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.


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.


modular housing

There are a lot of really quite nice modular housing products designed by architects.  The state of standard residential design and construction is so deplorable and the potential promise in alleviating this through manufactured housing is so great that it is difficult not love these projects.  On a number of projects we have flirted with either complete or partial modular, if not panelized, construction to save time and money.  However, in each case we were proposing the design of a one-off, custom house – a process not suited to the advantages of the factory-built house.  In each case we later decided against modular construction for a number of reasons.

The recent designs by very talented architects are certainly a long way away from the double wide manufactured home, both in design and technical quality.

Pugh + Scarpa Vail Grant House

Marmol Radziner Desert House

And, there are an awful lot of websites and magazine articles fervently debunking the negative stereotypes of manufactured housing. Maybe their time has finally come.

However, I can not find myself jumping on the bandwagon.  Modular construction at its best allows for most of the construction to take place off-site and may be well suited for projects with very short building seasons or environmentally sensitive sites.  However, the high-design modular prototype that is flogged so relentlessly in architecture journals and websites is not generated from these conditions.  Rather it is proposed, en masse, as a solution to America’s dreadful housing stock.  I fail to understand how generically designed buildings, without input from clients or site-specific conditions, is any better than crappy builder plans of Tudors, Victorians and ranches.  I think the notion is that if we only lived in cool, Modern-looking homes then we would all be better off.  This is about the worse kind of ideological architectural language snobbery I can imagine.

So my protest against modular construction is in two forms:

1.  Modular prototypes are merely products, not architecture.  If they are generic and designed for imagined sites then they are no better than any other “model” homes.  This kind of work dumbs down architecture, both as a profession and an art.  It substitutes taste for invention and usually low-paid repetitive work for the skilled labor of carpenters, masons, roofers, etc.

2.  Modular construction of custom houses is an architect’s attempt to be even more of a control-freak over the building process than a set of drawings and specifications enables.  Rarely does the cost of construction, when you include everything including all utilities, foundations, etc. have significant savings over conventional construction.  Cutting the builder out of the process of making buildings again posits the building process as product design, and the proliferation of these designs online and in the design press compounds the notion that architecture is largely a visual medium.

Working with a good builder allows the architect and homeowner to craft the building over the life of the construction.  Changes are made, conditions are modified, serendipitous events become buildings.

Douglas Cutler Connecticut House

Specht Harpman zeroHouse

I certainly know that not everyone, in fact hardly any one can afford to build and live in an architect-designed custom home.  I can’t.  But I think it is ridiculous to think that the dreaded expanses of cookie-cutter suburban homes would be any better if the cookies had a different shape.

I would advocate an architecture that is site-specific, client-specific and instilled with the hands of the people who put the building together.  Later in life LeCorbusier’s pure white villas gave way to brutalist, “messy” buildings like the houses at Jauol.  The project was not a constructed abstraction direct from the architect’s head to the site.  Rather, it was embodied with the work, the opinions and the craft of masons, carpenters, glazers, etc.  Their work was not perfect, it was never intended to be, for a building is not prototyped product, it is a living, expressive entity, beautiful and functional in the least, and in the finest work, transcendent and poetic.

For my part, I will spend my time working on projects with real clients, challenging or not, on real sites, challenging or not, and making real buildings, with all the thrills and disappointments working with dozens of carpenters, painters, electricians, and craftsmen entails.

the best laid plans …

I have always been a bit suspicious of “planning”.  Like most things, when done well you don’t even notice it.  The land is divided and subdivided and the roads and views, spaces and limits are linked in a fine web.  Working in small and graduated scale is the key to avoiding the megamanical terrors of power and control masquerading as planning.

But, to those who would do away with this kind of god-like, patriarchial planning, let me show you what pure, unbound self-interest does:

These colored strips are legal property lots, mining claims staked outside Gold Hill, Colorado.  It might look like Daniel Libeskind’s latest proposal for a museum, but it is rather the purest kind of sign of speculation.  As you can see, they overlap, layer and conflict.  So, while this might make for a really nice composition, it is a nightmare of ownership, access, water rights, etc.

We need planners and their schemes.  We really need smart planners who see the use of the land as an integral part of our culture, environment and laws.  The days of simply drawing lines on surveys, without respect to topography, daylight access, transportation, and people are long over. The legacy of those simply-conceived lines stays with us in the tiny, stranded portions of lots that can be found all over cities and towns.

how about an 9′ wide parallel-parking-garage?

anyone for a 5′ wide by 50′ long house?

(actually that sounds like a pretty interesting challenge)

Daniel Burnham’s “make no small plans” advice is worth noting.  It does take a larger vision and coordination and integration at a very large scale to solve some serious problems and avoid many others.  However, implementation on a small, modest scale is what makes our cities and towns livable and truly sustainable.

So let’s advocate for strengthening that intermediary step of learning from the larger plan as a series of guidelines and principles, but allowing individual users and property owners to create projects that have some flexibility and variety.  Top-down planning tends toward a kind of oppressive totalitarianism and free-market development is selfish chaos.  The balance in the middle is tenuous and in a democratic society it is likely to be pushed and pulled by many hands, first in one direction, then another. Like most things ‘in the middle’, this position has no advocates, no strident champions.

Let’s make bold architecture and visionary plans, but let’s fight for careful and contemplative laws, rules and ordinances, and most importantly, let’s be willing to live with results that are not perfect, but reflect our own imperfect selves.

Radicondoli, Tuscany - planned and not-so-planned for centuries

Monastery of La Tourette, outside of Lyon, France

A pair of photos of La Tourette, looking at the distant mountains across the roof and chapel.

The Monastery of La Tourette was designed by LeCorbusier from 1957-1960.  Whereas LeCorbusier’s early work exhibited a sort of restlessness, looking more like they are about to stalk off across the landscape, this building and his later work are intensely rooted to their sites.  In the case of this building, the immediate site connection is a bit brutal, with awkward spaces below parts of the building, but in the context of the larger site, a hillside above a small village, the building sits alone, a sentinel, like the medieval cloister that it wants to be.  It is not a Cistercian-type abbey, removed from society, like a desert pillar-sitting ascetic.  Rather it sits somewhat self-consciously awkward on the edge of society, on the edge of the forest.

These photos exclude the immediate surrounding landscape and express that tension of both removal and connectedness.  A lucky, maybe intuitive set of snaps by me as an architecture student in France in 1988.  I spent a few days there, left to wander around in silence, with camera and sketchbook, a welcome reprise from months of traveling, trains and transience.

LeCorbusier’s work has taken a lot of criticism and scorn of late, especially his urban planning efforts.  My undergraduate studies were dominated by his work and writings and in a rare and joyous exception, the experience of the work itself far exceeded my studied knowledge and appreciation learned through books and photos.  His best work is like this building, sitting slightly outside of society but part of it, sometimes beckoning on to a bright future and I think often like this one, holding back the rush of history in fear of a progressivist onslaught.  His writings tell another story, but I can’t help but think that this building among a few others by him, express a different view.

Photograph by Mark Gerwing