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An Armchair Tour of Modern Architecture

Actually, the book may have been put together robotically. Or, that's the impression one gets from absence of any editorial credits in the book itself. Publicity materials say that each project was "nominated by a panel of leading names in the international field of architecture, including critics, curators, journalists, academics and practitioners." (My name, by the way, wasn't among them.)

In any case, it's astounding that Koolhaas's richly compelling 2003 Student Union at the Illinois Institute of Technology (the Chicago campus designed by form-giver Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), did not make the cut. Neither did Helmut Jahn's splendid new dormitory there.


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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Chicago, with one entry, got pretty much passed by. Our fair city was totally ignored. This is a shame because recent Washington works by Shalom Baranes, or Mark McInturff, or Philip Esocoff, say, are as good as many things in the book. Like much else, I suppose, it's a matter of getting on the "right" lists.

However, there is little question that whoever did put the book together basically did it well. I certainly enjoyed and profited from my two-day tour. Why did I start in Berlin? The reassurance of familiarity, I guess, and the excitement of that rebuilding city.

During my brief "stay" in the city, lasting no more than an hour at my desk, I reacquainted myself with some favorites, wondered why one or two were missing, and made a few new acquaintances.

Also, I learned to appreciate the simplicity of the book's format, and its size. Measuring 18 by 12 1/2 by 2 1/4 inches when closed, and weighing, as I said, 18 pounds, the book is a tough carry, even with its molded plastic carrying case.

But flat on a tabletop, it's a pleasure to use. You quickly understand that the size is needed for legibility of the images. Just as quickly, you appreciate the concision of the information: A brief text for each entry, a short list of facts (including cost in dollars), excellent descriptive photographs in color and, perhaps most important, site plans, floor plans and cross-sectional drawings.

Altogether, it's an impressive package. Comparisons are easy, and skipping from place to place is irresistible. Intending the sharpest of contrasts, I went from Berlin to Africa, and was not disappointed. Imported modern architecture often looks out of place in the developing world, but the reverse is also true: Home-grown modernism works beautifully as a response to local problems.

No building in the book is more straightforwardly pleasing and appropriate to its context than the tree house designed by architect Ahadu Abaineh in Ethiopia -- literally built with living trees (and some other natural materials). It took six weeks to build, cost $3,000, and can be replicated. Abaineh, we are told, "has planted groves of indigenous seedlings to grow into future buildings."

I went to China, too. And Chile. And stopped in Bilbao, where they have not stopped constructing splendid buildings. There's a crisply convincing technology center, an impressive concert hall and a fantastic new airport.


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