There have been more books published in the past decade than in the entire, prior 500year history of the printed book. And anyone walking into a good bookshop might reasonably suppose that a large proportion of them have addressed architecture. The sheer range of architectural monographs, histories and theories on offer - to say nothing of the interdisciplinary and related fields of art, critical theory, urbanism etc - means that it is nigh on impossible for anyone in architecture to keep abreast of what is happening in the field.
Apart from making yet another addition to the groaning shelves, the new '4x4' series just launched by Thames & Hudson seems to have this problem very much in mind. Each of the first four volumes (Cool Construction by Raymund Ryan and Radical Tectonics by Annette LeCuyer will be published soon) takes four buildings by four architects - 16 buildings in all - under a common theme.
The publisher's back cover asserts that this adds up to 'a dynamic new series that combines the best features of the monograph and the thematic survey in an informationpacked collage of images, ideas and architecture.' In short, 4x4 is a way of finding out about new architectural work while learning something about the various theories involved, without having to fork out for a fistful of monographs, or wading through a large theoretical tome.
Given these aims, the main rival for the 4x4 series must be the thematised issues of ADmagazine, which supply a range of differing viewpoints, authors and projects.
Although 4x4 cannot compete with the multiplicity of a typical AD, where it does score is in the relative depth at which each architect and their buildings are considered.
In Techno Architecture, for example, the improvisational nature of RoTo's architecture is well brought out, through the low-tech, low-energy Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, where purely local resources and a simple assembly system produce a determinedly non-High-Tech creation; and, by contrast, the haute-bourgeois Carlson Reges Residence, where scavenged industrial parts are used to construct the building, frame views and create an architectural language and symbolism.
Where Techno Architecture succeeds as a volume is in its relatively simplistic theme: the use of technology for the purposes of structural and creative play, in distinction to the slick imagery and surface aesthetic of much High-Tech and digital architecture.
Hence the other architects - Ten Arquitectos from Mexico; Smith-Miller + Hawkinson from New York; and Jones, Partners from Los Angeles - can also be held within the same encompassing rubric, and Elizabeth Smith makes sure that the themes of her introduction, which focuses largely on the Maison de Verre and Eames House, are reintroduced in these architects' work.
By contrast, Concrete Regionalism is less successful.Although Catherine Slessor works hard in her introduction at producing a runthrough of how architects in history have variously responded to local conditions, inevitably this is too large an issue to be dealt with satisfactorily in the 4x4 format. The attempt to limit the field by focusing on those architects - here Antoine Predock, Tadao Ando, Wiel Arets and Ricardo Legorreta - who work with concrete may help with the selection process, but it adds little to the discussion.Why concrete in particular? What specific properties might make it suitable for exploration of regionalism? There are implicit answers here, but Slessor does little to bring them together.
Overall, 4x4 is the proverbial curate's egg.
If I might rewrite the cover blurb, this is 'an interesting new series that combines some of the elements of the monograph and thematic survey in an informative, if at times frustrating, introduction to some of the main ideas and buildings'. Also, it is worth saying, each volume is only £12.95 - pretty cheap as far as architectural publications go nowadays. So, get it if a particular issue takes your fancy - and ignore it if it does not.
Iain Borden is director of architectural history and theory at the Bartlett, UCL