Boox Box

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Who says people don’t read anymore? I do it just about 24/7. This being the end of the year, I thought I’d cite a few of the art and architecture books I enjoyed the most in recent months.

Architecture first:

I.M. Pei: Complete Works by Philip Jodidio and Janet Adams Strong (Rizzoli; 367 pages)

For 50 years Pei has worked in his own very elegant brand of modernism. He was the easy on the eyes Cartesian. Even when he was working in concrete— maybe especially when he was working in concrete — he took the edge off of modernist severity without resorting to the fussy touches that Philip Johnson or Edward Durrell Stone thought were classy. Say what you will about the not-quite-sufficient gallery spaces in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, it’s a powerful form, a statement all by itself about how form can be powerful. The texts in this book discuss his work usefully, which means for one thing that they acknowledge the problems of compromised buildings like the John F. Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Mass. If anything they don’t give enough credit to Pei’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, another superb building-as-sculpture, though they go too easy on his Four Seasons Hotel in New York, with its clunky pinnacle.

On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change by Ada Louise Huxtable ( Walker & Company; 478 pages)

More than four decades of journalism from the byline that took on the skyline. The grand dame of architecture critics and a very companionable intellect, Huxtable was for years the critic of the New York Times. At 87 she still contributes, fiercely, to the Wall Street Journal. (She is, for instance, not happy about the dismal prospects for the World Trade Center site, but who is?) Huxtable began writing about architecture in the early 1960s, at a time when modernism, which had only just triumphed in the postwar world, was already looking like an aesthetic dead end. She very adroitly charts the turns, wrong and right, that architecture took while looking for a way out. She can weigh reputations with deadly precision — see her nuanced appreciation/depreciation of Santiago Calatrava — and sort out a mixed-bag performance to perfection.

The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture (Phaidon; 799 pages)

Phaidon is in the business these days of publishing coffee table books that could double as coffee tables. I won’t try to guess how much this behemoth weighs. (Oh what the hell, 35 pounds? ) But if you find a flat surface big enough to hold it comfortably — and I don’t recommend your lap — it turns out to be a page turner, an irresistable illustrated guide to 1037 buildings all around the world.

L.A. Modern by Tim-Street Porter (Rizzoli; 247 pages)

After Taschen published its sumptuous volumes of the architectural photographs of Julius Shulman, you might not think another compendium of knife-edged, glass-walled L.A. houses with David Hockney pools was required anytime soon. But in this year when Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House was sold at auction like a Picasso and the Hammer Museum mounted a big show to bring John Lautner back into the conversation, this beautifully produced book won me over. In chronological order it covers 38 houses, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s stucco-Mayan Hollyhock House of 1920 to Frank Gehry’s 1989 Schnabel House, a fragmented domicile-as-village that he once described as “objects placed in the landscape like a Morandi still life”.

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