A Holiday Landscape of Gift Books

'Tis the season to give books. And for those with an interest in architecture, landscaping and interior design, there is a particularly rich and varied selection these holiday shopping days from which to chose.

Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright by Brendan Gill (Putnam: $24.95). At last we have a coherent, popular biography of America's greatest architect, studies of whom, to date, have been confined to academic efforts despite his prominence. Gill, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, explores the forces that shaped Wright's personality as well as how Wright's personality shaped his architecture.

Gill clearly admires Wright's creativity and perseverance that left a rich legacy of architectural landmarks and an inspired design philosophy, but is ambivalent about the architect's private life style and public posturing. Whether Wright consciously put on "masks" to manipulate clients and the public, as Gill contends, or whether they were just varied expressions of the architect's tumultuous personal and professional life is debatable.

Whatever, drawing from Wright's voluminous correspondence and contradictions, Gill sheds considerable light on some dark corners of the architect's life, as well as his design process and varied career. The book is welcomed.

Gardens of Longevity in China by Pierre and Susanne Rambach (Rizzoli: $85) is a fascinating study of the ancient Asian art of shaping gardens of stone. Explained in a clear style, aided by an attractive design is the history and mystery of these gardens, how some were fashioned after great paintings of their age, others to simply display a collection of curious stones, or evoke larger landscapes. Helping immensely are 246 illustrations, 104 in color, and the hand of editorial director Lauro Venturi. This is a marvelous, if pricey offbeat book for those interested in the evolution of gardens and their various forms, and Oriental culture.

Gardens of the Italian Villas orchestrated by Marella Agnelli (Rizzoli: $35) examines the history of the Italian gardens, from the medieval view of the garden as a reflection of paradise to the present eclectic concept, using as vivid illustrations existing gardens. The history is put into perspective by a lucid introduction by Luca Pietromarchi, and into vivid focus by captivating photographs, most of them taken by Robert Emmett Bright. The total is both informative and a delight, and makes you want to fly to Italy tomorrow to tour the gardens themselves.

Also alluring is Traditional English Gardens by Arabella Lennox-Boyd, Clay Perry and Graham Stuart Thomas (Rizzoli: $25). Published in association with the British National Trust, it explores in 28 select gardens the varied English garden style, ranging from the more natural and informal to the studied and manipulated. Captured well in a modest format and understated text is the English love of the garden.

Japanese Style by Suzanne Slesin, Stafford Cliff and Daniel Rozensztroch, Photographs by Gilles De Chabaneix (Clarkson Potter: $35.) is a shimmering portrait of the look of Japan. Presented in a richly designed format of few words and a plethora of photographs is the clash in present day Japanese architecture and interiors of the old and new, the simple and complex, tradition and change, and the constant search for beauty in the simplest of objects and scenes. The result is an impressionistic collage, which, while not particularly informative, is quite evocative and an excellent primer.

American Vernacular: Regional Influences in Architecture and Interior Design by Jim Kemp (Viking: $40.) is a breezy tour of the country's varied regions and how the climate, materials and traditions of each have styled and shaped their architecture and design, and are being imaginatively reinterpreted at present.

Intelligently organized and attractively designed into a catalogue form, the book captures well in a few words and select, studied photographs the continual search in American design for "roots."

But to say, as Kemp does in his introduction, that this search stems in part from a bend toward political conservatism and flag waving in present day America displays an unfortunate and misleading bias. From my view, it has been the conservatives and flag wavers pursuing a perverted sense of property rights who have tended to oppose historic preservation while supporting efforts to homogenize America.

Also out on the book counters this season is Post Modernism: The New Classicism in Art and Architecture by Charles Jencks (Rizzoli: $60.). This is the latest attempt by symbolist Jencks to identify, categorize and label shifts in style, as if they were slabs of beef in a meat processing plant.

An advocate of the Big Bang theory of academic criticism, Jencks a decade ago declared Modernism dead and gave us the misnomer of Post Modernism. Now he is taking a step further out onto the internationl stage he has built for himself at no modest expense and is embracing art and culture as well as architecture.

This is not a book for the holidays; the text in shifting personal, professorial and journalistic styles bounces like a ball in a pinball machine, occasionally hitting a bull's-eye with an insight and occasionally striking out with a cliche.

Because Jencks has become on the architecture circuit a sort of publicist and apologist for a generation of symbiotic stylists, his latest effort deserves a more detailed review. That should appear here early next year.

In the meantime, those wanting to bridge the gap between art and architecture might want to wander down to catch the International Contemporary Art Fair at the Convention Centerdowntown through Tuesday, if only to experience something labeled Colourspace. Talk about a sense of entry.

Next week, some more books, including a few paperbacks that can be used as stocking stuffers and my annual wish list for the city's planning and design community.

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