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An Armchair Tour of Modern Architecture

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2004; Page C01

What else to do, upon returning from a relaxing couple of weeks at the beach, than to embark right away on a world tour of recent architecture?

A hassle-free trip, I should say, courtesy of The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, a just published, 810-page, 18-pound, $160 compendium containing about 7,500 images of more than 1,000 buildings completed since 1998 in over 75 countries.

Running the gamut: Selfridges Department Store contrasts with church spires in Birmingham, England, left. Father's House, above, in Xi'an, China. (Photos Courtesy Phaidon Press)

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Don't bother to say, "Bon voyage." I'm back. I started in Berlin Tuesday afternoon and ended on Thursday in . . . I'm not sure where. Travel fatigue had set in, despite the fact that I'd hardly left my desk. On the way to sleep at nights, a confusing kaleidoscope of images spun inside my head.

But through it all a clear impression remains. I've written often in recent years of modern architecture's remarkable renaissance, and this excellent book offers stunning global confirmation.

A quarter-century ago such a thing would have been hard to predict. The great modernist "form-givers," as they were called, were all dead, and the formal languages of modernism seemed all dried up. Worse, in its planning theories and practices, the modern movement had inflicted great harm on cities around the world.

Yet despite many pronouncements of death, the modernist pulse continued to throb -- though a lot weaker in some places than in others. In much of the United States, stoppage seemed imminent, while in much of Europe the beat went on, a bit more feeble than usual. In Japan, there was hardly a break.

Somewhere along the way, seeds were planted for a significant comeback, combining elements of reinvigoration and reinterpretation in about equal measure. It's hard to say exactly why this happened.

New technologies, materials and building techniques contributed. New ideas about structure, such as chaos theory, infiltrated architectural thought. Global capitalism provided a dynamic climate for building, and much of the wherewithal. An old artistic trait that had been temporarily discredited -- the simple desire to make something fresh and new -- vigorously resurfaced.

Whatever the concatenation of causes, the results were more and more in evidence as the 1980s rolled into the '90s. In public consciousness, the triumphant return of the modern was confirmed with the 1997 opening of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, an irresistible story with an irresistible image to go with it.

With its billowing sheets of titanium, Gehry's ship-size building on the unlovely riverbanks of a little-known industrial city in an unvisited corner of Spain made front pages and television screens all over the world. But, notably, the most famous building of the late 20th century is not included in the Phaidon atlas.

I like this. Gehry's Bilbao is history. Architecture is moving on, and, if you'll pardon the 19th-century metaphor, it's doing so with a full head of steam.

It's not that Gehry doesn't get his due. He and most of the other "starchitects" are well represented, as they should be. Stardom in the popular culture (well, relative stardom) is something new for architects, and it is refreshing to see that, in the main, this fame represents genuine creative achievement.

Thus, Gehry is represented by six post-Bilbao buildings in the book, and his 2003 Disney Hall warrants a two-page spread, an honor reserved for no more than a dozen of the entries. Foster and Partners, the taut organization that Norman Foster built in London, tops the scorecard with 14 projects. Japan's Tadao Ando, Spain's Rafael Moneo and Switzerland's Herzog & de Meuron merited, if my counting is right, nine entries each.

My only surprise in the name/numbers game is that only two buildings by the brilliant Rem Koolhaas and his Office of Metropolitan Architecture made it in. This may or may not be a pointed rebuke on the part of the editorial board -- Koolhaas is perhaps better lauded for his words than works -- but it is impossible to tell.

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