Archibet, from Aalto to Zaha Hadid

A charming little book arrived here this week. Archibet is the work of the Italian architect and graphic designer Federico Babina who has set about creating an alphabet book inspired by some of the world’s most talented architects.

Designed as postcards, each of the 26 pages is dedicated to an alphabet and a corresponding creative from Alvar Aalto to Zaha Hadid. Admittedly, even though the British architect is often referred to by her first name, we did feel putting Hadid in Z is a little bit of a cheat.

Nonetheless, Babina has created a wonderful illustrative book that pays tribute to the distinct architectural style of each of the featured practitioner – all in his unique fashion.

Babina sees a close relationship between architecture, graphic design and illustration. The architect needs to express his or her vision through drawings, and the more provocative they are, the more expressive, it helps give shape and life to a project.

He explains, ‘sometimes I am an architect with a passion for illustration and others I’m an illustrator in love with architecture.’

Archibet is published by Laurence King.

For more reviews on books on design and art visit the Design Talks Book Club.

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Horst: a magician with light

‘Electric Beauty’ are four black and white photographs taken by Horst P Horst in 1939. They are a satirical comment on the futility of extreme modern beauty treatment, fashionable in the 1930s, at a time when the world was on the brink of war.

We see the model undergo various bizarre procedures, yet she seems blissfully unaware – in one she is even wearing a creepy mask – of the danger of electrocution. The sinister atmosphere is further enhanced by an enlarged projection in the background of Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal Temptation of St Anthony.

These photographs reflect Horst’s intelligent and complex relationship with photography. They also reveal how he used light and shadow to sculpt his photographs. Horst: Photographer of Style at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is a scholarly study of the career of the photographer who worked not just in fashion but in art, design and theatre. Exhibition curator Susanna Brown calls him a magician with light.

Horst studied furniture design in Hamburg and worked for the architect Le Corbusier in Paris – his precise compositions and graphic aesthetic were perhaps a result of his design background. He joined Vogue in 1931, shooting over 90 covers and collaborating with the likes of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. He also had close connections with the Surrealists, and it is in this room where some of his more intriguing, and at times witty, portraits hang.

We particularly enjoyed the portrait of Dali entitled ‘Dali Dreaming of Mediation’ from 1943. The manipulation of light gives it an almost ethereal quality, something that Dali would no doubt have enjoyed.

Horst introduced some of these surrealist elements into his fashion photography so that not one feels like a standard classic fashion shoot. In his campaign for Cartier, for instance, classic diamond rings are juxtaposed in the model’s hair.

Or for the American Vogue cover in 1941, he has the athletic model in a bathing suit balancing a beach ball on her feet – the play of light here is really magical. It also shows how effortlessly he transitioned to colour photography in the 1940s.

Then there are his memorable photographs such as the 1939 portrait of a model shot from behind, her body hugged by a Mainbocher corset. The exhibition reveals his initial sketches prior to the shoot that reveal how meticulously he staged each and every shot. We also see the two portraits side-by-side; one of the original by Horst that saw the laced up garment slightly loose on the models figure, the other the touched up version for Vogue with the corset perfectly glued on. Horst said he preferred the flawed version. So do we.

Nicky Haslam, who worked with him at Vogue in the 1960s, said Horst saw ‘the innate glamour in people… the glamour of personalities rather than the glamour of name’. He didn’t care so much about fashion, the labels, but concerned himself with the image. This could explain how he was able to create some of the most memorable fashion photographs of the twentieth-century. And Horst: Photographer of Style truly captures the spirit of this inspiring artist.

Horst: Photographer of Style is at the V&A from 6 September 2014 until 4 January 2015.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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Book review: Voiture Minimum Le Corbusier and the Automobile

‘If houses were built industrially, mass-produced like chassis,’ proclaimed Le Corbusier in his manifesto Towards an Architecture, ‘an aesthetic would be formed with surprising precision.’ The Swiss architect was famously obsessed with the automobile – almost in love with what he called the perfect machine. To him, and many progressive thinkers of the time, the automobile was a symbol of modernity and a focal point in his visions for futuristic utopias.

Voiture Minimum Le Corbusier and the Automobile by Antonio Amado, MIT Press, Book Cover ©The MIT Press

Voiture Minimum Le Corbusier and the Automobile explores the architect’s involvement with the automobile, designing in 1936 ‘a minimalist vehicle for maximum functionality’ which he called Voiture Minimum.

An engaging read by Antonio Amado, a Spanish architect and a professor at the University of La Coruna, the book is almost an exploration of ideas on cars and mobility at this junction in history. Amado is a fluid writer, creating a charming narrative, chapter after chapter building up to the climax that is the story of the car itself.

Geometric analysis of Voiture Minimum by Le Corbusier ©The MIT Press

This includes a brief history of the French manufacturer Voisin and the impact founder Gabriel Voisin had on Le Corbusier. An architecture enthusiast he came up with the idea of prefab housing of which subsequently Le Corbusier wrote about in this in his magazine L’Esprit Nouveau.

By the 1930s Voisin was no longer able to make the luxury cars he made in the 1920s, mainly due to the American depression and the popularity of more affordable automobiles created by the likes of Ford. Instead under his new consultancy he designed the Biscooter (double scooter) prototype – a minimalist lightweight vehicle for two to three occupants.

Frontal elevation of the Voiture Minimum by Le Corbusier ©The MIT Press

The car proved to be quite popular in post civil war Spain, manufactured there under the name Biscuter-Voisin and surviving almost ten years.

We also learn of other key architects of the time’s involvement with the automobile in the context of both town planning ideas and automotive design  – from Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius, to Jean Prouvé and the American Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rear elevation of the Voiture Minimum ©The MIT Press

Amado even dedicates a chapter to car design between the two wars, exploring various key trends in automobile design crucially the impact of aerodynamics and the story of the Volkswagen ‘people’s car’, the Beetle.

Incidentally, Le Corbusier claimed his Voiture Minimum had been the inspiration for this car. He went as far as saying the car, designed for the 1936 SIA competition, had originated in 1928, before the Beetle. Here Amado, after extensive examination of archival and source materials, disproves this. In fact, he hints that the influence may have gone the other way.

Silhouette of the Voiture Minimum by Le Corbusier ©The MIT Press

It is almost half way through the book when we are introduced to Voiture Minimum, designed in collaboration with Le Corbusier’s cousin Pierre Jeanneret. This is a detailed account, highlighted with copies of original letters written by the architect to various car manufacturers, proposal after proposal, and endless sketches that ultimately lead to the final design.

Sadly though Le Corbusier’s vision was never realised and his car never made it to production. A full-scale model, however, was sculpted in 1987 by the Italian car designer Giorgio Giugiaro to exhibit at L’Aventure Le Corbusier: 1887-1965 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Two years later a second prototype was created to mark the opening of the Design Museum in London.

Voiture Minimum Le Corbusier and the Automobile is written by Antonio Amado and published by MIT Press. The books was recently voted one of the ten best design books by The Independent newspaper.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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