The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture

March 31, 2009

For the most part, the Atlas delivers on everything that is promised on its XXXL dust jacket – given the scope of its ambitions, it is an exceptionally well curated selection of 21st century architecture…

One thousand and fifty two projects, 2100 line drawings, 4600 colour images, 653 architects – if there was ever an instance where a publisher could be forgiven for describing their book as “monumental”, this is it. At 6.6 kilograms, at the very least The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture could qualify as a small piece of furniture.
For the most part, the Atlas delivers on everything that is promised on its XXXL dust jacket – given the scope of its ambitions, it is an exceptionally well curated selection of 21st century architecture, featuring everything from stadia to bus stations, with ample representation not just from the more established practices worldwide but from emerging, relatively unknown architects too. In this regard, as a “celebration of world architecture” the book certainly fits the bill – projects are presented well, with images accompanied by plans and sections as well as a compact but informative description. To some extent this justifies the title’s claim to be an “indispensable reference tool”, although it’s encyclopaedic intentions inevitably puts limits on the depth of the accompanying project texts.
While many of the projects found within the Atlas have been documented elsewhere, in books, magazines and online, there is no denying the vertiginous thrill diving into such a concentrated dose of quality architecture delivers – I’ve spent hours already simply flicking through the Atlas at random, stumbling across many projects and indeed architects I have never heard of before. The sheer quantity of material contained within actively encourages this kind of engagement – a quick dip before it all becomes a little overwhelming. Hence, as a source of inspiration, or a catalyst for further research, it works wonderfully. Depending on how you look at it, this is its limit or its strength; to spark and provoke further reading, beyond its covers.
Some attempt has been made to support the title’s credentials as a serious tool of investigation, and not just a coffee table book, by enlisting the help of the London School of Economics in compiling the “World Data” section and the statistical snapshots for each region. The World Data section contains a series of world maps displaying connections between the home countries of architects and the locations of their projects, the density of population compared with the locations of the featured projects, carbon footprints by country and construction growth and national wealth. From these maps, we learn that Europe, North America and Japan produce and export the bulk of the world’s architecture (while being horrendous polluters), and that wealthy cities are the environments most conducive to architectural production.
Though neither a radical nor particularly extended section (eight of the book’s 800 pages), the one thing the World Data section (and indeed the atlas as a whole) does trigger is a consideration of the entire notion of “world architecture”. In tracing the connections between the planet’s primary architectural producers, it seems to serve as an interesting documentation of the cultural impacts of globalisation, specifically in terms of design and the dissemination of ideas. The temptation of course with a title of this scope is to try and identify the development of dominant formal and conceptual tendencies, both on a regional and international scale– a temptation thanklessly rewarded if pursued. While, for example, Sweden, Finland et al exhibit plenty of the sylvan Scandinavian modernism you would expect of those countries, you can also find heroic Portuguese megastructures, German formalist blobs, and even a few meticulously crafted concrete boxes with a distinctly Japanese feel. Vice-versa for any other region or country you care to name, from China to the UK. What we are confronted with then is the architectural result of more than a decade’s rampant globalisation; but far from being homogenous, the world architecture described here exhibits an exuberant diversity, albeit disseminated almost exclusively amongst the major centres of global capital. The Atlas, then, serves not just as an audit of international practice, but also as a record of the final years of one of the greatest ever building booms the world has ever known. Now that the taps have been turned off, it does make you wonder what kind of qualities the next atlas of “21st Century world architecture” will exhibit.

Publisher: Phaidon Distributor: Bookwise International RRP: $275

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