On 01.11.16, the New York City architectural community converged at the Center for Architecture to celebrate the newest tome by beloved critic, writer, and educator Kenneth Frampton, Assoc. AIA. The first Oculus Book Talk of the year had a particularly jovial air, as Frampton’s new book, A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form, is the result of 40 years of teaching, and it seemed everyone in the audience had taken his classes at Princeton or Columbia.

Frampton’s synopsis of the book and subsequent conversation with architectural intellectual and Princeton professor Stan Allen, FAIA, was one of those instances where we remember why we love buildings. His lecture mirrored the opening chapters of his Genealogy and showed why he is considered one of the most generous thinkers in the architecture today. He explained his pedagogical mission to align architectural theory with the work in the architectural studio. The book even cites how many times a student was to meet with him while developing coursework. With this book, we have the key to East Coast design thinking for the last few decades.

Frampton explained that, though the class had been called “Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form,” the eminent publisher Lars Muller felt that “Genealogy” was a better word for this mapping of Modernism.

So Genealogy it is, and the reader is able to see the force of Le Corbusier’s work compared to Aalto’s, which is then aligned with a Mies Van de Rohe, and so on. The book presents 14 comparisons between two Modernist projects, illustrating the evolution of the movement. Two pedagogical approaches stand out after reviewing the pairings. The first is the wonderful ability of tectonic descriptions to illustrate the formal preoccupations of each pair of projects. The other, most noteworthy aspect of Frampton’s work is his ability to identify the cultural climate around each building. Pairing two buildings built within five years of each other, he paints a detailed political picture of the era. This makes the narrative of Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa Del Fascio and Gunnar Asplund’s Gothenberg Law Court (both built within a year of each other) almost jaw-dropping.

A shortfall of the format is that, for more recent buildings such as the pairing of Steven Holl Architects’s Y-House and Patkau Architects’ Barnes House, it is harder to identify the cultural climate. The building’s reason for being either has not manifested because it’s too early to be placed in historical context, or because the project is just not strong enough to have historical importance.

All of the recent buildings have descriptions that cite middle-class clients and refer to an agricultural vernacular because they are predominantly “country houses” or second homes. These projects seem dull and sad – and even slightly disingenuous-middle class, especially after reading how Le Corbusier had organized the Villa Sarabhai in relation to the Indian caste system, and the construction techniques used were an outgrowth of the Nehru governmental policy of building within the “intermediate technology” via local craftsman.

The book in itself is disarmingly chic: a handsome chartreuse linen cover, iconic Lars Muller type, and the graphics just under-designed enough to not feel constricted. Frampton explained that the comparison format, examining two buildings together, allowed him and editor Ashley Simon to lay the book out themselves for greatest impact. Though by the end of the book the rigor of the format gets a bit weary, the ratio of images to the very dense captioning works well, and the section and floor plan diagrams are superb.

This book is a gift to the architectural community at large. By setting up journalistic comparisons and presenting to an audience of architects, Frampton has deftly challenged us to be more sensitive designers and craft better buildings. Thank you, Mr. Frampton.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.11.16
Speakers: Kenneth Frampton, Assoc. AIA, Professor, Columbia University, A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form; and Stan Allen, FAIA, Professor, Princeton University
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee