Book Reviews

AAJ Press Book Reviews:  Jonathan Vickery

Pina Petricone (editor): Concrete Ideas: Material to Shape a City

This is an excellent package – a boxed hardback with the highest quality design and print. It is what an architecture book should be – as attentive to the aesthetics of reading as to the novelty of its analytical content. The subject may not seem exciting, but concrete is central to the development of modern architectural design, and with new nanotechnology, for example, is doing extraordinary things. This book is a compendium of new research on concrete, and new applications – majoring on the detail, content, composition and combinations of materials. This is an architects’ – not coffee-table – book. At the same time, it’s accessible and is comprised of a range of fascinating a well designed photo-graphic illustrations. Given the low status of concrete as an urban feature, along with its association with cheap fast, post-war construction, the material is in need of an apologetic. This book goes a long way in revealing both concrete’s new qualities (profiling a range of new tradmarked innovations, from Creacrete to LiTraCon) as well as new design uses, continuing to generate one of the most versatile materials that has ever existed. The book is not just another edited collection, but emerged from group research and design innovation, from the editor’s home institution of University of Toronto to London and further afield, with examples from buildings around the world.

Boxed hardback: 25.40 x 17.80 cm; 248pp: Illustrated in colour and black and white throughout. First publication 2012. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500342817  £35.00

Jane Burry and Mark Burry: The New Mathematics of Architecture

High-level photography of 46 international architectural locations offers an insight into the way contemporary architecture has developed through advanced mathematics and physics. The book is a highly illustrated volume on architectural design rather than mathematics (in fact, there is no mathematics). Even so, it is an accessible and highly informative overview, covering an enormous range of concepts central to advanced building design (supplemented by a highly useful illustrated glossary). Any form of design has a mathematical dimension of course – but digital computation and modelling has taken the structural possibilities of design to new heights, and this book is as good an example as any. With examples that are both familiar and perhaps not – from Gehry Partners’ wonderful Disney Concert Hall in LA, to Toyo Ito’s masterful piece of urban design, the Island City Central Park – the book offers a superb array of plans, CGIs and modelling imagery, stripping down a project to its skeletal components. Each project is represented in a 4-5 page snapshot, offering a global summary. The sections are arranged as ‘Mathematic Surfaces and Seriality’, ‘Chaos, Complexity and Emergence’, ‘Packing and Tiling’, ‘Optimization’, ‘Topology’, and ‘Datascapes Multidimensionality.

Paperback with flaps — 23.50 x 21.70 cm: 272pp: 628 Illustrations, 435 in colour. May 2012 (first published 2010) Thames & Hudson.ISBN 9780500290255 £19.95

Henry Plummer: The Architecture of Natural Light

The subject of light may seem a reductive way of talking about architecture. However, the light of architecture is the light of spatial experience and of design – and this book deals with both. Light is a subject with a long theological history. This book offers a surprising array of intellectual avenues to pursue, while commenting on some specific examples of contemporary architecture. Light is Plummer’s speciality, and throughout the book there is a good balance of text and imagery, with high quality photos of building interiors the priority. The sections are ‘Evanescence’, where light is defined as an articulation of time, followed by ‘Procession’ and the light of successive spaces; ‘Veils of Glass’ deals with refraction; ‘Atomization’ looks at filtered or mediated light; then ‘Canalization’, ‘Atmospheric Silence’ and ‘Luminscence’, is where the emphasis is on the way architectural design shapes or controls light. The examples are unexpected – from churches and chapels, houses, conference and arts centres, and the photographic approach is evocative without indulging in atmospherics. The featured buildings are all premier architectural constructs, and so at the high end of design. Herein is featured Herzog de Meuron’s fabulous IKMZ Library and data centre at Cottbus in Germany; Heinz Tesar’s Donau City Church in Austria, and Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s Dutch Embassy in Germany. Most are examples on the smaller end of building design, each accompanies by just one paragraph comment, but all part of a section with a longer conceptual explanation. A book to put you in a mood of restful calm.

