The architecture book as an art form

A designer talks about creating an exquisite monograph that details the work of a Chicago architecture firm

Published May 12, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

An image of the Ford Calumet project
An image of the Ford Calumet project

The Aqua Tower project

Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang, known internationally as the creator of the Aqua Tower, wasn't originally intent on re-envisioning the traditional monograph when her firm, Studio Gang Architects, decided to get into the publishing game five years ago. But after teaming up with designer Elizabeth Azen, a California native who made the move to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2006 when she started her own company, Make Design Content (she's recently rechristened the company, EA Projects), a new way forward emerged. Ultimately, Azen and Gang partnered with New York-based Princeton Architectural Press, purveyors of quality print books about architecture and design, to publish the book. The result is the beautifully produced and designed "Reveal," SGA's first release, and a sneak peak into the mind of Gang and her team, through 2008. Thankfully, Azen was gracious enough to take some time to discuss the process of how "Reveal" came together.

"Reveal" is so much more than a monograph of Studio Gang's work. Was that the concept all along?

Yes. When we agreed to do a book together, the slate was blank. Jeanne and Mark [Schendel] expressed that they wanted SGA to become a "publishing" architecture firm, and this was to be the first in a series of books. That helped shape the kind of book "Reveal" would become. We didn't have to include "everything" -- it didn't need to be a conclusive-to-date monograph.

I thought about the possibilities for this book along a continuum; at one end was what I think of as a "gallery" presentation of work -- polished photographs of built (completed) work, lots of white space, a kind of showcase for an end result. At the other end is a "documentary" approach, meaning a more open framework that allows for different kinds of material -- content that describes what happened along the way, the thinking and processes that informed the work. In one of our early working sessions I introduced this idea of the continuum, and showed some examples. I was glad when Jeanne chose the latter. Visually and conceptually, it's much more layered, a more comprehensive approach.

Sketch from the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, an eco-friendly building that merges the natural habitat of the area in with the architecture, using reusable materials.

In particular, I love the broadsheet essay asides that close each chapter. Where did that idea come from?

During that initial phase while we were defining the book, Jeanne walked me through SGA's projects (built, under construction, concepts). Their research and references -- basically the thinking behind the work -- revealed some patterns. For example, there was an obvious dedication to materials, and many historical references and anecdotes. Material Reports and History sections were among the editorial concepts I presented for the book, one per each project chapter. The broadsheets are the History sections. I thought the shift in format (orientation, typography, paper, use of color) would be a good opportunity to add some tactile and aesthetic diversity to the book, and to differentiate the content. We were excited when PAP agreed to perfect bind the book and include a paper stock that would simulate newsprint.

A sketch of a map from "Reveal"

Another sketch from the Ford Calumet project

Was this a difficult book to design, seeing as how there is a myriad of visual material to work with?

No. I love this kind of density of material and information. I'm just really at home with the diversity of content types, and subsequent need for visual systems to help make sense of it all. In the book, there are a couple of overlapping grids that correspond to different content and image categories. As material came in, I knew what pieces were analogous to content we already had, and what parts needed to be designed from zero. It was a building process. We worked on this book for over three years! But really, because of the way we generated and gathered content, the content structure came first. So, I knew in advance what to expect for each new chapter we worked on and spent a lot of time planning, making content maps, and keeping checklists of material. I became really adept at using Google docs to manage the workflow and content gathering. Had I not been a part of the editorial process, it might have been rather overwhelming.

A section opener from "Reveal"

How did you come to work on this project? Had you worked with Jeanne or Studio Gang in the past?

I hadn't worked with Jeanne or Studio Gang previously. In 2006, when I moved from Los Angeles to New York, I had started my own practice but wasn't sure if I'd continue with that exclusively, or get a job. There were two NYC studios I was interested in; one of them was 2x4. I mentioned this to a friend who was working with Jeanne at the time; he said they -- Studio Gang and 2x4 -- had worked on a project together, and suggested I speak with Mark, Jeanne's partner. About a week later Mark and I had scheduled a call. I thought we were going to talk about him potentially connecting me with 2x4. Instead he told me that Studio Gang was looking for a designer, and did I have any interest in moving to Chicago? I was a bit confused at first, but then he mentioned wanting to do a book, and I suggested that a book project didn't necessarily need to be done in house. A few weeks later Jeanne and I met in SoHo. This is a roundabout way of saying I came to work on this project through two degrees of separation.

The cover of "Reveal," designed by Elizabeth Azen

How did you come up with the concept for the cover? What was Jeanne's take? Were there a lot of discarded cover ideas before everyone settled on the final edit?

