The cast of characters is mostly familiar as are the images of their works, with a few surprises. Yet the new book by Yael Reisner, with Fleur Watson—“Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with architects about a troubled relationship”—stands out from routine compendia about contemporary architecture, because of its probing texts about the architects and their work. Based on exclusive interviews by Reisner with each featured architect, the texts offer critical evaluations altogether lacking today in most architecture books, which seem content with generalized commentaries. Our image-obsessed publishing culture often serves up the tasty visuals, but without much intellectual nutrition—a kind of fast-food approach that not only leaves us hungry, but also undernourished and ill-prepared to form considered judgments. This fascinating book sets out to give us plenty to think about, and so it does.

The well-written and unpretentious essays peer into the thoughts, aspirations, and, occasionally, even methods of the architects, often with carefully selected quotations from the interviews. The following are a few examples, with sample illustrations.



“Gehry firmly rejects the notion that self-expression is a capricious act within the design process. Conversely, he believes that signature and democracy are integrally interlinked and, in fact, when an architect surpresses his or her emotions within the design process, it is an act that ‘talks down to people’ and does not allow a full engagement with architecture. Certainly, the role of self-expression and its legitimacy in architecture is a familiar issue within architectural discourse, and one that resurfaces with a sense of self-righteousness with the digital realm. As a result, Gehry’s position is consolidated by years of battling criticism that his architecture is too derivative of the art world—too sculptural and expressive. His response to this critique is clear and direct: ‘To deny the validity of self-expression is akin to not believing in democracy—it’s a basic value—if you believe in democracy then you must allow for personal expression.'”


“Undoubtedly, Cook has produced projects and buildings that are striking and provocative yet it is difficult to claim that his work—while pictorial—has ever engaged with a concern for conventional aesthetics. ‘The concept of aesthetics is a construct and a way of manipulating forces. For example, you can have an aesthetic of a conversation by introducing different subtopics such as balance, surprise, and intrigue,’ he declares. ‘The Modernist aesthetic was a specific language and much of Modernism is linked to socialism and indirectly to a form of ascetic puritanism. You only have to read the text of someone like Hannes Meyer to feel the moral insistence.’ Cook advocates an engagement with delight and holds an inherent mistrust of overly righteous values. ‘I was always irritated by piety: I’m too much of a natural hedonist. Yet I still proceed in a design with a mental checklist that involves ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decisions, ‘rules,’ ‘sequences of action’ that have been trained into me from the Modernist ethic.’”


“Alsop rejects the idea that he has a signature style and states that he finds it hard to understand the need for an overarching philosophy, as each project requires it own frame of reference and investigation. He claims that technology now affords the possibility to design anything. It is only a question of budget that restricts the process. However, he does acknowledge that there is characteristic thread through his work. ‘I can see that there is something that could be described as ‘Alsopesque.’ But if I said ‘draw me an Alsop building, you couldn’t really do it. You could draw a building I’ve done, but you couldn’t draw my next building. I like that because I don’t know what my next building will be and it continues to challenge me.’”


“‘I think that the question of aesthetics within architecture is often equated with a question of moralization. So if you want to escape this oppressive doctrine of moralization then you have to be brave.’ Decq recalls a discussion with Massimiliano Fuksas prior to him curating the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000 that challenged the notion that aesthetics and ethics couod not coexist. ‘I said to him that he couldn’t set the theme of ‘Less Aesthetics. More Ethics” because you can’t disregard aesthetics completely. It’s just not possible, because all human beings appreciate beauty—we are used to admiring, caring and being engaged by aesthetics in nature.’”


“Diaz Alonso’s work has created a new approach to the architectural design process within digital culture, where the image is embraced as a primary generator for the work. As he explains: ‘I’m absolutely shameless about the heavy use of rendering within our work and the fact that we use shadow, reflection and so on as a vehicle for the direction of form. We work with computer renderings in a generative way from the very beginning of a project where we will start to speculate with color, reflection and so on. This starts to dictate the manipulation of the geometry and the form according to the effect we are trying to produce through the image.’ Continuing, he suggests: ‘The difference between my work and the way other people work with these tools is that the image is something that is produced at the end of process, while we will start to speculate from the very beginning so that the image becomes the genetic code.’”

The full line-up: Will Alsop, Peter Cook, Odile Decq, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Frank O. Gehry, Mark Goulthorpe, Zaha Hadid, Zvi Hecker, Kol/Mac, Greg Lynn, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Juhani Pallasmaa, Gaetano Pesce, Wolf D. Prix, Lebbeus Woods.

“Architecture and Beauty” is available online:

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