Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Graphic Design Week Hump Day: S,M,L,XL

It is already day three in Graphic Design Week and I am getting obsessed. I have an obsessive personality. This is good though. As Ken Radtkey says, "I spend 50% of my time designing architecture and 50% on Graphic Design."


In 1995 OMA, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau showed the world what an architecture book could be. At 1376 pages, 9.5 x 7.7 x 2.8 inches, and 6 pounds, S,M,L,XL is many things: a dictionary, a collection of essays, a complete catalog of OMA projects to date, an exercise in Graphic Design, a manifesto, a diary, and a pretty picture book. It is challenging and disorienting, with programs weaving in and out but rigidly held together by its delineation into five sections: Foreplay, S, M, L, and XL.

The book opens with graphs of OMA - a who we are of sorts - such as distance traveled and nights spent in hotel rooms for Rem and OMA, a budget pie-chart, a workforce-over-time, and a turnover rate, among others. The introduction opens, "Architecture is a hazardous mixture of omnipotence and impotence." The dictionary opens, "Abolish: to execute an intention amounts to abolishing a desire." From there, the dictionary weaves in and out of the short stories, essays, poems, manifestos, and project biographies.

As the book progresses, the shear amount of information contained is often overwhelming and I find myself flipping back and forth often. Dictionary definitions are cut off by the page to finish 80 pages later on top of a floorplan. Pornographic images, contextual diagrams, in depth timelines and fables pop up throughout the book seemingly randomly. I can't help but think that this entire book is a timeline of thinking - a progression of the philosophy of OMA. I love the dictionary.

One of my favorite storylines is Rem's Summer Study for AA - a famous architecture school in London - on the Berlin Wall. Fragmented Excerpt: "Once, a city was divided in two parts. The Wall was a masterpiece. At the most serious level of 'event' the wall was deadly. The gratest surprise: the wall was heartbreakingly beautiful. It was as if I had come eye to eye with architecture's true nature. Three months later: my first public presentation. They were all there: Archigram, Peter Smithson, Cedric Price, Charles Jencks, Alvin Boyarsky, and Elia Zenghelis, in a mood of semifestive, semicynical expectation (this school was nothing if not fun). The images that appeared on the screen - former conditions, concepts, workings, evolution, 'plots' - assumed their positions in a sequence that was gripping almost beyond my control; words were redundant. There was a long silence. Then Boyarsky asked ominously, 'Where do you go from here?'"

Basically, this is a book you should have. If you are into thinking and words and images, buy this. The first time my girlfriend flipped through it, after about 30 seconds she looked up and said, "I must have this book." Indeed.

I get frustrated with poetry. People talk a lot about needing to have their poems look just right on the page, but when they publish they have no control over what the book looks like or what the typeface is or anything. Poets need to wrestle control back from the publishers in deciding what their book will be. The experience of a book is not just the words. When I get a new book I grope the cover and caress the pages immediately. Then I smell it. Then I flip the pages to blow wind on my face. Then I examine the typeface, look for a colophon, and flip through the pictures. These are all foreplay. Finally I get down to business and read the words, starting with the Copyright page.

S,M,L,XL is most definitely an experience and I think it changed architecture. To rate this book on the same level of influence as Vers une architecture goes without question. Those two may well have done more to architecture today than any other book since Vitruvius. Bruce Mau, Rem Koolhaas, and OMA have created a masterpiece of literature in S,M,L,XL.

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