Architecture: pyramids to Pompidou Center; Anatomy of Architecture, by George Mansell. New York: A & W Publishers, Inc. $ 19.95; The Architect's Eye, American Architectural Drawings from 1799-1978, by Deborah Nevins and Robert A. M. Stern. New York: Pantheon Books. $35.; Johnson/Burgee: Architecture, the Buildings and Projects of Philip Johnson and John Burgee, by Nory Miller. New York: Random House. $35.
Together, these three books provide an up-to-date tour of the modern architect's world. "Anatomy of Architecture" is an omnium-gatherum, dense, compressed, yet politely unhurried. George Mansell considers architectural form from the pyramids to Pompidou Center, cramming an astonishing amount of information and hundreds of illustrations into fewer than 200 pages.
In Mansell's view, style in European architecture has always been international, although modified in national expression, and change has never been sudden. "There was always a preparatory period when innovation was introduced into old and tried methods," he writes. "This process went on until a recognizable form was apparent and received sufficient support from the architects and craftsmen of the time to give it continuity."
We follow Mansell under the skins of buildings, to grasp the strategies by which architects achieve equilibrium in defiance of natural laws. We see, for instance, how the weight of domes is borne, transmitted, buttressed, and stabilized.
Of the hundreds of photographs in the book, none is ordinary, and some have vivid presence. An English firm, Product Support (Graphics) Ltd. has contributed a set of lucid cutaway drawings which provide the "anatomy" of the title, which render the invisible visible and inform us, more clearly than a building could, of its inner life. The drawings are simple yet sophisticated, and charm us into being instructed. This is a primer, after all.
"The Architect's Eye" is a coolly elegant book, a showcase devised by Deborah Nevins and Robert A. M. Stern for 200 years of American architectural drawings.
Stern sees drawings as permanent memoranda of the architects's conception which, unlike buildings, are impervious to change. They stand as evidence, and appeal as works of art.
The book begins with drawings which antedate the profession, and ends with axonometric drawings and models which confront the eye with seemingly coded information. Early drawings seem almost naive, but later work reaches a plateau of expression: Hugh Ferriss's brooding and powerful sketches; William Lescaze's tense figure-in-a-landscape which happens to be a perspective drawing of a house.
The authors call Susana Torre's plans "a working drawing of the mind." Her work reminds one of a cerebral presentation by a team of renderers which, like the product of a computer, requires scanning.
We can also move backward in time and pages to the influence of humanism: to Jefjerson's Rotunda at the university of Virginia, limned within a circle imperceptible on-site, but hereafter imprinted on the mind; to Calvin Pillard's dignified interpretation of the Tuscan order; to the sinuous line of the Brothers Greene.
If there is a common denominator to this collection, it is character, the mark of the artist upon his work. The text of "The Architect's Eye" is relentlessly learned, occasionally witty. Despite its determined slickness the book is inevitably a human document. The drawings overwhelm the text in a victory of line, a triumph of personality.
"Johnson/Burgee: Architecture," by Nory Miller, with photographs by Richard Payne, is an escorted tour of the buildings and work-in-progress of the 15 -year-old firm of Philip Johnson and John Burgee.
The firms entire body of work is an about-face for Philip Johnson, whose earlier work was noted for its severe and elegant purity. Although Johnson scorned art deco and art moderne, his Post Oak Central I & II, speculative commercial buildings in Houston, are unquestionably "moderne."
Author Miller writes: "Decades later . . . as he was in the midst of working his way out of the dead end he felt the glass-box tower had eventually become, Johnson could re-evaluate his position and write: 'Those former enemies now look more interesting, more rich in association, in metaphor, in decorative abundance , than the style which we espoused.'" She also quotes John Burgee on the project: "'We thought of the cheapest things you could do, and they were ribbon windows, setbacks and curved corners.'"
Johnson/Burgee also designed the facade for 1001 Fifth Avenue, New York City, an apartment building beset by controversy. The firm stepped in at the last moment, its plans constrained somewhat by the existing interio, and by the necessity to please a variety of friends-of-architecture by blending the new facade with those of its neighbors. "What the architects did was sift through a historical kit of parts . . ." for a facade which "defers to anything and everything," Miller writes. The resulting facade is waspish, as if the firm determined to show once and for all the inimical results of neighborly interference. But it is a heartless project, an office joke at New York City's expense.
Now, according to Miller, the firm has reached another turning point: "Their consciously revivalist designs are now presented without the armature of paying respect to a neighboring landmark." Hence the uproar over such projects as the New York tower for AT&T: its controversial broken pediment is doubly derivative, echoing not so much the architecture as the furniture of neo-classicism.
In their work on the headquarters for pittsburgh Plate Glass, the firm apparently has considered the genius locim (the spirit of the place). There, a surface of mirrored glass, which appears solid, will be treated as a facade of stone, in neighborly neogothic fantasy, positively the last word on the skyscraper as cathedral-rampant.
Miller presents the massive yet refined Art Museum of South Texas; the looming, elegantly detailed I.D.S. Center in Minneapolis; the hard-edge sculpture of Pennzoil Place in Houston (whose wings must surely cast shade on one another part of the day); the ugly duckling General American Life Insurance Company in St. Louis; the crystalline theatrics of the proposed "Cathedral" for the Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller in Garden Grove, Calif. -- all in the same even tone, without special praise or demur.
Does Nory Miller find all this work, some of it contradictory, equally satisfying? She presents the Johnson/Burgee point of view, not her own. We are left with unasked and unanswered questions.