A few weeks ago Mark Lamster put up a spirited defense of the architectural monograph, responding to a column by Martin Filler in Architectural Record that suggested the form was doomed by economics and sycophancy. (And, BTW, if Record is going to save itself by getting critical, let’s support the effort.) Mark wrote:
It seems particularly wrong to me to suggest that a singular genius will be required to reinvent the monograph format into something meaningful for today. This only reinforces the profession’s lamentable stratification into a system of stars and anonymous drones. (In the past, Filler has lamented the “Great Man” school of history, so this seems a strange proposition coming from him.) In any case, the standard monograph format — a critical introduction followed by a series of explicated projects — happens to be an efficient means of presentation, and in most cases needs no reinvention.
When I was editing monographs, and it was not so long ago, the first conversation I would have with an architect would inevitably begin with the architect in question stating flatly that he or she was not interested in a “traditional monograph.” That was fine with me. But then we’d start talking, and as we’d get down to the nitty-gritty, the book would move closer and closer to the “traditional” format. Not every time. But most times.
So it was particularly amusing to me to receive Reveal, the first monograph of the work of 13-year-old Chicago firm Studio Gang (published, coincidentally, by Mark’s old employers at Princeton Architectural Press; they are also my publishers for the forthcoming Writing About Architecture). Reveal was part of the launch of the exciting Van Alen Books, a new architecture and design bookstore (the only one in Manhattan) run by the urban institute of the same name, on Thursday, April 21.
As Mark described the traditional monograph, with its introductory essay and subsequent unfurling of glamour shots, the first example that came to my mind was Richard Meier’s many Vignelli-designed volumes. The white pages, the white houses, the Bodoni, just so. Compared to Meier, the Studio Gang book, authored by principal Jeanne Gang, is the anti-monograph. No flattering, turtlenecked black-and-white portrait. No chronology. No modernist grid, setting the stage for more volumes to come. And almost no photos, or not the kind you expect. Reveal is purposefully unrevealing of the results of Studio Gang’s work, preferring to dwell in the realm of process and material. But it too is meant to be the first in a series of volumes.
Elizabeth Azen of EA Projects, the Brooklyn-based designer who also provided creative editorial direction for the book, says she suggested Gang look at Cabinet for inspiration: each issue devoted to a subject, one discussed in oblique visual and verbal ways. And that’s exactly how the book appears. At its center is a strong idea about materials, around which diffuse other sorts of materials accumulate.
So we get vintage bird’s nest drawings (for the now-threatened design of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, aka “Best Nest”). We get a brief history of the tree by SCAPE’s Kate Orff (a collaborator). We get inserts imaginatively designed like old-fashioned broadsheets, telling the histories of a boulder found on the site of the Aqua Tower and an unsolved mystery from Greenville, SC. We get sketches, now almost historical artifacts themselves. If Mark Lamster is right that monographs are now for students, and for intra-professional reputation polishing, than this low-key artifactual approach makes a lot of sense. We have seen the building glamour shots, the trafficked renderings on all the blogs. What’s in the book is something different.
That said, there’s not a lot of completed work in it (eight projects, three unbuilt, one an installation), though Jeanne Gang’s introduction says there could have been more, they just chose not to show it. Notably not included, the Starlight Theatre, an early eye-catching project from 2003. After emailing with Azen, I understand that they held things back for volume two, but I am not sure this was a good idea. It makes the book feel like it might be too early, and thin. How many people, students, will buy two books when you could have fit more in one? Studio Gang is mostly known for one building, Chicago’s 82-story Aqua tower. If Aqua is always what they are known for, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing: it is a building that out-Gehrys Gehry, a rippling tower on which the curves are more than ornamental. The final project in the book, Hyderabad Tellapur 02, a million-square-foot residential courtyard tower for that bursting tech city in India, may yet overtake Aqua in the international mind’s eye.
And yet, there is a perversity about the highly conceptual concept. The unrevealing typographic cover (so were Meier’s, but at least his favorite font was a signature), the lack of an image of Jeanne Gang or her collaborators and employees — in the numerous office shots, all figures are blurred — the emphasis on process over results, all this suggests a desire to move the emphasis from the incipient stardom of Gang (now the leading candidate to be America’s foremost female architect). Paul Goldberger called her an anti-diva, but is this going too far? But she is credited as the sole author of this book, except for a couple of bylined essays. Her collaborators and employees are listed only in the back in a terrible, eye-strain-inducing graphic designed by Studio Gang itself. Does she want to take individual credit or not? Is she trying to be a dark star? If you take the mono out of monograph, is the result just a collection of stuff and not a book? The content says, “I’m just part of a hard-working team,” but the form is more ambiguous.
The perversity isn’t just apparent in the book’s concept and design, but in some of the work. The Ford Calumet Environmental Center, long her calling card, is the easiest fit into the book’s organization by material, and was in fact its inspitation. Based on the bird’s nest, seeking to recycle the area’s industrial waste, it is a perfect metaphor for the new ecology, one which naturalizes the manmade and the animal together. And yet, despite all this elaborate and specific justification, the design is trendy. It is a big roof with pavilions underneath, the 2000s way of making a building that is open and transparent and anti-monumental. It is an idea Rem Koolhaas (for whom Gang and partner Mark Schendel worked; they are Baby Rems) proposed, at mega-scale, for LACMA. It is an idea Gang proposes again for the Blue Wall Center in South Carolina. All that analog justification, including a fascinating morning spent with the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors who rescue the birds that smash into the previous generation of architects’ Chicago skyscrapers, can’t cover up the fact that we are in the realm of style. Ecologically and structurally justified style, in new-old Chicago tradition, but still.
The old-school monograph would have had a portrait of Jeanne Gang, looking fabulous, in the first ten pages. A chronology of the built works, with project summaries and pages of Hedrich Blessing shots. A reprint or expansion of Paul Goldberger’s New Yorker praise. It would have made the firm look like it was the complete package, ready for hire, when really it is in vigorous middle age. Reveal reveals itself to be a canny attempt to have it both ways. Feed the fame-monster that wants a book, wants something to be revealed of how Gang came to be the woman who built the tower, but not show too much. In this sense, Gang is indeed a diva. Leave them wanting more.