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Offbeat atlases map architecture, art, and whimsy

New books spark outside-the-box thinking through imaginative graphics.

By Norman Weinstein, Contributor / December 2, 2008



Ask to see an atlas at a bookstore or library, or type "atlas" into an Internet search engine, and you might expect a map collection highlighting geographic regions – and yet an atlas can assume myriad identities.

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An atlas can illustrate global historical and political trends, display migratory bird flights or economic trade patterns. It can assume the form of satirizing atlases. The Onion's "Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth" pokes fun at the rigid seriousness of most atlases by claiming, "Now With 30% More Asia!"

Four recent publications, just in time for the holiday season, contribute to this ever-expanding reconsideration of the atlas as an eye-opening educational tool and visual entertainment.

THE PHAIDON ATLAS OF 21ST CENTURY WORLD ARCHITECTURE (Phaidon, $195)

Ancient Greek mythology associated the character Atlas with the strength to hold up the planet, and you might need Atlas-like strength to hold "The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture," a weighty and spectacularly produced atlas containing photographs and drawings of over a thousand exemplary examples of international buildings by more than 600 architects. The selection was made by a team that included London School of Economics faculty and represents a generous spread of unknowns as well as starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas. The large photographs of interiors and exteriors are detailed and atmospheric, and concise explanations are models of erudition and clarity. For any architecture lover, this atlas offers a wealth of buildings reflecting new technologies, new and recycled materials, and novel shapes (the famous Beijing Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium, a concrete loop-the-loop of a spa by Spain's Justo García Rubio, an amoeba-shaped German university by the Swiss team of Herzog & de Meuron). Here is proof that globalization doesn't ruthlessly standardize design as much as promote local variations on outside-the-box thinking.

ATLAS OF VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE OF THE WORLD (Routledge, $90)