Arthropods – New Design Futures, from 1972

Like many architects I have a lot of books.  Monographs full of beautiful photos of beautiful buildings seem to dominate my collection at work.  However, there is one book, found at a used bookshop many years ago, that I have to admit fascinates me more than many of the others.  Arthropods: New Design Futures, written or assembled by Jim Burns in 1972, is a very interesting artifact of its day, teeming with “projects” and “environments” that were the architectural analogues to the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The book is composed of lots of photos and little text (not dissimilar to current fad in architectural publishing) highlighting radical experiments in the formation of “human environments” more akin to love-ins than architectural seminars.  What I find most interesting are the drawings, clearly showing the influence of counter-cultural comics and graphics of the day and making a distinct break with the modes of normative architectural expression of the day.

And as interesting as the drawings are, it is the photos that are really more to the point.  So many of these experiments of disposing bodies in spaces are engaged with temporary, momentary happenings, more disposed in time than space.

I have heard and read in a number of places that the economic downturn of the early 1970’s forced a lot of young architects to find expressions in architecture divorced from making actual buildings.  The experimental drawings and events of this books pre-date that forced-unemployment and became the goundwork for the frankly more radical departure from conventional architecture that was to become deconstructivism.  You can see the ancestors to those early deconstructivist drawings of Libeskind and Hadid, Eisenman and Coop Himmelblau, in this work.

What will come of the current economic downturn?  Will we see a radical departure in the ways we think about and make buildings based on the experiments and musing of the architects now bidding their time in coffee shops and unemployment offices?  Are issues of green construction and sustainability already a part of that departure or simply a construction technology shift?

Leonardo Ricci, on the responsibility of architects

“In the everyday world, if I steal a dollar from no matter whom, the cops can get after me and lock me up.  For a dollar.  But as an architect, I can build an ugly house, in which people live miserably like rats, yet the police cannot arrest me.  This means that I may steal the possibility of existing without being condemned.  At least on this earth.  Perhaps God or a delegate of His will do it afterwards.  But for the time being, a child born in this house is going to be deprived of vital experiences:  he will not see grass or butterflies, not even sun and moon, and I’ll get away with it.  What a shame!”

– Leonardo Ricci, Anonymous (20th Century)

Required reading – part 2

this is part 2 of series of essential books for architects.  If you saw the first post you will have noticed that I am not talking about books that feature buildings by architects.  Those are valuable resources for knowledge and inspiration, and some even equally essential, like Between Silence and Light on Kahn.  The works I am listing here are primarily about architectural theory and history, things some architects take too far and most not at all.  For my part, I think this stuff is important and I can’t imagine practicing architecture without a thorough grounding in the questions of why we do what we do beyond mere formalism.

Part 2 starts with three essential texts on the nature of cities.

Urbanism’s Essential pre-requisites

Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The romantic view of the city. Jacobs is our finest observer of what constitutes a city.

Manfredo Tafuri Architecture and Utopia

The marxist view of the city.  This is a bit pedantic, but still worth slogging through as a companion to the above.

Italo Calvino Invisible Cities

The poetic view of the city.  This is really not about urbanism at all, but is a beautiful, enthralling narrative of the imagination with the city as a character.

and now two other companion pieces, this time on the nature of meaning in architecture:

the meaning of architecture

Christian Norberg-Schulz Intentions in Architecture

Like Tafuri’s work, this can be also be tough going but it is the standard Modernist take on architecture and its embodied meaning.  All of Norberg-Schulz’s works are excellent and if only architects could stay focused on these issues instead of being overwhelmed by budgets, schedules and frankly trivial questions of style and language then our built environment would be one we could be justly proud of.

Robert Venturi Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

In all ways the opposite of the above, especially in tone and writing style, Venturi writes largely in response to the cold clarity of Modernism worst reductivist tendencies. It is not as opposed to Norberg-Sculz as you might at first suspect, for each author’s obvious passion for architecture and its meanings is thrillingly evident.

Required reading – part 1

For an architect there are some indispensable books, tomes that absolutely have to be read, and at least vaguely remembered, to be worthy of the history of the profession. These are instructive or inspirational, historical and occassionaly hysterical.  I have found that most arch-folk read these in school as part of a course, but quickly forget them.  I have put together a reading list of sorts, for myself, to go back and look again at these works and, with the filter of some 20 years of practice experience, see what these books hold for me.  To be honest, some of these I have read often over the years, others have sat on the shelf like unloved, dusty little tchotkes.
So, here is my very subjective list for essential reading for students and re-reading for long-in-the-tooth architects like me. (Although I am in general opposed to crappy list-a-mania web posts, I really don’t know a better way to do this).  I know I will probably forget something that is really important as I have only my bookshelf and memory to serve as guideposts (and please excuse the rather poor quality of the covers of the books scanned below, many of them have been around a long time).  And to be clear, this is not going include all of the really practical works on structure, safety, etc.  Worthy topics, but hopefully, of a nature that they don’t need to be revisited as they are part of the absolutely essential, everyday work of what we do.

