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The bigger the better: Elements of Architecture coalesce

Elements of Architecture is the latest, and weightiest, product of Irma Boom and Rem Koolhaas’s collaboration so far, but does size matter?

‘For me a book is always about scale’, Irma Boom claims. Scale is a defining feature of her latest publication, Elements of Architecture, which comes in at a hefty 2,528 pages. The book is the most recent manifestation of the research produced by a large team under the guidance of Rem Koolhaas for the 2014 Elements of Architecture exhibition at his Venice Architecture Biennale. 

Much of its content has been published before in 15 smaller slim volumes, also designed by Boom, that acted as a kind of catalogue for the exhibition inside the central pavilion of the Biennale’s Giardini. Each was dedicated to a different one of the fundamental ‘elements’ of architecture defined by Koolhaas: roof, window, facade, corridor, and so on. The books were used throughout the exhibition in various ways, with triple-sized versions of the texts printed and attached to the walls to be flicked through by visitors, as well as pasted directly onto the walls and floor, doubling as part of the content of each of the ‘element’ themed rooms: ‘We always said “the book is the exhibition and the exhibition is the book”.’

Elements

Elements

Source: Taschen

Published by Taschen in October 2018, Elements of Architecture is based on research by AMO’s students at Harvard, which also formed the basis for Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale and the accompanying anthology of 15 volumes.

But the new book is the size and format in which the content was always intended to be presented from the beginning. ‘When I joined the team six years ago – OMA, AMO, Harvard – we were always talking about one book’, remembers Boom. ‘We decided 15 books was easier to manage than one for the Biennale because of the book’s thickness – a thick book is really difficult to produce.’ In theory, the previous version presented readers with the choice of buying just one ‘element’ and stuffing it in their back pocket to pull out whenever there were a few minutes to spare; like dipping in and out of a collection of short stories. A student might have been able to afford one ‘element’ – at £100 the new Elements of Architecture represents a more serious investment. 

Koolhaas and Boom have a long-standing relationship and a shared interest in the construction of complex objects. The two met in the 1990s, after both producing prodigiously thick books (Boom’s SHV Think Book 1996-1896 in 1996 and S,M,L,XL by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau in 1995). Elements of Architecture has more pages – although Boom’s experimental approach to paper stock means it isn’t actually fatter, choosing the soft, transparent paper used for medicine information leaflets.

Elements of Architecture is perhaps the best expression of the collaborative process Boom and Koolhaas have developed over the last 21 years. Most of the books they’ve made have not been for public consumption, including texts for between 40 and 50 of Koolhaas’s competition entries – among them OMA’s China Central Television Centre in Beijing and the firm’s first London building designed for the Rothschild Bank.

Their first published collaboration was Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, of 2011, with content by Koolhaas and uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. With its fine paper and use of colour to define different types of content, it’s easy to identify some of the design logic that has evolved through their relationship and reappears in Elements of Architecture

Koolhaas has described Boom as having the best ‘radar’ for good content and treats her as an editor as much as a designer. She describes their work process as informal, organic and fluid, ‘a little how the book feels to touch, very supple’. The two live minutes apart in Amsterdam, and the architect visits Boom’s studio almost every day when they’re working on a project, sometimes twice, to talk about ideas and progress. ‘Rem really allows me to enter his field and I allow him to enter mine’, says Boom. ‘There is a merging. He understands that there is this sequence, a scale, and a story to tell, and that makes working with Rem – easy I will not say because he is very demanding – but I learned from it.’ 

The Biennale's Central Pavilion

At the Biennale

The 15 volumes of Elements (here, the elevator) were often scaled up and attached to the walls of the different rooms in the Biennale’s Central Pavilion.

At the time of the Biennale and the 15-volume catalogue, Koolhaas proclaimed that architecture was in trouble and needed to go back to its fundamentals; re-examine the history and potential – political, social, good, bad – of its basic elements. But this argument was rarely made clear in the publications themselves, and the burden was often on the reader to make connections and interpret the data. Barbara Penner described the approach in the August 2014 issue of the AR as: ‘less about conventional authorship and curation than collation and accumulation’ that left the books ‘full of cracks’. Critic Samuel Medina described the publications as ‘maddening’. 

