Review: The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture 23.01.09

Written by 

words Edwin Heathcote

There is a point at which a map becomes so big that it ceases to be useful. Borges wrote about it: a map so detailed that it becomes the world itself, and then, through necessity, becomes bigger in a spiralling effort to get everything in. The whole point of mapping is to reduce the size of the studied subject so that it becomes transportable, a reduction. Phaidon's new architectural atlas, a follow-up to the 2004 Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture (icon 014), is so heavy and huge it ceases to be a functional object. It is, instead, an ornament. Does that affect how we look at it?

Absolutely. I am only reviewing this book on condition that the publishers pick it up again - I do not have space for it, yet I love books and am almost pathologically unable to get rid of them. This one, though, has just gone too far. 800 pages, 6.6kg, over a thousand buildings in 89 countries. It comes in its own hideous green plastic case which, intriguingly, makes it even more uncomfortable to carry. The Venice Biennale catalogue came in an equally useless case. Does it really need a case to make the parcel yet bigger?

The book exemplifies a trend which has been emerging for a few years now. The Christmas culture blockbuster. It is a market predicated upon the conferral of prestige upon both the giver and the receiver of the gift. It is as much a part of the decorative arts as it is of publishing. Earlier in the year came the same publishers' bloated Le Corbusier: Le Grand and beyond architecture there are Taschen's increasingly obese titles, including the obsessively complete (and wonderful) Ingmar Bergman Archives.

Both the Corb and the Bergman books, and their Brobdingnagian brethren, attempt to use their bigness to illuminate their subject. With world architecture, there is just too much for any real profundity to emerge.

This is, in fact, the kind of book that should never have had reason to exist. This kind of thing is exactly what the internet should be perfect for. This should be a website, not a book: accessible from anywhere, easy to update, international, with hip young contributors from around the world, free and up-to-the minute, responsive to change in the same way Wikipedia is. But the internet has proven hopeless for architecture. Try checking out what's worth seeing and there's nothing there, just a couple of amateurish, uncritical, out of date devotional sites. Magazines are better but their national and editorial biases reduce their potential for comprehensiveness. So here we are with this absurd Mr Creosote of a book.

It starts poorly. Pointless maps of where architecture happens only expose the painfully limited concentration of nice buildings in a few urban centres, while other maps attempting to outline global connections or carbon emissions seem a poor sop to social issues and a tacit acknowledgement of OMA's virtual monopoly on intelligent cross-cultural architectural publishing. The last of these is a full-page map of Oceania which, unless I'm mistaken, manages to show nothing at all, not even the location of the cities.

The buildings themselves are better. From a pyramid in Kazakhstan to a KFC in the Icelandic Tundra, the range is commendable. It is impossible to pick out the buildings covered here, there are just too many and, as far as I can see the selection is considered and tasteful. It is good to see exposure and equal consideration for the architecture of China and Russia, of India and Austria, and the wealth of architectural expression is breathtaking. We are lucky to be living in an era in which such eclecticism is possible, we have never had such choice.

On the other hand there is a slickness and a will to presentation which makes the buildings, no matter how different they appear, kind of samey. It is as if the architects are working towards a series of internationally accepted tropes which will ensure they get in exactly this kind of publication. The book becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the apotheosis of globalised architecture, all just unique enough but also just similar
enough to its predecessors that the signs, the visual literacy, remain recognisable.

This is a lovely book which I will be glad to get rid of. People in my office keep tripping over the box. Sometimes, you can have too much architecture.

The Phaidon Atlas of 21st-Century World Architecture,
Phaidon, £100

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