Global Ambition, Local Flavor: Hallmarks of the New Modernism

The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. Phaidon Press, 824 pages, $160.

The joke about Phaidon’s new Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture is that, at 809 pages and 16 pounds, it’s less a coffee-table book than a coffee table. But every ounce is justified, as Phaidon’s editors have assembled a beautiful, thorough overview of more than 1,000 buildings that went up around the world between 1998 and 2003. Though they might have a hard time making it fit, serious architecture fans should be required to make space for the Atlas on their bookshelves.

Organized geographically—by region, country and continent, cross-listed by architect—the book will surely give the lie to anyone who thinks there’s nothing happening in the world of architecture outside of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. Alongside the “starchitects,” we discover a surprising number of works by obscure architects hired by all kinds of clients: a $3,000 tree house in Ethiopia; a psychologist’s office in Jordan; a $20,000 cabin in New South Wales, Australia. The front of the book includes lengthy charts on population and urbanization trends for each country featured. The range of styles and locations—indeed, the sheer amount of information—can be overwhelming at times. But for all its encyclopedic tendencies, the book is a subtle yet cogent argument about the direction of world architecture: Today’s modernism is global in reach yet local in perspective, conforming to its surrounding aesthetics yet expressing a universal order.

During modernism’s first heyday around the middle of the 20th century, speaking of “world architecture” in any substantive sense was a close-to-impossible task. To be sure, architecture existed outside of Eurocentric modernism, but few people took notice, let alone attempted to incorporate it into their work. There were some, like Louis Kahn in Dacca, Bangladesh, or Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, India, who took seriously the idea of melding modernist ideas and local aesthetics when designing public structures (though even Le Corbusier failed at that in his city plan for Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab province, as he imposed a garden-city-inspired grid onto the Indian landscape).

Modernist architecture fell into disfavor during the 1970’s and 1980’s, as critics and practitioners—like the rest of the intellectual world—called into question “Eurocentric” notions of progress and order. But their solution, postmodern pastiche—which often meant little more than whimsical incorporation of traditional design elements or corporate kitsch—failed to present a compelling alternative, and by the 1990’s modernism was on the upswing again, though this time more sensitive to the varieties of cultural experience, and to the need for human scale to balance out the urge toward an eminently rational but at times overbearing universal aesthetic. Such an urge was facilitated by the explosion in global communications, which suddenly made it possible for people around the world to inspect urban and architectural contexts halfway around the world.

The Atlas, then, is a virtual tour of how several hundred architects have approached the question of creating human-scale modernism, one that calls on both universal ideas and local aesthetics. Toward the front of the book, we’re treated to a stunning two-page spread on Renzo Piano’s Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in Nouméa, New Caledonia. Dedicated to a slain independence leader, the center is marked by a row of semi-circular wooden structures—the tallest of which is as high as a nine-story building. (In an ironic twist perhaps meant to underscore the building’s nexus between the local and the global, the structures’ ribs are made of laminated iroko wood brought from West Africa.) Meant to evoke a local village, the structures both define the center and help ameliorate the inevitable tension between a modernist structure and its surroundings, especially when those surroundings are lush, green jungle.

The notion that modernism is anything but a unified whole—or that modernists in different parts of the world will interpret its elements differently—is hardly a new idea. William Curtis, in his magisterial Modern Architecture Since 1900 (1985), highlights the various ways in which regional architects put their own spin on a Western European idea. And yet, with few exceptions, that dialogue was largely limited to Europe, the United States, and occasionally Japan and Latin America. With mid-century modernism, it wasn’t unusual to find top-flight European architects working around the world, but it was rare to find smaller shops doing the same.

Today, as the Atlas makes clear, things have changed. One of the most interesting works in the Atlas is a gateway sculpture built by the Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall for Nanning, a city in southeast China. Lining the main entrance into town are two giant red steel flowers—except that one side only appears whole from a distance; as a driver approaches, the flower reveals itself to be 10 individual petals spread along the road. It’s a wonderful instance of technically savvy design used to express local aesthetics.

A similar marriage of modernism and traditionalism can be seen in the work of local architects in developing countries. Raj Rewal’s Parliamentary Library in New Delhi, for example, incorporates a modernist sense of order with traditional Indian structural elements, such as large open areas inside the buildings and detailing that evokes Mughal-era palaces. Mr. Rewal’s work isn’t limited to India, either; the editors make a point of featuring his Ismaili Centre in Lisbon—proof that, increasingly, the global current of architecture flows both ways.

Many of the European and American projects also display a refreshing sensitivity to their regional and immediate surroundings that will surprise those who think that modern architecture draws its strength from clashing with its context. Steven Holl’s Y House in the Catskills, for example, deftly incorporates a wood-frame vernacular, complete with red cedar slats, into a well-ordered yet creative private home. Similarly, Caruso St. John’s New Art Gallery, in Walsall, England, is a gray, boxy structure inserted neatly into shabby industrial surroundings—but instead of being brought down by its resemblance to the warehouses and abandoned factories around it, the gallery enlivens them by showing the possibility for renewal. And these are just a handful of the hundreds of works highlighted in the Atlas.

The Atlas, of course, runs the risk of providing too much information. It’s one thing to showcase 1,000 buildings; it’s another to hit readers with 2,000 line drawings and some 5,500 photos—many of which, though pretty enough, are redundant when it comes to explicating the building. At the same time, it would have helped to have more critical discussion of the buildings: what the architect was hoping to achieve, what the public reaction has been, how well they work within their contexts. But this is a minor quibble from a text-centric critic; the evidence is there for anyone to see. Making a visual rather than a textual argument is a difficult task, and though well-suited to architecture, it’s rarely attempted. That Phaidon has managed to do so while keeping the Atlas light (at 16 pounds) and engaging is a stunning achievement.

Clay Risen, an assistant editor at The New Republic, writes frequently about architecture.