In some ways, Elements of Architecture is a more accessible read, aided considerably by an introduction by Koolhaas written in 2014 and a new essay by Stephan Trüby, which provide some much-needed context. These additions form part of a new, neon orange chapter in the middle of the book, along with the index, an atmospheric photo essay by Wolfgang Tillmans and photographs of the Biennale. 

With 15 ‘Elements’ in one tome, Boom argues: ‘It’s just one piece, like a house, made up of different elements’.

Boom has designed an innovative split spine that allows the pages of the book to fall flat despite its thickness. This means that the book falls open naturally to the centre, hence the decision to put the introduction in the middle. The bright orange is a continuation of the neons of the cover, designed with Koolhaas to act as a direct contrast to the muted tones used for the original 15 books, and carries through from the thick spine, which features a blurb co-written by Boom and Koolhaas.  

To make navigating the 2,500-plus-page behemoth a little easier, Boom has deployed a number of wayfinding tricks. The cover colours from the original 15 volumes were chosen to reflect the subject matter, sometimes literally as with the terracotta red of Roof, a reference to tiles, and sometimes more figuratively, such as the nothingy shade of beige used for Corridor. In the new edition, each chapter can be found by the same colour printed on the outer edge of the paper. 

Elements

Elements

Elements of Architecture brings together the 15 volumes that constituted the catalogue accompanying the Biennale exhibition.

Inside, each page has two numbers, one to correspond to the ‘element’ or chapter and one to indicate its place in the entire volume. Boom revels in these; they reflect her interest in the experimental books that appeared in the early days of the printing press and again in the 1960s. Her current interest is in finding out what happened to make book design so conservative, and she has been studying in Rome, delving into the library of the Vatican, which includes some of the world’s oldest texts: ‘I have seen books with three layers of page numbering at the Vatican Library – books didn’t have page numbers as we know them now but they found other ways to make the book’s sequence clear’. 

Otherwise, the content is identical with some minor edits; the controversy that surrounded Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s contributions on the facade and its lack of attributions, which led to accusations of plagiarism and a lawsuit over his dismissal as dean of Princeton’s architecture school, has been smoothed away. 

The downside is that the book now looks intimidatingly dense and difficult. There’s no chance of it presenting itself as a casual reading experience. It is very bright, very expensive and very unwieldy – the weight of a baby – the polar opposite to those 15 slim books. Boom argues that combining the volumes in one book allows the reader to see the relationship between different chapters: ‘It’s just one piece, like a house, made up of different elements’.

The idea that anyone could actually sit down and experience the book as a whole is, frankly, a bit absurd. Elements of Architecture is more a kind of encyclopaedia

The larger scale may make the pages themselves more readable (although some images have become pixellated in the process), but the idea that anyone could actually sit down and experience the book as a whole is, frankly, a bit absurd. Boom describes Elements of Architecture as a kind of encyclopaedia, which seems to be more of an apt comparison than a house. Others have compared it to a phone book. 

Boom says Elements of Architecture had to be a book, that it wouldn’t work as a website. The book maker and the architect would both prefer it to be an even bigger book – an XXL version, matching the size of some of the text that was pasted on the walls and floors in the Elements exhibition and an XXL mock-up they each own. Boom usually likes to play with size in the opposite direction – making books into minuscule objects – but feels the information in Elements of Architecture becomes more comprehensive when it gets bigger. Bigger may not always be better for the reader, but as an object, Elements of Architecture certainly has a presence and an authority that could not be matched by a digital version or by its predecessor. ‘What is interesting about this book (or any book) is that it is edited content, bound together. You make a new piece. You can express a thought’, says Boom. ‘That is why we should still make books, because this is what only a book can do.’