New Books: Building Zion and The Optimum Imperative

There are so many amazing news books at the Architecture and Planning Library this week, one book just was not enough to feature in a blog post.  So this week’s highlights are Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement by Thomas Carter, and The Optimum Imperative: Czech Architecture for the Socialist Lifestyle, 1938-1968 by Ana Miljacki.

Carter’s Building Zion explores the differences and continuities between traditional American architecture and Mormon architecture, as well as the drastic contrast in style between Mormon temples Building Zion - Coverand Mormon homes.  Carter’s book reveals a fascinating conundrum: Mormon temples are designed to stand out, while Mormon homes are meant to blend in with a typical family home in the United States.  The temple is a physical representation of the uniqueness of the Mormon faith, yet the home downplays the polygamous nature of some Mormon families.  Carter also explores that even though the homes of Mormons in Utah were designed to house a larger family, sometimes with each wife living in a wing with their children, the homes are surprisingly typical in style and size. This reflects the desire of many Mormon families to fit in.  Before migrating to Utah, Mormons were sometimes ostracized or even persecuted in their communities; considering this history, it is perfectly understandable that Mormons would seek to stand out as little as possible in their family life, as it was polygamy that bothered many opponents of the faith.  So then, why make the temples stand out so?  This is exactly what Carter explores in Building Zion, as well as the realities of daily life in Mormon settlements.

Miljacki writes on a completely different topic in The Optimum Imperative: Czech architecture from 1938 (when the nation, then called Slovakia, was divided between Hungary, Germany, and The Optimum Imperative - CoverPoland) to 1968 (the time of the Prague Spring, when Czechoslovakia began to liberalize and the Soviet Union invaded to regain control).  This is a particularly fascinating time in Czech history, and Miljacki examines how the architecture reflected socialist ideals.  Miljacki is not kind to the theory or reality of socialism, arguing that the architecture of the Soviet Union years reinforced and physically imposed socialism, class struggles, and Soviet control on the Czech people.  Following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and establishment of the Czech Republic, there was a renewed emphasis on Czech heritage and culture, presumably architecture, too.  Though The Optimum Imperative does not explore beyond 1968, Miljacki provides the necessary context and background to better understand modern trends in the country and its strong dislike of all things Russian.

While seemingly unrelated, Building Zion and The Optimum Imperative both discuss, broadly, the importance of architecture as an expression of control and culture.  For Mormons, while it was critical to them to deemphasize the distinctive nature (to outsiders, the “otherness”) of their large families and polygamous marriages, the temple was an opportunity to physically express that otherness without judgment as a place of worship.  The Soviet Union used architecture to reinforce the values of socialism, and thereby their control over Czechoslovakia, which later led to a return of Czech tradition.  In both cases, architecture served as an opportunity for cultural expression and as a means of giving the appearance of normality to atypical situations.

Friday Finds: Medieval Architecture, Vol. I

Medieval Architecture - CoverFirst published in 1909, Arthur Kingsley Porter’s Medieval Architecture: Its Origins and Development Volume I seeks to serve as a survey of Medieval architecture for laymen as well as architects and students of architecture. Porter notes in the beginning that that book “attempts to unravel only a single thread from the tangled skein of medieval art…[which] is made up of that succession of formative or generative styles that shaped the architectural destinies of Europe” (pg. v).  By identifying the main formative styles, Porter builds context and a better understanding of Medieval architecture, even if it is not quite a survey of the subject.

Porter begins with a discussion of the architecture of antiquity, such as Roman and German, as well as particular exploration of the elements most incorporated into Medieval architecture, including the different kinds of vaults, arches, and ornamentation. Next he examines early Christian styles, and the connection between faith and architecture in these buildings.  From there, Porter launches into a study of Byzantine, Carolingian, Lombard, and Norman architecture.  He pays close attention to the similarities and Medieval Architecture - Page 8differences between each, and to the elements most frequently adopted, some of which remain popular in modern times, and others which are considered antiquated. Crucially, Porter draws a direct line between antiquity, Medieval architecture, and modern architecture, showing that ancient architectural features are not necessarily antiquated or irrelevant.

For many years, a synonym for “The Middle Ages” or “The Medieval Period” has been “The Dark Ages.”  While this has changed among historians, many in the public still refer to “The Dark Ages,” a time of seeming backwardness, where knowledge and advancement was lost as it gave way to the dominance of Christianity.  While it is true that the Church made efforts to suppress scientific thought and reading was a privilege reserved only for elites, to classify the Medieval period as a Dark Age is a gross exaggeration.  And in this sense, Porter’s book is extremely valuable, not to mention ahead of its time in acknowledging the contributions of Medieval thought and architects to the field.  In Medieval Architecture, Porter brings the remarkable architecture of Medieval times out of the Dark Ages into the light.

New Books: Narrative Architecture

De Bleeckere, Sylvain, and Sebastiaan Gerards. Narrative Architecture: A Designer’s Story. New York, Routledge, 2017.

Narrative Architecture - CoverNew to the Architecture Library this week is Sylvain De Bleeckere and Sebastiaan Gerards’ Narrative Architecture: A Designer’s Story.  Focusing on four themes (thinking, imagining, educating, and designing), Narrative Architecture explores the underlying meanings of architecture, and the acts of thinking, listening, and learning that go into designing.

Bleeckere and Gerards explain that the book “is a designer’s story in which our personal experiences in our school of architecture, our critical study of some important texts…and our analysis of some paradigmatic artworks and films are rhizomatically interwoven” (pg. 3).  They also examine how “it seems that architecture can speak and act like human actors do” (pg. 1).  In each of the four chapters are summaries of major relevant philosophical works and theories, providing context and philosophical backing to prove the importance of each theme.  By approaching the subject from this angle, Bleeckere and Gerards can better understand the motivations of architects, the thought that goes into the buildings they design, and what can be learned from the buildings themselves.

Narrative Architecture, ultimately, portrays architecture as a kind of storytelling, with architects as the storytellers.  Every individual and every building had something to say.  It is crucial to not only question what the architect reveals about the building, but what the building reveals about the architect, as well.  The historical context of the architect, the space, and the building can unveil so much more than traditionally thought.  If we let a building slowly divulge its narrative, then we too become a part of the story.