Bartholomew Voorsanger. Unfolded: How Architecture Saved My Life. Alastair Gordon (Oro, $34.95)
A compelling hybrid: half candid biography, half evaluation of a distinguished practice. The personal trajectory–from New York orphanage, to rebellious youth, brilliant student and accomplished architect–is inspiring, and it increases one’s admiration for how Voorsanger overcame a rocky start and a succession of personal tragedies, to create some of the most original work of the past two decades. There are points in this narrative where the story seems to jump tracks and back with disturbing abruptness, but one admires Gordon’s skill in telling a complex story in a highly readable fashion.
The title is more than a satirical take on self-help books; Voorsanger’s intensity and dedication to his craft has been driven by his need to surmount emotional crises. His largest work to date is the National World War Two Museum, which has become the primary destination for visitors to New Orleans. Four steel pavilions enclose a courtyard–a strategy that allowed the institution to grow incrementally, and gives attendees a much needed break as they revisit the brutal events of that conflict. The pavilions are subtly inflected to create a sense of imbalance, conveying the ferocity of combat and the sense that the fate of the world was at stake.
There are several other museums, built and unrealized, but the standouts in this narrative are houses located on spectacular Western sites. Voorsanger was long an energetic outdoorsman, and his passion for mountains and deserts feeds into houses that seem to grow from the land. Roofs are as jagged as rock formations, and similar folded geometries animate houses in less dramatic locations, notably one that embraces a Napa Valley vineyard. Rugged and welcoming, these houses capture the spirit of the West, its natural beauty and informal patterns of living.
In contrast to monographs that are too bulky or arcane to appeal to a wide audience, Unfolded is elegant, portable, and written in plain English, providing an introduction to the art of architecture that should enjoy a wide readership.—Michael Webb