The Architectural Monograph: A Defense

In the light of my starting a book list and reviews in the Resources Toolkit, it is appropriate to examine what the role of these often expensive and weighty tombs is, though pitched at  Architectural books  the same applies to any design field today from fashion, product design to landscape and urbanism,  so here Mark Lamster sets out to do so – from  PLACES:

Monographs from the library of Della Valle Bernheimer, Architects. [Photo: Andrew Bernheimer]

What is the future of the architectural monograph? In a provocative column forArchitectural Record, Martin Filler laments what he describes as the “steady devaluation” of the format, to the point where such volumes have become “little more than glossy hardcover promotional brochures to entice an uninformed and impressionable lay clientele.” Per his argument, monographs are plagued by sycophantic commentary, this attributable to the fact that so many are subsidized by their subjects. He reports that publishers are cutting back on monographs, given the difficult economics of the format (and the literary marketplace in general), and contrasts today’s vanity projects with the landmarks of earlier generations — Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre Complete, James Stirling’sBuildings and Projects, Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,LX,L — the conclusion being that it will take a similar “once-in-a-generation architectural prodigy” to remake the format into something relevant once again.

I’ve authored my share of complaints about the state of the architectural monograph, in particular the “fat book” model that was so original when Koolhaas (and Bruce Mau) introduced it, but has since become a lazy, resource-hogging cliché. That said, for all its flaws, I don’t believe the monograph has reached the kind of critical moment that demands its reinvention. It seems to me the problems Filler describes, which are legitimate, apply primarily to a certain kind — but not the only kind — of architectural monograph: the overlarge glossy tome on a name-brand practice one finds prominently displayed in the architecture section at a chain retailer. These books may in fact be dinosaurs, but they don’t necessarily represent the field of monographs as a whole. That they command so much attention is unfortunate.

The days of pitching monographs to a “lay clientele” are pretty much over, at least for those practices that are doing innovative work. Yes, monographs are used as promotional tools for clients, but the primary audience for architectural monographs is other architects. Monographs promote their subjects mainly by building reputations within the profession. This may be self-serving, but it also benefits the common good by propelling the culture of architecture forward. (This, among other less altruistic motivations, is why so many critics are willing to contribute essays to monographs, despite the conflict-of-interest issues.)

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.

Of the books published at Princeton Architectural Press during my tenure as an editor, none was more inspirational than Rural Studio, which has since become one of the strongest sellers in the history of the press. (I had nothing to do with the making of the book, which was edited by my colleague Clare Jacobson.) Rural Studio could not have been more conventional in format, but it remains a touchstone because of the work and stories it portrays with such unencumbered clarity. More recently, with the support of the Graham Foundation, the press has published a series of monographs on emerging practices that share Rural Studio’s modest scale but exhibit vastly different types of work. Which is to say, the quality of a monograph is dependent on the value of the ideas expressed by its subjects, and not the originality of its format.

Princeton Architectural Press is just one of several publishers of compelling monographic works. The numbers may be shrinking (from a moment of market over-saturation) but publishers like Actar, Birkhauser, Lars Muller, and 010, among others, are still putting out high quality monographic works, if not as often as in years past. There is, unquestionably, an imperative to provide something beyond what might be found on a firm’s website, perhaps expanded content or a special attention to the physical experience of the printed page. While the prospect of a volume from Filler’s fictional Pecksniff + Partners is not particularly enticing, I am looking forward to the publication of books from SHoP(Monacelli), Thomas Heatherwick (Thames & Hudson), and BIG (Taschen), to name just a few. Certainly it will be interesting to see how the format can be adapted to or supplemented by new technologies. Experiments are ongoing: the firm KieranTimberlake is self-publishing a monograph on its Cellophane House as an electronic book. Tablet devices offer compelling ways to tell stories and navigate the physical spaces of architecture. Perhaps this is where the reinvention Filler is hoping for will originate.

More likely, a variety of alternative directions will emerge as a new generation of practitioners takes on the medium. Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, principals of the firmLOT-EK (whose untraditional monograph I had the pleasure to edit), run a studio at theColumbia GSAPP in which students envision their work in the context of the monograph. The studio’s philosophy is drawn from Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

This is a particularly vital moment for architecture, a time of diversity and possibility and optimism, despite great obstacles. (If the profession, and the monograph, are “in crisis,” they are to the extent that this is always the case.) It is the business of architectural publishers to keep pushing that culture forward, and the monograph remains a viable way to do just that. This, of course, is a difficult business, especially now, and so architectural publishers need the support of the profession and its institutions. Go buy a book.

Mark Lamster is a writer on the arts and culture. He is Associate American Editor of The Architectural Review, and is currently at work on his third book, a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson.
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