Ask 10 critics, architects and curators to each choose 10 architects. Proclaim that they form '100 of the world's most exceptional emerging architects'. Publish it complete with introductions and acknowledgements in a strikingly packaged 'weighty' tome fit for a coffee table. And upsy-daisy: another bestseller. Publishing is pretty easy.
Phaidon - which has a wonderful list of publications to its name and a respectable history - stunned us last year with the Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, an overview of 1000 buildings completed around the world over the past five years gathered in a book whose format makes it unreadable. With 10x10_2, Phaidon has repeated the success formula of five years ago and, like its predecessor, the quantity and density make serious reading almost impossible. 10 critics, 100 architects, 250 projects, 1500 images: more is evidently recommended, but who's it for?
If you pick up the book - an act that requires well-tuned biceps - and flick through it for an initial impression, you'll immediately be assaulted by the density of images. Not a page contains fewer than four pictures. More, much more, is the motto. The type page is almost entirely filled with project photos that abut one another. White areas for texts and drawings occasionally interrupt this onslaught of images. Encouraging one to read the text hardly seems to be the intention. For how else can you explain a font that's difficult to read and dense columns of text? That said, the contemporary reader of books on architecture is used to bouts of graphic harassment and isn't easily discouraged. So is it worth persevering with this book?
There are two interesting aspects to the formula: it says something about the selectors and it says something about those selected, and together perhaps something about the state of current architecture. First of all, it's worth while learning what opinion-makers really think is important. Which architects do they choose and why? Unfortunately, the book's structure shrouds the answer to this question. Although the selectors are introduced by an essay, a selection of references, and a résumé, hard work is needed to find out who selected which offices. The selected architects are arranged alphabetically and not, as might seem more obvious, in groups of 10 per selector. A massive 450 pages but no space for the ten lists of the selectors. So you have to read though carefully to find out who selected each particular office (noted in the acknowledgement text included for each architect).
Then the architects themselves. What image and type of architecture do the world's most exceptional emerging architects present? Alas, this book doesn't allow you to form an informed view on the subject. Sure enough, they are almost all interesting offices and often particularly good projects. Each and every one of them is worth close study. But the sheer quantity and diversity of what's presented and the restless graphic design hinder the reader from reaching a considered conclusion. You could of course justify such information congestion and excess by claiming that we're living in a zap culture and the contemporary reader must be able to find his way through this information overkill. But that's nonsense. A book like this should serve as a reference guide, not a sales catalogue.
Out of boredom, and partly out of exasperation because I'd already picked up the book three or four times only to put in down again with a sigh, I started to look up some statistics in the registers at the back.
What, for example, is the ideal age for an emerging architect? The youngest architect featured is Neil David (born in 1977) of N-O-M-A-D, a collective of ten spring chickens all under 35. Good years for emerging architects are 1963, '64 and '65 (10 featured architects were born in 1963, 9 in 1965, and 6 in 1964 - that's 25% of the total). The average age of the emerging architect is around 44. Francisco Serrano from Mexico (born in 1937) is proof that age needn't necessarily form an obstacle. Apparently even those at a pensionable age can still be ranked among the 'promising generation'. Tony Fretton and Chris Wilkinson (both born in 1945 and kids in comparison to Serrano of course) are also included.
Where were these emerging architects educated? They studied at a surprisingly large number of schools (I counted around 60 in all). Distinguished schools such as the ETH, Columbia University and the AA score highest (each produced 6 emerging architects). Delft University of Technology is also well-represented with 3 offices (NL Architects, Kas Oosterhuis and Claus en Kaan) and even draws level with ETH, Columbia and AA if you count individuals rather than offices (4 NL-ers and 2 Claus-en-Kaans). Notable 'producers' are the universities of Melbourne and Mexico City, both of which account for 6 architects. That seemed a little strange but everything became clear when I started considering cities.
Where are the emerging architects based? London, New York and Tokyo score highly and are home to 6, 5 and 4 emerging architects respectively. Melbourne (6), Mexico City (4), Dublin (4), and Seoul (4) suddenly, and surprisingly, appear to be breeding grounds for emerging architecture. A major undertaking but let's see who chose which offices. It turns out that Miquel Adria (editor-in-chief of Mexican magazine Arquine) picked all 4 offices from Mexico City; likewise, Jong-Kyu Kim was responsible for choosing the 4 offices from Seoul; and Deyan Sudjic displayed a striking preference for Dublin (the fourth Dublin office was chosen by Alberto Campo Baeza). Davina Jackson, former editorial member of Architecture Australia and author of Australian Architecture Now, went furthest. She limited herself to Australian offices, 6 of them from Melbourne. Hmmm…nothing wrong with a bit of chauvinism, or even a bit of local promotion, but there are limits. It does, however, explain why you have to do some serious study to discover who chose which offices. Luckily there are unadulterated internationalists like Zaha Hadid and Frédéric Migaryou (both of whom display a preference for international 'network offices') to restore some sense of balance.
What can you do with this book apart from leaf through and keep a tally? I don't know. Reading it from start to finish seems impossible. Nor is it ideal for further study. As so often, the survey says more about the selectors than the selected. Anyone interested in finding out which books, films, music and, if necessary, architects are held in most esteem by the 10 critics will find 10x10_2 an excellent reference work. But the book features too little information about the selected offices to make anything but the most cursory introduction possible.
Some of the projects are more than worth while but the accompanying information is too scanty for a full understanding of the plans. Additional publications therefore need to be consulted.
A book worth buying?
Hmmm…More in this case turns out to be Less.
For coffee table collectors only.