For Thinkers, Doers, and Folks Who Ride the Bus
Architecture — its meaning, social significance, personality, practice, and historical import — is the subject of three important new books published this fall. I read them all on my bus to and from work and commend them to you.
Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture (Harper Design) by Rowan Moore, is a penetrating and wonderfully lucid study of how emotions like hope or the drive for power shape our buildings and thus our understanding of the world. Moore is the architecture critic for the London Observer and he ranges widely across the globe, from explaining the desires that shape the extravagance of Dubai to the hopes that remain in attempting to rebuild parts of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
I found his explanation of what makes a good building especially compelling: “A good building is decisive but not rigid, which is one of the reasons why architecture is difficult. The instability of architecture is also its grace: it is the reason why places shaped with the help of corruption, tyranny, greed, fear, megalomania, or repression — which includes many of the most admired spaces in Europe — can be beautiful and liberating. It is the reason why clients and architects can create something richer than their narrow ambitions would suggest.” Moore makes you realize that architecture is as contradictory, infuriating, and wonderful as the people and mechanisms that have a hand in shaping it.
How Architecture Works — A Humanist’s Toolkit, by Witold Rybczynski (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Trained as an architect himself, Rybczynski, who teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is the justly celebrated author of many exceptional architecture books, from his delightful The Perfect House — about living in a Palladian villa — to an insightful biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. In How Architecture Works he offers a fascinating seminar on what an architect is taught and how those ideas — which have evolved over time — get translated into built form. He uses both historical and contemporary examples to describe the architect’s toolkit — in effect deconstructing how architects from Louis Kahn to my own good friend Marc Appleton — go about their work, from site to plan to structure to building skin. And he explains how that most elusive element — taste — plays a role.
What I like about Rybczynski’s approach is his interest in helping us understand the extraordinary variety of architecture. He says: “architectural innovation, whether it is willful and questions established conventions, or considered and embraces old rules, never occurs in a vacuum…Yet architectural diversity is a good thing. An architect must hold strong convictions in order to create, but as users of architecture we should open our minds — and our eyes– to the richness of our surroundings. And allow the buildings to speak to us.” He shows us how to do just that.
Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II, by Martin Filler (New York Review Books). New York-based Filler is one of our very best architecture critics, and here he discusses the careers, personalities, and impacts of key figures in 20th and 21st century design, from Le Corbusier to Michael Arad — designer of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. Filler gives us important social history with elegant and often acerbic turns of phrase, as when he says: “Although Le Corbusier was determined to be well known, he was also determined not to be known well.” Or, in speaking of Corbu’s “intense mother fixation” — a factor discovered by the biographer Fox Weber, Filler says this about the architect’s famous chapel at Ronchamp: “the cavernous biomorphic interiors of this miraculous structure…do indeed echo the sensuous contours of the female anatomy…Even so, it would be a mistake to see Le Corbusier’s transcendant hilltop sanctuary solely, or even primarily, as a womb with a view.” Marvelous!
There are many similarly elegant, trenchant throw-away lines — such as when describing Frank Lloyd Wright’s praise for Edward Durell Stone’s US Embassy of 1958 in New Delhi, he says Wright “went so far as to claim it was more beautiful than the Taj Majal, proof that he had never laid eyes on either.” Filler does what an architecture critic should: he fluidly explains the social context for design and why he thinks a particular building is good or bad. I would not want to be the target of his erudite wit, but I admire the precision of his prose and the way he brings the vibrant personality of modern architecture to life.