Paperback – 28.00 x 26.00 cm: 256pp; 465 Illustrations, 408 in colour
February 2012 (first published 2009) Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500290361 £22.50

Adrian Forty:: Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture

This is a major book: it is like an old classic historical survey in the sense that it is deeply scholarly yet can be read by anyone. Now ten years old, it nonetheless still reads like a current assessment of the relation between architecture and the words we use to talk about it (and architects use to design with). The book is in two parts, the first comprising of six essays on language-related themes, and the second eighteen sections each headed by a major architectural concept (from character, context, form, function and so on). The book’s approach to its subject is ‘critical’ in the sense that it is attentive to the limits of language, the non-naturalistic nature of linguistic representation, and the social contexts of architectural language’s evolution. It is rich with historical reference, drawings, diagrams and photographs. It is not even just about architecture, but through architecture we can read a cultural history and the development of our experience of the aesthetics of the visual. From the classical orders to Renaissance, baroque, neo-gothic, modern and postmodern. Part two is particularly important in this respect, offering short essays on each key term, it arms the reader with a useful lexicon, while demonstrating the term’s malleability and historical change.

Paperback with flaps: 24.50 x 19.50 cm, 336pp: 216 Illustrations, 0 in colour. 2012 (first published 2004). Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500284704 £19.95

Stephen Taylor, Oak: One Tree, Three Years, fifty Paintings (foreword by Alain de Botton), Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

This is an artist-authored book, featuring a commentary and biographical information on the creation of an extraordinary series of paintings. The book takes as its subject a single oak tree in Essex, near the artist’s home. As both a tree, and as an iconic media of classic English art (the work of Constable) the oak is replete with meaning, memory, topographic pleasures as well as, to a lesser degree, dendrology. The oak is solitary and rugged, and non-Brits often wonder why the English maintain romantic associations with them, or given the relative undramatic nature of the English countryside, why the ‘countryside’ plays such a role in the cultural imagination that is our national identity. In this book Taylor opens his story with detail on his own lifelong relation to the oak, and his intellectual journey to this protracted project – where through wind, hail and snow, he sets down the life of this single oak in oil on board and canvas.

Outside specific commissions or profitable patronage, it is difficult to come by the kind of artistic commitment demonstrated by Taylor, with his almost eighteenth-century desire to investigate the mysteries of nature. Nature has all but been completely disenchanted, and it’s uncommon to find an art these days that still testifies to its power, telling of the ways it still conceals something essential to human consciousness. Taylor is no romantic, and his fifty paintings are not stylistically executed so as to evoke the generic romantic spectrum of responses, from wonder to awe to the beautiful and sublime. In fact, he even avoids the peculiarly British contribution to eighteenth century European art – the picturesque. The sensibility in Taylor’s painting is a contemporary one, exacting yet without cold scientific analysis, and stripped of the affectations and self-conscious post-stylistic mindset of the ‘post-contemporary’ (or post postmodern). The images are surprisingly unrepetitive – an endless disorder in successive viewings.  The book’s consistent commentary provides a narrative framework for understanding this exercise as more than just painting, as if painting was ever just about painting.

Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 9781616890322
Publication date 12/1/2011
7.75 x 9.25 inches (19.7 x 23.5 cm), Hardcover
112 pages, 125 colour illustrations, £19.99 / $29.95


Lucy + Jorge Orta, Food-Water-Life, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

This is a substantial book – Lucy and Jorge Orta (both individually, and together as a collaborative team) have been at the forefront of European developments in both participatory and socially engaged art as well as installation. They work internationally, but based in Studio Orta, their recent development in France – a self-generated cultural heritage regeneration program by the Grand Morin river, Marne-la-Vallée, the Moulin de Boissy and the Moulin Sainte-Marie, two paper mills. This move was itself framed as a project — Les Moulins – where in development is an interdisciplinary research centre, for workshops and residencies that promote further experimentation and site specific art.

