian Nelson
Oxford World Classics
ISBN 0 19 280464 2

At last a book for shed shifters. ‘Aviopolis’ claims to be the first book length critical study of how information, architecture, people and machines are converging into a new urban form dominated by logistics (aka airports!)

Airports were the great new transport buildings of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century was dominated by rail and produced, all over the world, some truly great buildings which continue to function well and provide a sense of place and even pleasure to their staff and passengers. Even smaller stations had a sense of civic purpose; a role greater than the purely utilitarian.

This has not been the case with airports; most are of a very poor standard and are, frankly, depressing. There are a few recent examples eg Oslo, Munich and one or two immediate post war exceptions to this – the most notable being Saarinen’s terminal at JFK, New York, illustrated in this book. Unfortunately it is the only worthwhile thing in this book.

The book is dominated by its photographs, many of which capture the emptiness of airports but unfortunately that emptiness is echoed also in the content of the book; from its opening paragraph, printed in very large print, to try and hide its banality, through to the ‘glossary’ of 17 key conceptual terms at its finale. Even shed shifters deserve better than this!

After that it is a relief to turn to a great novel with one of its major characters a property developer.

Zola’s ‘The Kill’ is set in the era of Hausmann, who is driving grand, straight boulevards through the higgledy-piggledy medieval streets of Paris in the mid 19th Century. His purpose, on behalf of the French emperor, Napoleon III, is to ensure that the workers of Paris cannot again succeed in barricading their areas from the power of the State. In doing so he creates golden opportunities for speculators, developers and builders, all of whom figure prominently in this novel.

The size and speed of the projects was amazing; within 18 years 1,200 km of new streets had been built, more often than not with sewers and gas lighting, 80,000 new apartment blocks had been built. The number of trees was doubled and, more importantly, the population doubled. The activity was so frenetic that construction sometimes continued non-stop during the night under, newly invented, electric lighting. Forbidden to raise taxes to pay for this massive programme, Hausmann resorted to ‘off balance sheet’ funding using private money (do the words PFI jump to mind?) and thus laid also the ground for corruption.

Saccard, the developer, is a provincial, who has newly arrived in Paris, but trading on family connections obtains a position in the Hotel de Ville, from which he is able to obtain inside information. He remedies his lack of capital by contracting a marriage, with Renée, accompanied by a large dowry, in return for saving the social standing of an upright, traditional, bourgeois family. The novel then follows both the public corruption of the property developers, their bankers and intermediaries, which is mirrored in the private corruption of their lives and particularly that of Renée, the wife of Saccard.

The novel, though over a hundred years old, remains truly shocking and its conclusion, that winds together private intimacy and commercial relationships exposing both as a sham, is horrifying and convincing.

As a bonus I believe this is the first novel to have as an important secondary character a compensation surveyor, known then as an expropriation agent; what further recommendation could there be for reading this great novel?!

4. Arts & Crafts Gardens
by Wendy Hitchmough
V & A Publications
ISBN 1 85177 4483

5. Every Day Spaces
by Pauline Gallacher
Thomas Telford Publishing
ISBN 0 7277 3344 3

At the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century a new approach to gardening developed that remains to this day, the basis for most gardens and landscapes in the temperate world.

The men and women responsible were rebelling against the authoritarian, rigid designs of the Victorians but their rebellion was social as well as artistic. Ruskin and William Morris, united by a commitment to a creative life for everyone, but with Ruskin looking backwards to a past that could not be returned to and Morris looking forward to a socialist future. Lutyens and Jekyll of course figure, but so do many lesser known, but just as interesting architects, horticulturists and artists. A further contradiction of the movement was that although international, its roots in each country were drawn from indigenous culture and plants and one of the pleasures of this book are lesser known schemes in Europe and North America.

The ideas were developed not in the private estates of the aristocracy or the public parks of the Victorians but in private gardens. The approach of linking house and garden, of creating ‘rooms’ within garden, of encouraging ‘hands on gardening’, by men and women, and using new technologies in printing and publishing to spread knowledge widely, it presented a democratic impulse that continues today.

A few more plans would have been welcome but this short, well written book with glorious photographs is highly recommended.

In contrast ‘Every Day Spaces’ deals with the design, development and subsequent life of five public spaces created at the end of the 20th/beginning of the 21st century. Boosted by Glasgow’s description as UK City of Architecture and Design 1999, five neighbourhood public spaces were identified to be procured by local Housing Associations.

The book describes the high hopes and aspirations generated by a study trip to Barcelona and two sustained multi-disciplinary workshops involving community representatives and architects; the frustrating difficulties in securing the funding (originally there were 20 neighbourhood spaces proposed); the difficulties of agreeing on future maintenance responsibilities and their construction, handover and subsequent use. Each project and client are described in detail including the difficulties and problems that most of them encountered.

This is a powerful and important book. Hundreds of millions of pounds of private and public money are spent each year in ‘place making’ from new suburban estates to dense urban developments, from city centres to edge of town business parks. This book is required reading for anybody involved in such work.

Given its focus it understandably does not tackle the current unwritten but dominant rule that all public space is first of all for vehicles and only afterwards for people but both Ken Worple, in his thoughtful introduction, and Gallacher do touch on the other key issues including the need for a wide ranging politics of social renewal; just as the Arts and Crafts movement was based on socialists and feminist ideas and was part of the creation of a new society, such a renewal is necessary at the beginning the 21st century if we are to create a public realm where, as its name describes, the public rule.

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New Architecture Books

Modern Architectural Books

Comments or book suggestions for the Architecture Book Reviews page welcome