While it is true that I am always a sucker for anyone that quotes Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own has been my lunchtime reading for a couple of very enjoyable weeks.
More than simply telling the story of the design and construction of a small writer’s shack by the author, it is a speculation on the making of building culture from a layman’s perspective. As an architect I rarely get a look at the process and the culture of architects from a client’s point of view. So while the usual gripes from contractors and tradesmen are here (architect’s are unrealistic, don’t know anything about building, etc), there is also a very concise review of the history of recent architectural theory in refreshingly straight-forward language.
For more than half a century now writing about architecture and architects has been dominated by academics and polemicists. The greatest misfortune visited down upon by the early twentieth century Modernists has turned out to be their penchant for manifestos. So, while Modernism has gone in and out of favor with architects and the public, the egocentric language and hero worship has remained unabashed. For everyday, working architects the field of architectural theory has become such dangerous and unfriendly territory that few venture in. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating through the 1980s and 90s, architects sought refuge in the land of linguistics, semiotics and post-structural literary theory. Frank discussions about making buildings, putting materials together, and creating spaces for people to inhabit have all but disappeared from ‘serious’ architectural writing. So often our choices of what to read and write about architecture have to been limited to either arcane academic journals or consumer how-to books.
Pollan places himself in the middle, as the client, caught between the intentions and aspirations of architects and the pride and craft of tradesmen. As architects we should take some time to really try to understand that place.