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Buildings in context

If you're moving office, home or underground, or simply find urban design moving, then this current crop of books, compiled by Austin Williams, may hold something for you

Building Type Basics for Office Buildings By A Eugene Kohn and Paul Katz. John Wiley, 2002. £51.95

This book is the latest volume in Wiley's Building Type Basics series and is based on a course taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as part of the school's professional development programme with architect Kohn Pedersen Fox, writes Kate Trant. Other building types looked at in the series include healthcare, schools and museums.

The book has many successful elements. It opens with an acknowledgement of the particular complexities of this building type, the range of consultants and expertise required, and the need for that team of consultants to be in place early in the project planning; the importance of a good brief recurs throughout. The authors locate office buildings within their historical context, tracing the development of the building type from its beginnings to the contemporary model we know today, including the contribution of material and technological developments.

They deal well with the way the evolved (and evolving) office building model sits in its cultural context, identifying the iconic office building as one way in which corporate culture is reflected. Much of the text identifies the difficulties associated with designing for different client types - from a single user through to a speculative project with no known client. It outlines the difficulties encountered in designing for future flexibility and for unpredictable developments, looking carefully at the impact of changing working practices on the workplace environment, both building form and interior. The authors identify at the outset the impact that workplace design has on staff performance, recruitment and retention.

The difficulties start when the book attempts to fulfil two roles at once, trying to provide both general overview and specific advice. The general essays range from North America to Europe and beyond, offering a range of principles to consider, but most of the detailed analysis is focused on North America.

In addition, the book's practical focus and pragmatic approach prevents it from dealing with any real design principles until the case study section, where, owing to the origins of the book, all are buildings by KPF.

Design-wise, the drawings are too small and, even taking on board the statement that this is not a coffee table book, the black and white images are strangely lacking in contrast.

Overall, the book offers a series of important principles to consider and a wide range of information. As such, it forms a starting point from which to begin specific research.

Personally, I would rather have read this within a context that involved an overview of a range of practitioners in the field rather than the view from a single practice.

Kate Trant is an exhibition and media consultant

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