Architectural feats in inhospitable spots have long exerted a powerful fascination. How we build and live at frontiers, and how the sites thrill us or increase our anxieties, are the subject of four important new books.
Writer Sarah M. Broom grew up in the 1960s section of subdivisions called New Orleans East, which she describes as an “abandoned suburban experiment” in her memoir, “The Yellow House” (Grove Press, $26, 376 pages). Marshy terrain imperiled the stability of her family’s home, covered in yellow vinyl siding. Broom’s twice-widowed mother, Ivory Mae Broom, tended a dozen children (Sarah is the youngest) and stocked up on French provincial-style furniture while battling lizards and creeping mold.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the property, and although the house might have been salvaged, government teams razed it without the family’s permission. For years, the Brooms kept determinedly and nostalgically mowing its empty lot; the author has rescued souvenirs there as poignant as a bent silver spoon. The book sheds unflattering light on postwar developers, who claimed that the neighborhood’s pestilent cypress swamps could be turned into choice real estate as New Orleans pursued “the complete realization of its destiny.”
Why do Scandinavian architects perch cabins on stilts at rocky waterfronts and use helicopters to deliver construction materials on otherwise inaccessible mountainsides? Their clients have commissioned the remote shelters partly as escapes from “the growing pressures of the urban, digital world,” architecture writer Dominic Bradbury observes in “New Nordic Houses” (Thames & Hudson, $60, 320 pages). Exterior walls are made of aluminum or basalt, to withstand seawater and snowstorms, and roofs are softened with planes of sedum and grass. Bradbury devotes a chapter to floor plans, elevations and cross sections, revealing how many geometric contortions are required to make homes fit along knotty outcroppings.
Wallcoverings depicting ruins crumbling on steep cliffs, volcanoes threatening villages and harbors besieged by soldiers have been highly sought after since the 1790s or so. “Zuber: Two Centuries of Panoramic Wallpaper” (Gibbs Smith, $75, 280 pages), by historian Brian D. Coleman, is a sumptuous coffee-table book about historical and contemporary interiors lined in the French manufacturer Zuber’s printed scenery as striking as Mexican jungle outposts and Revolutionary War battlefields. The densely patterned rooms, whether intended for armchair travelers or returnees from colonial expeditions, appear to be transporting places to live.
“Moving to Mars: Design for the Red Planet” (The Design Museum, $35, 220 pages) surveys a century of proposals for resettling adventurers many millions of miles from home. A companion volume for a Martian exploration show opening Oct. 18 at the Design Museum in London, it warns that an unequipped human would survive less than a minute outdoors in Mars’ toxic atmosphere. Architects and scientists now envision subdividing Mars with compounds of thick-walled living pods, made by 3D printers with ingredients like ice and regolith topsoil. Trays of hydroponically grown produce would be stacked inside to the ceilings. Homesick inhabitants could wear gloves engineered to smell of rain, or of loved ones left behind. Andrew Nahum, the show’s guest curator, envisions newly minted Martians crafting site-specific furniture out of cannibalized spaceship parts and carved regolith: “Surely, after a few years of settlement, an extraordinary aesthetic will evolve,” he writes. Perhaps by then, design bloggers and book publishers will also have taken up residence in outer space, to document the latest style trends.