An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture drew my eye from across the room. The book, published by MIT Press, is a block of rainbow iridescence, punctuated by a few alphabetical navigation tabs common to the encyclopedic format. Where my eye goes, my interest is apt to follow. But immediately, the book presents us with a paradox. The promise of the encyclopedia — upon which many a Britannica set was sold to hardworking consumers — is that it contains all there is to know about a given subject. And yet this encyclopedia admits, up front, to its incompleteness. Hey, no judgment here, for to be incomplete is to be human — and indeed, one finds quite the tapestry of humanity inside: page after page of human figures that have inhabited and now been excised from architectural drawings.
“Ask anyone, ‘What do architects do?’ and most will reply, ‘Architects draw buildings,’” says the introduction by editors Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, principals and co-founders of MOS Architects. “This image is not all wrong, but architects also draw, add, copy, or notate people to go along with everything we make.” Indeed, unlike other arts, which may prioritize any number of aspects — form, material, concept, periodicity — all but the most boutique architectural projects require a genuine consideration of the people who inhabit them. It’s unsurprising that people professionally engaged in the study and realization of architectural space are likely to nerd out on its details, and this encyclopedia, which includes some 1,000 images of figures produced by more than 250 architects, is both evidence of and fodder for just such nerdiness. Each figure is given its own page, and presented (with few exceptions) at the same scale; only the variation in pixilation hints at their original size.
Prefacing the visual content are essays by Martino Stierli and Raymond Ryan that elaborate on the purpose and choices made by Meredith and Sample in the arrangement of An Unfinished Encyclopedia. This is quite interesting to read, but ultimately unnecessary for enjoying this artfully curated compendium. Its alphabetical ordering, as per encyclopedic convention, rather than chronological, allows for a diverse range of styles in juxtaposition. Even within one architect’s entry, there may be a variety of treatments. A six-page entry on Richard Neutra begins with the highly pixelated abstraction of a couple presumably standing outside the AGIC Theater in Colton, California, and then segues directly to a 1932 black ink drawing of a woman who appears to be vamping in front of a mirror inside a VDL Research House in Los Angeles. (One can only assume, as figures are reproduced entirely devoid of their architectural context.)
This book is many things: an inside conversation between architects, an obsessive cataloging of details invisible to most viewers, a go-to coffee table tome for someone who loves the architectural process as much as the product. It is also interesting as a collection of figure studies, independent of architecture. Its format demonstrates the architect’s mandate to consider human interaction — it is perfect to page through idly, looking for insight, inspiration, or chance encounters between the figures. Its iridescent pages promise kaleidoscopic contents, and this incomplete encyclopedia of incomplete figures pays off that promise, completely.
An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture (2018) is published by MIT Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.