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'Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture' and the questionable future of monster-size books

September 15, 2009 | 11:20 am

21stCenturyAtlass When "The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture” came out in 2004, it was quickly deemed a smashing success by booksellers and fans alike, despite the $160 price. The 14-pound tome was so successful, in fact, that late last year Phaidon released an even more ambitious effort, “The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture,” an 800-page, 14 1/2-pound book that retails for $195. Like its predecessor, the new effort received positive notices. Renowned architects Steven Holl and Richard Meier gave it their endorsement, and reviewers fawned over the 4,600 images showing work by 653 architects in 89 countries.

But did it sell? That was our question. The Phaidon website said the title is out of stock, but the publisher would not divulge the book’s sales figures. A representative of Hennessey & Ingalls, the art and architecture bookstore in Santa Monica, said the 21st century “Atlas” sold briskly when it premiered but failed to keep the momentum as the economic crisis deepened. 

Few architectural aficionados would have predicted as much 10 years ago, when monstrous architecture books were populating bookstores at an ever-increasing rate. But Alexander Galan, a representative for Distributed Art Publishers, one of the most important distributors of art and architecture books in the U.S., said buyers today are far more conscious of price. They look at oversize $200 titles as indulgent at best and transparent marketing ploys at worst. “Dropping a price point down from $150 to $65 is not only more manageable,” Galan said, “it’s also a nice thing to do for buyers.”

The Phaidon book did win fans by presenting both well-known and obscure projects, while exploring the nuances of regional aesthetics and the juggernaut of global modernism. “I especially love to discover a work by an architect I haven’t known in a remote place I haven’t seen,” Holl said. The New York Observer called it "a cogent argument about the direction of world architecture.”

Yet the book also had its critics. Peter Davey of Architectural Review argued that a website of the same material not only would have been more effective, but also would have allowed for greater detail, cross-referencing and fresher material. The "Atlas," he said, "is a volume that is fundamentally a website struggling to emerge from the dead weight of bound paper.”

Freelance book editor Eva Prinz also sees a growing consciousness for social and ecological responsibility.

“I always ask authors one question,” Prinz said. “Is your idea worth killing our forests? And I think that’s a legitimate question, because there are far too many books out there that are not worth that, including Phaidon’s ‘Atlas.’ ”

She points to books by Taschen and Steidl that, she said, get it right -- that create something with lasting value that justifies its production.

Taschen's “Sumo,” the 66-pound hommage to the late photographer Helmut Newton, came with its own book stand and broke records when it premiered in 1999. It was the largest retail book ever -- and also the most expensive at $1,500.

Even in the current down market, Taschen continues to release some high-priced titles this year, including the forthcoming $1,300, six-volume history of Playboy; a $700 book of Dennis Hopper’s photographs; and the recently released “MoonFire: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11” by the late Norman Mailer, a $1,000 book that  includes a signed archival print of Buzz Aldrin and, for an additional fee, actual specimens of lunar rock.

Publisher Benedikt Taschen has said that his role is more akin to a gallery owner. A first edition of “Sumo” recently sold at auction for $430,000, while pristine copies are on sale for $15,000 on EBay.

“Spending $1,000 or more on a book is an investment,” he recently told the London-based Guardian. “A number of people are looking for a safe place to put their money and the success of our limited editions have shown time and again that prices have often doubled, tripled, or in the case of 'Sumo,' multiplied by 10. And while you’re waiting for your money to grow, you get to own something beautiful and rare.”

-- Paul Young