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Review: Architecture Visionaries

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Alan Gordon takes a look at the latest book in Laurence King Publishing’s ‘Visionaries’ series

Clumsy title, was my first thought on picking up a review copy of Architecture Visionaries, a forthcoming compendium of Modernist masters by the extraordinarily diversified architect, critic, author, mineralogist, fabric designer and Cardiff University professor of architecture Richard Weston.

I assumed it was thus because Jean-Claude Lemagny had squatter’s rights to the more obvious Visionary Architects with his 2002 study of utopian revolutionists Boullee, LeDoux, Lequeu et al but, prosaically, it turns out simply to be the latest in Laurence King Publishing’s ‘Visionaries’ series, which now turns to Architecture, having previously ‘done’ Photography, Fashion, Stylists and Textiles.

There’s a degree of marketeers’ hyperbole at work in the series title and it begs the question of what ‘visionaries’ might mean in the context of architecture. For Weston, they are the outstanding, radically influential exponents and innovators of the Modern movement, which he largely equates with the International Style. Their vision was to reinterpret architecture for the machine age, creating new forms with new materials while, broadly speaking and paradoxically, shifting the focus of design onto immaterial space. He has elected 75  Twentieth Century architects to his Modernist canon, arranged in roughly chronological order from Antoni Gaudí to Shigeru Ban, giving four-page profiles to each.

So it’s the usual suspects and then not some. If you’re going to put up a list of your greatest hits, it inevitably invites quibbles about who’s in and who’s out – a trivial game all can play.

A straw poll around the AJ office threw up the names of Lina Bo Bardi, Jan Kaplicky,  Wolf Prix and Cedric Price as worthy of inclusion, but absent. (Actually Price does get a mention alongside Archigram as an influence on Richard Rogers).

More exuberant visionaries in another, time-honoured sense of the word – denoting those given to fantastical speculation with less regard to what is practicable – are also unconsidered. So you won’t find Paul Laffoley or Laurie Chetwood, for examples. You have to have had a significant body of work built out, to be in.

No matter. It’s a handsome reference handbook, thoughtfully put together with timelines and potted biography for each of the Elect and, more usefully, a focus on the buildings. And you can’t quibble with the publisher’s choice of author. His Modernism (1996) is Phaidon’s best-selling overview of the art and design aspects of the movement, while highly regarded monographs of Jørn Utzon (2002 and, with Weston’s privileged access to the later recluse’s papers, the definitive study) and Alvar Aalto (1995, Sir Banister Fletcher Prize Architecture Book of the Year) feature among his publications.

Students will use Architecture Visionaries as a handy reference work and introduction and those in practice might turn to it for inspiration or simply for the fascination of surveying Modernism’s key players and buildings in one volume.

Architecture Visionaries, by Richard Weston, published 17 August 2015 by Laurence King Publishing, 312 pages, paperback, RRP £24.95

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