An Architectural Peep Show: Buy It for the Centerfolds!

The Architecture Pack , by Ron van der Meer and Deyan Sudjic. Alfred E. Knopf, $50, 14 pages.

The Architecture Pack is an interactive tour of architecture that you don’t have to plug in. The book, which pushes pop-up culture to the limit, was designed by a master paper engineer named Ron van der Meer, who has already published pop-up histories of art and music. Mr. van der Meer makes paper do things it never knew it could do, and the architecture of the book itself is as compelling as many of the buildings it sets out to explain. One of the drawbacks to books about architecture is that you never really get a true sense of how a building looks in three dimensions. No matter how many plans, elevations and photographs are provided, everything gets flattened onto the page. At least here, in The Architecture Pack , we get the chance to move our eyes, if not our bodies, around the four sides of a building to see how all the different parts fit together.

When you first open the book it jumps out at you with three-dimensional projections, and flips and flops with transparent overlays, side flaps, small booklets stitched onto the page, and sleeves that hold loose material like miniature plans. There’s a surprise under every side flap. A 3-D tepee pops up unexpectedly on the same page as an English timber frame house from the 14th century.

It is true that great buildings do sometimes pop up at you, as if from a book, when you see them for the first time. But there is something about these 3-D interpretations that has nothing whatsoever to do with buildings. The buildings become something else: They move , which is something they were never designed to do. Walls of paper bend and collapse together with the roofs and porticoes of these famous buildings. Volumes deflate, vaults retract, right angles become acute, ceilings merge with floors. These are no longer the static forms of Chartres and Ronchamp, but Chartres and Ronchamp in motion. Everything gets splayed simultaneously, and the buildings deconstruct in their unfolding. This is the magic of the pop-up, whether it’s spaceships, pussycats or skyscrapers-what happens as you open the page and witness the dynamic unfolding of paper creases, slotted partitions and other hinging devices-what happens as it goes from flat to fully expanded and you hear that distinctively hollow sound of paper scraping against paper. Once the thing has clicked into its fully opened position, there is often a sense of disappointment. You want to refold it as quickly as possible and move on to the next page.

The text was written by Deyan Sudjic, a respected architectural historian and critic for The Guardian in Britain. He does a thorough job of cramming the entire history of architecture into fewer than 20 pages. The narrative moves back and forth in time in a nonlinear way, not in a rigid, textbook framework. It is divided into seven thematic sections: (1) “Architects and Builders,” (2) “Classical Influence,” (3) “Structure and Form,” (4) “New Materials, New Shapes,” (5) “Architecture as Art,” (6) “The Changing City” and (7) “Process.” In case you don’t get it the first time around, you can listen to Mr. Sudjic narrate a guided tour of the book in an audio tape that is tucked into the back of the book.

Each of the thematic spreads has a key example, an architectural icon, that pops up from the center fold. In some cases, these appear to have been chosen as much for the complexity of their forms as for their historical importance, which seems perfectly justified in a book of this sort. The buildings are complemented on either side by smaller pop-ups, and short sidebars on related subjects such as materials and structural systems. There are other kinds of interactive tricks used to help explain. A pair of glasses-one lens rose-colored, the other blue-reveal different aspects of the various diagrams. There are short profiles of individual architects, from Imhotep to Richard Meier.

Sometimes the elements in each category work together beautifully and add a new level of understanding. The 16th-century Villa Rotonda pops up as the centerpiece of the spread on classicism. Running near the foundation of the pop-up villa is a profile of the life of Andrea Palladio, the building’s architect. On the left side of the same page, we learn about the Greek and Roman origins of the villa’s classical proportions. A diagrammed transparency can be flipped over onto an image of the Parthenon to show how the golden section was used in its design. A tab can be pulled to unfold the Roman Colosseum like a paper fan, or you can look through the colored glasses and see how the root of a Doric temple was actually supported by a timber structure. Then, on the right side, in a series of flapping sidebars, we learn how those same principles from antiquity were updated and reinterpreted in Thomas Jefferson’s design for Monticello, and Alexander (Greek) Thomson’s neo-classical buildings in Glasgow.

You can slot together the Gothic vaults of Westminster Abbey or, if you’re feeling more ambitious, piece together a free-standing model of the Schroder House by Gerrit Rietveld. There are also things to be done with strings, like making a rigid frame to help illustrate Buckminster Fuller’s theory of tensegrity. My favorite device in the book, however, is the one that shows how the mechanism of an elevator really works. A string is pulled, which moves the elevator car and counterweight up and down in opposite directions. The little elevator lies amid a cluster of related material. In the accompanying text, we read: “Without the modern elevator, the skyscraper is impossible.” At the same time, we see, at the top of the same page, a comparative pop-up of the world’s tallest buildings, all made possible by Elisha Otis’ invention. The point is made.

When another tab is pulled, it reveals the changing skyline of Manhattan from 1877 to the present. Right near the base of the elevator’s shaft is a profile of Louis Sullivan that explains how he was the father of the Chicago skyscraper school and the first to express the underlying steel framework of a tall building. The way all of these elements are physically interconnected-elevator, skyline, architect-demonstrates, as well as any conventional method, the overlay of personality and technology that went into the creation of our vertical cities.

The spread on “New Materials, New Shapes” holds together, as all the examples used were made possible by new materials and technologies in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Eiffel Tower, Sidney Opera House, Crystal Palace and Frei Otto’s cable-net roofs all make sense on the same page. The spread about “Process” works because it focuses on a single project, the Getty Center in Los Angeles by Mr. Meier, and attempts to give a feeling of how a major building gets built. There are photographs of the site, early sketches and various studies that trace the development of the design over several years.

The payoff for pop-ups must come with sudden recognition. The effects don’t seem to be as convincing with less familiar buildings. The pop-up in the “Process” part of the book shows a section of the Getty Center still under construction with a crane lowering a block of stone into place. This is perhaps the least satisfying model in the whole book, because it doesn’t look like anything recognizable, even when fully popped-sort of like the deconstruction of a deconstruction. It also makes one realize that the ephemeral technologies of modern building practices (prefabricated parts, clip-on walls, paper-thin veneers, hung ceilings) are just other forms of pop-upism .

Sometimes, all the historical leapfrogging gets perverse. The “Architecture as Art” spread is a grab bag of different buildings that don’t fit neatly anywhere else: Antonio Gaudi’s Church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; the Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto; the Taj Mahal; Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp. The effect of them all together, oddly rubbing shoulders, is like some marvelous, miniature World’s Fair.

An Architectural Peep Show: Buy It for the Centerfolds!