Practical, logistical production is never incidental to the Orta’s work – intellectual investment in every detail and movement of their various creations is evident. As for media, they work mostly in three dimensions, readymade and installation – but also use drawing, sculpture, object making, couture, painting, silkscreen printing and Light Works. They are probably better known for their interventions and performances (though Jorge, it must be said, has a longer artistic history, stretching back to military run junta in Argentina in the 1970s).

The book is colourful, well designed and a highly engaging review of most of their output over the last ten to twelve years. The themes of their various creations are social awareness, social change, shelter, sustainability and the environment. The work is anything but doctrinaire and is visually demanding as it is often inviting active participation. The exploratory nature of their approach means that there is never a dull moment – from the ‘Refugee Wear’ in London’s East End in the late 90s, to public meals in streets and squares of various European cities, to their Antarctic Village installations. Their work maintains an instant impact and accessibility, only then to beckon into more complex ideas and questions. The photography throughout is crisp and clear full colour, and with five short essays an interview, it’s just about a full a picture as you could want.

Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 9781568989914
Publication date 7/19/2011
8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm), Hardcover
192 pages, 300 color illustrations. £28.00 /  $40.00



Marcuse-bookMacolm Miles – Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation, 2011

When capitalism is clearly catastrophically out of control and its excesses cannot be sustained socially or ecologically, the ideas of Herbert Marcuse become as relevant as they were in the 1960s. This is the first English introduction to Marcuse to be published for decades, and deals specifically with his aesthetic theories and their relation to a critical theory of society.

Although Marcuse is best known as a critic of consumer society, epitomised in the classic One-Dimensional Man, Malcolm Miles provides an insight into how Marcuse’s aesthetic theories evolved within his broader attitudes, from his anxiety at the rise of fascism in the 1930s through heady optimism of the 1960s, to acceptance in the 1970s that radical art becomes an invaluable progressive force when political change has become deadlocked.

Marcuse’s aesthetics of liberation, in which art assumes a primary role in interrupting the operation of capitalism, made him a key figure for the student movement in the 1960s. As diverse forms of resistance rise once more, a new generation of students, scholars and activists will find Marcuse’s radical theory essential to their struggle.

Malcolm Miles is Professor of Cultural Theory in the School of Architecture, Design and Environment at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of Urban Utopias: The Built and Social Architectures of Alternative Settlements (2008), Cities & Cultures (2007), Urban Avant-Gardes: Art, Architecture & Change (2004), and Art, Space & the City (1997). He is co-editor of the Routledge Critical Introductions to Urbanism series.


‘This is a book that engages perhaps the most important social issue of our times: how has the technologically advanced and affluent society in which most readers of these words live shaped us into beings who tolerate injustice, physical poverty and mental impoverishment, destruction of our environment, murderous warfare, and left us unhappily helpless to see even the possibility of any radical change? Miles goes back to Marcuse’s work on aesthetics to link philosophy, art, history, political analysis, and sociological insights in a deeply humane search for the way to a better world. It deserves a very wide readership indeed.’ Peter Marcuse (with obvious bias).

Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation presents a comprehensive critical overview and a comprehensive interrogation of Marcuse’s writings on art and aesthetics. Miles reads Marcuse as envisaging art as a way in which societies re-imagine themselves and project visions of a freer, happier, and better way of life. In these troubled times, it is refreshing to re-engage with Marcuse’s utopian visions of art and society and Miles proves a highly capable guide to this adventure.’ Douglas Kellner, UCLA, author of Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism and Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy.

‘Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation presents a comprehensive critical overview and a comprehensive interrogation of Marcuse’s writings on art and aesthetics. Miles reads Marcuse as envisaging art as a way in which societies re-imagine themselves and project visions of a freer, happier, and better way of life. In these troubled times, it is refreshing to re-engage with Marcuse’s utopian visions of art and society and Miles proves a highly capable guide to this adventure.’ Jane Rendell, Professor of Art and Architecture and Vice Dean of Research, The Bartlett, UCL, and author of Site-Writing (2010), Art and Architecture (2006) and The Pursuit of Pleasure (2002).



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