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.
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,
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 Garcia 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
ATLAS OF VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE OF THE WORLD (Routledge, $90)
An offbeat variation on the theme of an architectural atlas is
the "Atlas of Vernacular Architecture of the World" by Marcel
Vellinga, Paul Oliver, and Alexander Bridge. In contrast to the
architects in the Phaidon atlas, these architects are anonymous.
"Vernacular architects" are "folk" architects. They are formally
untrained, but often fully capable of building functional, low-
cost, and sometimes sublime dwellings, and they create more than 90
percent of the world's buildings. Tracing the materials and
techniques these folk builders have used over time (such as using
sun-dried bricks for walls or layering thatch for roofs) offers
heady inspiration for builders currently interested in using local
materials and promoting green lifestyles. …