THE ESSENTIAL

Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture

This is the granddaddy of architecture books.  Every architect in the Western tradition has read this.  As there is so much bad architecture, maybe it is the catalyst to all this crap but I don’t think so.  Reading this book connects us all to a tradition of architects from Ancient Rome to Dubai.  You can skip the chapters on how to make bricks or the quality of lime, but you probably shouldn’t.  This is not of practical interest, but it drives home the message that along with knowing which way to site a building to take advantage of amenable winds, an architect’s range of necessary knowledge and hopefully curiosity is both wide and deep.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Natural House

FLW is maybe the only real architectural genius of the last couple centuries.  His list of great works is long and varied, his inclusion and invention of technologies is staggering, his formal and practical inventiveness is greater than a dozen star-itects combined.  His writing however is not so good. But seriously you can’t possibly be an architect, and certainly not an American architect, without at least cracking this book open.  For that matter you can probably substitute a number of other works by Wright: The Future of Architecture, The Living City, or the wonderfully-dated Genius and Mobocracy.  Wright always felt slightly overlooked by the East Coast architecture luminaries, many of whom were European exiles like Gropius and Mies.  If you can get your hands on a copy, take a look at Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio, the book that established his genius and that so strongly influence those same European architects that later shunned him. (I say “shunned” because Wright was such a prick to these guys that they didn’t want to have anything else to do with him.)

LeCorbusier’s Towards a New Architecture

This is probably the best primer in what is Modernism and LeCorbusier, in his stridently ego-maniac way, meant it to be so.  He sets out some rules, describes some influences, shows some lessons.  He doesn’t not so much teach as scolds and this burns with the absolute assuredness and righteousness that makes this a book-long manifesto.  If architecture in the twentieth century has a relentless, avenging angel it is LeCorbusier and it is raw here in the book, much more so than in the frankly more humane buildings he managed to get built.  There is a relatively more recent translation by John Goodman, actually titled Toward An Architecture, that is much better than the older version I read in school and chock full of better notes.

Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows

If you haven’t read this or if it has been a long time, you really should take a look at it.  For us trained in basically the American/European world, just Tanizaki’s insights into his own culture are illuminating.  But it is his humanity, his humble observations of the qualities of man-made spaces and objects that hold the deepest lessons.  If nothing else, re-read the chapter on the Japanese toilet – a far cry from the high-tech, spectacles of modern Japanese toilets.

Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

This is as more about literature than architecture, but Bachelard’s thoughts about the memories of spaces and how they effect us have lingered longer in my memory than anything else I have ever read.  In my quest to make a poetic architecture, this is the foundational text.

and a couple of well-worn essays:

Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Benjamin is at his best here in this thoughtful, complex study of what makes a work of art, or architecture, worthy of appreciation.  The writing is a bit stiff and you owe it to yourself to not stop here in your reading of his works.  Both collections of essays, Illuminations (with the intro by Hannah Arendt) and Reflections are great starters.  I highly recommend Hashish in Marsailles in Reflections as a wonderful and humorous insight into one of the most interesting intellectual characters of the twentieth century.  Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project may be the world’s most influential, not-completed, work to fascinate architects.

Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime

Absolutely essential reading and absolutely hilarious.  Okay, maybe not in a laugh-out-loud, milk-out-the-nose way, but this may be the funniest painfully-serious essay about architecture ever written.  Especially noteworthy are Loos’ thoughts about tattoos and criminals – take note before you get inked – this is what your grandmother will think.

Next week:  Part 2, with some guest commentary.

If you have any suggestions and thoughts, send them in and we’ll see how they parallel.

recent reading into the future and the past

I have recently been reading two books that not coincidentally are primarily concerned with the life of buildings over time. Architecture’s fourth dimensional aspects are endlessly fascinating and both of these volumes bookend that with a look at ages prior to, and after, the life of the building as we see it.

Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a study of humankind’s impact on the earth and, in our absence, how lasting that impact may be. It is a fascinating kind of intellectual exercise with the simplest of premises. The book has an unabashed environmental ethos that doesn’t preach but clearly and lucidly displays our relative meekness in geologic time while warning of our negative lasting “contributions” to the planet. Thanks to thoughtful and generous clients for this one.

How Building’s Learn by Stewart Brand is more directly concerned with the changing lives of buildings over time. In a number of photographs organized by building type, it is very interesting to see how some specific buildings have fared over time. It is not so much a projection into the future as a journey into the past and although better photography and graphics would certainly have helped the book’s overall presentation, it is a very instructive and frankly humbling exposition of our mortality and building’s fates.

I highly recommend them both, and especially together.

Abelardo Morell

I have briefly mentioned the work of photographer Abelardo Morell in a previous post and a recent purchase, a new monograph of his work published by Phaidon, has brought many more of his amazing photos.  This book has a number of different series of photographs, including the beautifully melancholy camera obscura images.  However, the collection of photographs of books has most resonated with me.

Four Old Books, 1995
Six Dictionaries, 2000

Many of these images treat the books as objects, sculptural and architectural edifices.  For those of us that live with many books, at home and at the office, these images remind us of their physical presence, their mass and weight, texture and smell, beyond their collective rank and file order on the shelves.  Morell is a master at re-presenting the ordinary, transcending the stuff of everyday life into hauntingly contemplative objects.

Two Tall Books, 2002

These photos are great lessons for architects.  That we could make buildings of such beauty and weight, of such substantial stuff as these.  We often mistake our memory of books for the information they contain.  It is why the Kindle and other electronic reader devices are mere conveniences, not objects of adoration and contemplation.

All images are low resolutions scans from the book, Abelardo Morell, published by Phaidon 2005.