Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Book review: 10x10/3

I never really warmed to the first 10x10. It appeared in 2000, a bloated almanac trumpeting the arrival of architecture as a newly glamorous enterprise. It would be the catalogue for a brave new era of Grand Designs and millennium projects, its holographic cover signalling the transformation of our discipline into the sexualised regenerative saviour of the new epoch.

The bane of groaning coffee tables, it was bigger, shinier and heavier than any book had ever been. It flung down the gauntlet in Phaidon’s size war with Taschen, opening the floodgates for a slew of ever more swollen volumes so vast they now have to come in their own plastic suitcases.

But its real problems were on the inside. That 100 architects’ work, arranged alphabetically with no editorial direction, would make an interesting read was a brave premise. Exacerbated by jarring layout and tiny reversed-out vertical captions running into the gutter, I quickly grew to resent it, and it has remained at the bottom of my teetering unread book pile ever since. To be fair, it provides a sturdy foundation, nobly shouldering the weight of all that’s wrong with the overblown, self-congratulatory world of published architecture.

So, nine years on, it was with some reluctance that I approached 10x10’s third incarnation. The format of asking 10 international critics to select their 10 favourite architects is still fraught with the same difficulties of regional promotion and limited networks, although this time around the selection is truly diverse, covering every continent and featuring new names for even the most hardened architourist.

The disciplinary make-up of the subjects is also much more varied. While many of the 400-plus pages are still devoted to nice offices making nice houses, there is a refreshing number of groups engaged in much bigger issues than the latest sparkling floor finish or faceted cladding panel.

Architectural theorists Keller Easterling and Eyal Weizman get a well-deserved look-in, thanks to Shumon Basar’s broad curatorial eye, although with only four pages of images and a short column each, the taster-menu format gives frustratingly little room to explore the compelling complexities of their studies, in which architecture confronts its political realities head on.

Joseph Grima, director of New York’s progressive Storefront Gallery, also widens the debate, bringing in such activist collectives as raumlaborberlin and socially engaged Estudio Teddy Cruz, whose collaborative work on informal housing at the US/Mexican border seeks to reinvent not the built artefact, but architectural practice itself.

To its credit, 10x10/3 also features much more coverage of actual built work than the previous volumes, whose impenetrable diagrams and quaint visualisations are replaced with lavishly reproduced photography and a useful selection of clear technical drawings. On a good solid table, or sturdy pair of knees, it is a pleasure to flick through, the lack of structure allowing for occasionally serendipitous discovery, snapping you out of a channel-hopping daze.

But, as with most of these glossy picture books, closer inspection is rarely rewarded. The majority of entries have the gushing tone of a press release, bestowing platitude upon platitude, of architects whose work “balances formal investigation and cultural meaning”, or is “a conversation between theoretical principles and the reality of the construction site”. Isn’t every project?

A dose of such reality might add to the next 10x10. The inclusion of 10 clients, 10 contractors or 10 planners would inject this exclusive and ultimately banal conversation between architect and critic with the excitingly messy realities of how these projects came to happen. Otherwise this is nothing more than a look-book catalogue of the current milieu. Perhaps this is a valid exercise in itself — but you can get that on the internet.

Originally published in BD, 31 July 2009