The cover concept is really tied to the book title. In developing the book concept, Jeanne walked me through 12 or 15 of her projects. I took a lot of notes, paying special attention to the very specific words she used to describe the work and working process. Later I put together some language-based constellation diagrams, seeing where there was crossover, and what themes emerged that suggested possible groupings. The book title came out of that exercise. Each project included in "Reveal" has a very unique relationship to the title, which are described in Jeanne's intro. It was also appropriate for the first book -- a book that would expose, or reveal, Studio Gang's work. Lastly, and this one may be noticed only by architects and aficionados, reveal is also an architectural term that refers to the recessed space between two surfaces, like a wall and a door. I tend to design covers last. In this case it circled back to the very beginning.

Beyond connecting it with the book content, I wanted the cover design to reinforce, or really elucidate, the ideas behind the title. In the first two cover design rounds I presented seven or eight distinct design directions, and within those, many variations on theme. I was looking at ways to split, obscure and reveal parts of the letterforms -- referencing the idea of revealing or unveiling, and/or the architectural meaning of reveal. By the third round, the photographic and pattern covers fell away; we were really focused on a typographic cover. Jeanne and I agreed that a photograph of a single SGA project was too limiting, too specific. I think the choice to replace the missing parts of the letterforms on the front cover with UV varnish, using a textural or material shift rather than a color shift, is in keeping with the spirit of Jeanne's work. You can't easily simulate a varnish effect using a color printer, so it took some time to assure her that it would work, and that depending on the light you'd see more or less of the missing parts of the letterforms. The varnish, a transparent material, is what reveals the book title. I knew you'd be able to read the title even with the missing parts, but then again I'd been looking at it for so long, I figured I needed to guarantee some degree of readability to someone seeing it for the first time. This was achieved by contrasting the matte black background with the high gloss UV over the letterforms.

Another image of the Aqua Tower

Construction of the Marble Curtain Project

Another image of the Ford Calumet project

What is your favorite chapter in the book and why?

Ford Calumet Environmental Center (FCEC). It was the first project chapter we tackled and really the model for developing the book -- in terms of 1) generating and selecting content, 2) content structure, and ultimately, 3) design.

The intersection of salvaged materials and birds describes the awkward but beautiful coexistence of the physical site at Calumet. I pored over Studio Gang's sketch and note binders, and project archives, selecting the parts I thought would tell or add to the story of the project, and the ideas associated with it. For example, the page we reproduced as the first page in the FCEC chapter -- "Gathering is the beginning of nest making" -- that's the anchor, the core concept for the chapter. The History section and the Biodiversity diagrams look at past, present and future -- how the site has and continues to evolve. These sections do good work of showing and telling, the content is really complementary. In addition to understanding the appropriateness of the architecture, I think you get a real sense of place in this chapter.

The FCEC chapter also has an extensive Process/Sketch section, in which we pulled and reproduced notes and sketches from the archives. It communicates a lot about how Studio Gang works, and thinks. Initially, Process/Sketch was meant to be a section at the back of each project chapter. But at a certain point we had over 550 designed pages, and once the publisher was selected, we had to reduce down to 256 (plus History section inserts). I remember one of the first projects I worked on out of school, the art director said, "Your favorite thing will end up on the editing room floor." That wasn't entirely true here, but a lot of material had to go.

A sketch from "Reveal"

Do you think"Reveal" could work as an ebook? If so, what would make it different than the printed version?

Not really. In addition to having a lot of information, the book is also an object. "Reveal" has very tactile qualities that don't directly translate to screen. Of course, the book could be read as an ebook, but I think it would lose something. If we apply the term user experience to print -- a shift in medium would suggest a shift in structure.

I can see more of a loose translation of the book into a website, with different ways into content, different paths for connecting parts of the book. I work mainly in print, but I do some work in Web and am most interested in content structure and information architecture. A website could allow a user to access material by project, as in the book, but also by analogous categories. For example, a user could customize the organization or grouping content to see all History sections, or all Material Reports, or only images of finished work (more of a portfolio view -- think about different user groups; prospective clients might appreciate this option especially, as you note, the book is more than a monograph).

More great pages from the pages of "Reveal" (all images courtesy of Studio Gang Architects):

More images from the Ford Calumet project

More images from the Ford Calumet project

More images from the Ford Calumet project

Renderings of the Aqua Tower project

A catalog of construction items from "Reveal"

Behind the scenes: pouring layered concrete

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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