Reading Structures: 39 Projects and Built Works, by Guy Nordenson, Lars Müller Publishers, January 2016, 375 pages, $60.
As a practicing structural engineer, Guy Nordenson has been involved in the design of some of the most notable buildings of recent decades, including Steven Holl’s carved-block Simmons Hall Residence at MIT (2002), Richard Meier’s curve-walled Jubilee Church in Rome (2003), and SANAA’s precariously stacked New Museum in New York (2007). He writes about those projects alongside bigger, smaller, and lesser-known ones in Reading Structures: 39 Projects and Built Works.
The tome is not merely a textbook on how these buildings are put together—even if it does include plenty of information about that. It also incorporates in-depth discussions about slip-formed concrete, friction pendulums, torsional buckling, tensegrity structures, and similar topics of interest to engineers. In one example, for Yoshio Taniguchi’s MoMA expansion in New York (2004), Nordenson explains how, upon a museum trustee’s expressing concern, the design team was able to eliminate the only two columns in the addition’s largest space, the 21-foot-tall contemporary-art gallery, by hanging the floors above it from a belt truss. In another, he discusses the evolution of the “grillage” system of steel girders and beams for the roof—intended to be as thin as possible—of the Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion (2006), also by SANAA.
Smaller projects are a chance to test age-old techniques on new materials. For a series of staircases, first in a private loft in New York and later in Ferragamo shops in Bologna and Venice, Italy, Nordenson adapted the principles behind the “cantilever” stair to glass, metal, and wood. It was originally developed during the Italian Renaissance, for stone.
Some of the more fascinating details, however, make up the backstories to these works, not least of which is a series of projects at the World Trade Center following the September 11 tragedy. In other cases, intriguing elements stem from the personal stories. Nordenson’s first encounter with Meier, for instance, had to do with the 1989 competition to design the French National Library. Meier had wanted to work with famed engineer Peter Rice of Ove Arup & Partners, who, it turned out, was already teamed up with another architect competing for the library. Meier, Nordenson writes, “was not at first pleased to be handed off to what he saw as the New York ‘branch office’ of Arup.” (In 1987, Nordenson helped establish the New York office, before founding his own firm, Guy Nordenson and Associates, in 1997.)
Eventually, Meier came around and went on to work with Nordenson again on the Jubilee Church. Nordenson calls his relationship with the much-admired Rice “pleasurable, if distant.” The pair worked side by side only briefly but never completed a project together. Yet, in many ways, Nordenson’s style, or more appropriately his lack of one, is similar to that of Rice, who emphasized collaboration and, like Nordenson, formed a “crafts-based practice.”
Nordenson’s recounting of these 39 projects, selected from nearly 200 since the start of his career in 1979, is, in fact, a story of collaboration. None is more notable than that with Holl, which dates back to the early 1980s. Holl’s buildings—which, aside from Simmons Hall, include the 2 million-square-foot Linked Hybrid complex in Beijing (2009) and several museums in the U.S., Europe, and China—compose a fifth of the book.
Divided into three sections—Engineering Ephemera, Simply Supported, and Building History—the book delves into details without being dry or difficult to understand for the reader who doesn’t happen to be an engineer, or an architect, for that matter. Even for the lay person, Reading Structures offers incredible insight—from inspiration to design to politics—into how buildings, pavilions, parking garages, bridges, and follies get built, or don’t. And, maybe more important, how they stand up.