20th-Century World Architecture in One Book?

Book Review: The Phaidon Atlas

The Great Mosque of Mopti in Mali, Africa, an imposing earthen structure built in the traditional Sudanese style, 1907
The Great Mosque of Mopti in Mali, Africa, built in the early 20th century. Photo by Sebastien CAILLEUX / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

From the 1903 Flatiron Building in New York City to the 1997 Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to the 1907 earthen Great Mosque in Mali, Africa, world architecture of the 20th century is a rich mix of styles and construction methods. Editors of the 2012 Phaidon Atlas of 20th-Century World Architecture asked hundreds of specialists to make choices, and the result is a hefty volume, filled with color and black-and-white images.

Book Details:

  • Size Opened: 25 ½ inches wide and 17 ¾ inches tall
  • Pages: 832 (conventional page numbers are accompanied by building number identifiers)
  • Number of Different Buildings: 757
  • Geographic Organization: The world is divided into six mapped regions (Oceana, Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America), each identified by one of six colors. Each region is further divided, with additional maps (e.g., North America is divided into Canada, USA West, USA East, Mexico, and Central America / Caribbean).
  • Photos: estimated total of 3,000 color and 2,500 black and white; large and small photos, with each view identified
  • Physical: bound hardback with cardboard carrying case; printed in China
  • Page Details: With a few exceptions, a full page is dedicated to a single building. Each page, dominated by photos and drawings, presents descriptive text:
    >>  Name of Geographic Region (color coded; see above)
    >>  Country Name
    >>  Building Number (artificial sequential numbering for identification convenience)
    >>  Building Location (within a country)
    >>  Building Name
    >>  Year of Completion
    >>  Three-Letter Building Type Abbreviation (e.g., REL for religious building)
    >>  Architect or Architectural Firm
    >>  Cross-references to the arthictect's other buildings included in the Phaidon Atlas
    >>  Name of client
    >>  Geographical coordinates of the building, if not confidential

    Reasons to Buy or (at least) Use This Book:

    The 2012 Phaidon Atlas is not simply a picture book of pretty photographs. Additional information provides context to the architectural works.

    • Informative Text: Well-written descriptions of the building, often including architectural influences
    • Elevation Drawings & Plans: Sketches and drawings illustrate construction details.
    • Maps: Maps throughout the book not only identify the location of the buildings, but introductory maps at the front of the book provide context for a century of architecture. The Introductory World Maps include: Building Locations; Trade Flows between Colonies (1900, 1939, 1973, 1999); Architect Migration Patterns (1900, 1939, 1973+); and Climate Zones.
    • Indexes: Informative listings at the back of the book include a five-page, visual Building Type Index (e.g, commercial, government, religious, educational, infrastructure, cultural, residential) by region and building name; a seven page Index of Architects and Practices with limited personal information such as birth/death dates and places, and world locations associated with the architect (e.g., Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan from 1915-1920); a four page Index of Buildings listed by building name, with the architect's name and year of completion—useful information by itself; and a one page Index of Places, which can quickly refer a traveler to local 20th century architecture.
    • Accessible Architecture: Many of the buildings and structures are open to the public. For example, the Erdefunkstelle Aflenz Ground Signal Station in Austria (building no. 371) is open all year for free. The Atlas is not a tourism vehicle, but the variety of building types makes visiting accessible.
    • Serendipity: The great value of a book like this is in the pleasant surprises you can stumble upon. For example, in the Australian region is a black-and-white photo of a mid-century modern European-looking residence called the Rose Seidler House. The accompanying text explains that Austrian-Australian architect Harry Seidler was mentored by the Bauhaus architects, including Marcel Breuer. This house, built for his parents, was Seidler's first and is now iconic in Australia's architectural history.

    On the Other Hand, It Is What It Is:

    The following caveats may be considered before purchasing the Phaidon Atlas:

    • The Building Type Index (see above) clearly shows a bias toward residential buildings.
    • The text accompanying the images is useful but difficult to read. The font size is small and lacks sufficient contrast.
    • Choosing an array of architecture from the twentieth century is a daunting task. Phaidon's choices are expansive but not necessarily inclusive.
    • The text descriptions are sometimes limited. For example, the 1910 St. John's Presbyterian Church (building no. 579) is a fine example by California architect Julia Morgan—including this Arts and Craft building in a book of world architecture makes a lot of sense. But it is misleading to think of this as a representative work by the architect. The accompanying text does not mention Morgan's most famous (and popular) building, Hearst Castle.
    • A specific century is an artificial mark of time, especially when considering architects born in mid-century. For example, Zaha Hadid, born in 1950, is rightfully represented by her first built project, the Vitra Fire Station (building no. 335). However, her architecture is underrepresented because she came of age in the 21st century.
    • This "coffee table book" may break your table—the Atlas is heavy. Very heavy. Physically large and constructed of sturdy stock, this book is not intended to transport from room to room.

    The Bottom Line:

    Opened, the book's glossy surface enables the eye to scan over 400 square inches in a single glance—a great advantage over an iPad or other digital tablet. The focus of this big, bold, beautiful book is clearly on buildings and structures, yet thorough indexing makes it an introductory course to great architects and architecture of the twentieth century.

    20th-Century World Architecture: The Phaidon Atlas

    Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.