Buildings Cities Life: An Autobiography in Architecture
By Eberhard Zeidler | Dundurn Press, 2012

Does size matter in architecture? And more specifically, is the life and work of a single architect worth two hefty volumes, comprising 1,231 pages? In the case of Eberhard Zeidler’s autobiography, the answer is a qualified yes. 

Zeidler’s prolific career traversed vastly different political eras. Many of his commissions negotiated opposed interests at play in the Late Modern urban environment. In several, he wrought a distinct weave of ornamental vitality and the Modernist tradition. Some of his most significant edifices are rightly celebrated on the book covers: Toronto’s Eaton Centre, Ontario Place, and the Health Sciences Centre at McMaster University. Along with a consistent succession of signal commissions, these are examined in detail in the chronological text. 

While the autobiographical recollections of his working life can be overbearing, Zeidler’s vivid insights into professional practice and design value are fascinating. Zeidler brings the same even gaze to his written views that are evident in his carefully articulated freehand drawings, amply reproduced in both volumes. 

Two essays set a more analytical scaffold. Former Toronto mayor David Crombie touches upon the travails of market-driven urban development, now so evident in an increasingly uncivil Toronto. Historian Robert Fulford positions Zeidler within the apparent decline of Modernist architecture, while pointing to the emergence of a renewed architectonic iconography in his work. In retrospect, Zeidler avoided the flaccidity of so much Postmodernist idiom and retained the creative and conceptual force of the Modern movement. One of the valuable outcomes of this thorough exercise in documentation is a clearer picture, albeit through a single lens, of the resilience of the Modernist contribution to expressing human experience through useable space.

Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe is a professor in the Department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory at the University of British Columbia.

On Architecture: Melvin Charney, a Critical Anthology
Edited by Louis Martin | McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013

In one of the interviews which forms part of On Architecture, the multifaceted Montreal architect, artist, educator and critic Melvin Charney states: “It is clear to me that what we see is not what we say. So I work on several different levels–on different registers–at once. My texts, drawings, and constructions are operations in which you can find the same concerns superimposed on one other.” 

The idea of cross-disciplinarity pervades this seminal publication, provocatively illustrated with the photographs, media images and drawings that the late Charney used incisively throughout his 40-year-long publishing career. Thanks to the comprehensive labour of historian Louis Martin, most of the architect’s essays are gathered here, including texts translated from French to English for the first time.

Charney carefully examined elements of the urban environment as artifacts with symbolic potential. He defied orthodox aesthetic prescription, providing new insights. For instance, his “A Story…The Treasure of Trois-Rivières” (1975) reinterpreted monumentality through vernacular architecture, and the construction and forced demolition of Corridart (1976) used urban activism to question the banality of force. Charney’s belief in the liberating possibilities of contemporary landscape (a concept he dubbed the avant-garden) deeply marked his later phases of production, epitomized by the construction of a sculpture garden for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1987-90).

This rich anthology also includes texts by Louis Martin, George Baird, Georges Adamczyk and Réjean Legault. These critics have been deeply involved with international architectural debates in Canada and particularly in Quebec. Their essays historically position the significant innovative character of Charney’s activity within past and current architectural discourses.

Ricardo Castro is an associate professor at the McGill University School of Architecture. 

Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel
By Jimenez Lai | Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

“In zero gravity, all six sides of a box can be used as a plan.” Citizens of No Place

Jimenez Lai’s “architectural graphic novel” Citizens of No Place draws on all sides of the box; blurring architecture and fiction, criticism and imagination. As with many genre-benders, one might spend so much time allying the project to a tradition (manifesto, paper architecture, etc.) as to miss the point altogether.

As much as Lai’s stories are based on the comic format, they also recall the pin-up boards of an architectural studio presentation, with title blocks, didactic definitions, 3D renderings and axonometric drawings. In their content, these 10 stories subvert the kind of dogma and theory overheard in architecture studios; discussions of extraterrestrial grids, drifting and coalescing cities. Within this territory, the citizens of Lai’s “No Place” grapple in a kind of limbo (or purgatory) of architectural esoterica; full of decaying follies, ruins, oddly shaped fragments of half-remembered ghosts of propositions past.

Like many things that colonize the borderlands between one position and another, Citizens of No Place is clever, resourceful and slightly perverse. It gets under your skin. Reaching out from the borders can bring new insights but also leaves unsatisfied desires on both sides of the divide. This tension is ultimately the strength of Lai’s “No Place,” mapping a terrain that is in its very nature uncertain.

Meredith Carruthers is an artist and curator based in Montreal.