April 23, 2018

Best Books Q&A: Emilia Terragni

By Mirela Roncevic

The field of architecture has never seen as much prosperity as it has in recent years. New buildings that continue to push the boundaries of what is possible are popping up all over the globe—sometimes in the unlikeliest of places—that it becomes a challenge to keep up with them. The newly released Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century Architecture aims to encapsulate in one oversized volume all that makes us appreciate architecture as it continues to march into the 21st century. Emilia Terragni, the project’s editorial director based in London, agreed to offer (via phone) some insight into what she calls the most elaborate project of her career.

How many people were involved in the project, and how long did it take to complete it?
The project took two years to complete. A team of ten people—including editors, designers, fact checkers, as well as junior and senior editors—worked together on selecting the buildings as well as consulting hundreds of outside professionals like architects, journalists, writers, and critics. We also partnered with a number of regional advisors, especially for parts of the world we were not very familiar with. Finally, we cooperated with the London School of Economics to develop the front matter—the maps at the beginning of the book—that help put the subject in the context of the complex world we live in.

Were there any obstacles that stifled the process?

What criteria did you use to narrow down such a gigantic list?
Since the volume is meant to serve as an overview of what architecture stands for in the 21st century, our main goal was to create a good balance between the famous and the emerging, so the list represents the mixture of what is easily recognizable and what is completely unknown. Our selection had nothing to do with personal taste. Instead, we wanted to showcase a wide range of architecture throughout the world—not just the most spectacular but also the most creative—without underlying any particular style or promoting certain architects.

The text accompanying the photographs is minimal, with each building receiving no more than a paragraph or two. Why did it make sense not to overload the book with too much textual detail?
This isn’t a history book. Instead, it is a visual journey. The text is minimal, but it does what it needs to do: describe each work of architecture by providing only the most necessary details. The images tell the rest of the story.

Why did you decide on this size and packaging? It’s a beautiful volume, but it is quite heavy and may be challenging to shelf in libraries.
We started with the idea that this is an atlas, so we opted for the size of a typical geographical atlas. Also, this format lends itself well to browsing, since each page is dedicated to telling one story at a time, always going from the outside [of the building] to the inside. Even without reading the text, you are able to understand what each piece is about.

Since all of the buildings featured were built since 2000, the vast majority of them have never been featured in a book. Can you single out some locations that left a lasting impression on you?
I would say that some countries that we didn’t expect to surprise us perhaps surprised us the most. China is a great example of that, partly because of the recent Olympic games, but not only because of them. The Beijing stadium, for example, is an extraordinary piece of architecture that shouldn’t be overlooked. But perhaps the most unlikely example is, believe it or not, New York City. In the last few years, many incredible buildings have made a debut in the Big Apple, including apartment buildings and museums.

Who is this book’s primary audience?
The atlas is definitely geared toward professional architects and architecture aficionados, but anyone with an interest in the subject will be able to grasp what is happening in architecture today because of the book’s accessible format.

I see that both a digital version as well as a pocket travel edition are in the works.
Yes, both a downloadable version for mobile devices and a small pocket-size travel edition will be released next year. The travel edition will cover everything found in this volume, but because of space limitations there will only be one image representing each building. 

As an editor whose job is to grapple with detail, I can appreciate the effort you put into producing a work of this magnitude. It must be satisfying to see it come to fruition.
The whole process was an adventure that enriched all of us who were involved. The most obvious thing we learned was that architecture affects us all. It is an important part of our lives, even though we don’t always take the time to appreciate it. This book is a confirmation of that.

The main obstacle—perhaps the greatest obstacle—was the sheer quantity of information we had to go through and the number of people we had to deal with on a daily basis. We initially chose over 10,000 buildings for consideration and then had to narrow that list down to a little over 1000.