BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: Architecture & Design: Hand in hand with hubris Genius, fakes and barbie dolls

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The Independent Culture
IN THE mid-1950s Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe bought a dilapidated farm to use as a homely weekend hideaway and, recklessly perhaps, consulted Frank Lloyd Wright about renovations. After inspecting the site - and pointedly ignoring the existing house - the august octogenarian drew up his proposals. They included a pillared circular living-room 60 feet across, a stone swimming-pool wedged into the hillside and - what every cosy cottage needs - a full-size conference room. When the shell-shocked clients mentioned costs, Wright airily suggested dollars 250,000, a wild underestimate even at 1950s prices. The Millers tactfully allowed the commission to lapse.

This anecdote is from Edgar Tafel's About Wright (Wiley pounds 21.95), a collection of reminiscences that inadvertently supplies ammunition for anyone who thinks architecture and hubris go hand in hand. Wright the designer may have been a visionary, Wright the man could be bigoted, sexist and insufferably egocentric. He neglected to send his daughter to school, so that at 10 she still could not read. He sacked his son, apparently for daring to expect his salary to be paid (Wright was almost permanently short of cash). He ruthlessly exploited the many apprentices, Tafel among them, who came to worship at his feet. And, though many of the buildings he was associated with had a disquieting tendency to burn down, his scorn for his big-shot rivals was legendary. One friend recalls an outdoor lunch where, armed with a fly swatter, Wright gleefully felled passing insects, crying 'That's Gropius . . . And that's Corbusier'.

Yet few who knew him seem to bear grudges and, more than 30 years after his mentor's death, Tafel still refers to him, with touching deference, as 'Mr Wright'. This diverting book only lacks adequate photographs of the masterpieces (Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax building) to validate Robert Moses's reflection that, though Wright may well have been 75 per cent fakery, the rest was genius.

Eloquent photography, by Klaus Frahn, is amply supplied in Sergio Los's monograph of Carlo Scarpa (Taschen pounds 9.99), the Wright-inspired Venetian architect who, denied virgin territory in which to express his modernist instincts, spent much of his career restoring and extending ancient Italian buildings, often for use as museums. The results are a triumph of inventive pragmatism - bold, intricate, light-saturated spaces, organic sweeps of stone, wood and marble and brilliant coups of lateral thinking: in one flood-prone palazzo, for instance, the enemy, water, is invited in and channelled decoratively through the ground-floor rooms.

Architects who become impatient of trammelling practicalities should consider specialising in hotels: given enough pillows and a well-stocked mini-bar, guests are usually tolerant, and, provided you site your fantasy by some godforsaken airport runway, even the likes of Prince Charles will probably not try to stop you.

In the lushly illustrated New Hotel Design (Laurence King pounds 42), Albrecht Bangert and Otto Riewolt make the case for hotels as fiction, as playpens for the designer's (and user's) imagination, even - as in the 'artist' hotels of Italy and Switzerland - as sleep-in galleries for paintings and sculpture. What the sumptuous short-stay palaces featured tell us about the modern world is not reassuring: there is a whole section on atrium hotels, biospheres turning their backs on grim reality. And though the emphasis is on innovation and good taste (it is no accident that the three central Paris hotels featured in New Hotel Design all lurk behind beautifully restored old facades) there is a tendency for cliche (lounge as Edwardian gent's library) and theme-parkery (giant pineapples at the Disney World Dolphin) to creep doggedly in.

At least architecture gets noticed. Industrial designers, unless their products fail to work, mainly get taken for granted; and, as Raymond Loewy observed, most manufacturers' conception of aesthetics is limited to 'a beautiful sales curve shooting upwards'. Industrial Design: Reflections of a Century, edited by Jocelyn de Noblet (Flammarion pounds 45), bites back. Produced to coincide with the Miroir du Siecle exhibition in Paris earlier this year, it is an encylopaedic thumper of a book which traces every significant modern movement in technology, materials and design thinking. It illustrates, beautifully, every mass-

produced classic and cult object you can think of, from Model T to Apple Mac, Eames chair to Barbie doll. It is also stuffed with erudite and stimulating essays by practitioners, philosophers and expert observers. Only cynics and philistines will think the book incomplete - an enlightening article about the supermarket shopping trolley as consumerist symbol, for instance, omits to mention the one key design fact: no one has yet found a way of making it travel in a straight line.

Less designerish but more moving than any of the books so far mentioned is David J Brown's Bridges: Three Thousand Years of Defying Nature (Mitchell Beazley pounds 19.99), a seductive blend of technology, history, facts, statistics and visual poetry. They are all here, from the elegant stone arches of the Romans to the dazzling feats of our own times, plus putative wonders that in the next century may link continents. And, on page after page, the symbolism and metaphorical significance for which designers of products and buildings strain and strive is articulated - unambiguously and, it seems, effortlessly - in every tensed strut and brave span.