All posts by Katie Jakovich

Friday Finds: Founders and Frontiersmen

Robert G. Ferris’ 1967 book Founders and Frontiersmen: Historic Places Commemorating Early Nationhood and the Westward Movement, 1783-1828 explores the early years of the United States, providing a history and analysis of how more can Founders and Frontiersmenbe learned about the men and the nation from the architecture.  Ferris seeks to provide a survey of historic sites in the U.S., and hopes “that citizens will use the volumes in this series to seek out and visit sites of interest to them” in order to help encourage preservation (Pg. xii).

Ferris begins the book by providing historical context to better understand the sites he uses as examples in the second part of the book.  The historical overview is crucial for making readers understand why the sites Ferris discusses are important and worthy of preservation.  The vast majority of the book is spent on the sites themselves, with some attention to what is learned from each one and how it contributes to American history, as in the case of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Maryland.  Ferris gives a broad and short description of the history, as well as explaining the park itself and the surrounding area.  Interestingly, Ferris leaves out some important elements from the story of Harpers Ferry: he denounces John Brown as only a man “who conceived himself as an instrument of providence…[and] led a violent raid on the town that helped goad the Nation closer to civil war” (Pg. 162).  While what Ferris said isn’t untrue, it leaves out important parts of the story.  John Brown did believe he was given divine permission to murder, specifically he believed it was time to bring the struggles over slavery to a head. Brown was, in fact, a fierce abolitionist who then turned to murder to try to achieve his goals.  There are some instances like this throughout Founders and Frontiersmen, where Ferris provides his own interpretation without presenting the full story.  This is less surprising, especially in the case of Harpers Ferry, when considering the book was published at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and fear of similar violence over race reached a zenith.  But overall, Ferris’ overviews are useful and provide that information which best adds to his argument for preservation.

Founders and Frontiersmen makes a compelling argument for the importance of these historic places, and thereby argues effectively for their continued preservation.  Ferris provides a fantastic overview, showing that the early United States was chaotic – a young nation finding its way in an experimental form of government, freshly broken away from the superpower of the day.  Many colonists fought for independence and the promise of a greater destiny in the American Revolution.  Ferris explains how that destiny then translated into the idea of Manifest Destiny: the notion that the United States was meant to expand westward.  But despite all this spirit and belief in American greatness, some of the architecture, particularly that of the capital city, is inspired by foreign buildings, a fact which Ferris hints at but never fully states. Greek elements are clear in the Capitol building, as well as in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  Yet there are uniquely American elements to each building, too.  The octagonal shape of Monticello  is distinctive and representative of Jefferson’s own tastes.  How did Americans go about adapting and developing their own architectural styles? Did the idea of Manifest Destiny aid in this? What role did climate, materials, and social needs play in developing frontier architecture?  Ferris never satisfactorily answers these questions, and he never fully admits that Americans have a habit of borrowing and building upon the work of others.  The idea of democracy itself was originally Greek, but the Founding Fathers adapted it to a new situation; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution borrowed ideas from British philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  But in spite of this, no one would say that the Constitution or the Declaration are anything but American documents.

In the popular musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton says at one point, “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”  Though Hamilton is a piece of historical fiction intended for Broadway, there is some truth to this statement. The Founding Fathers and the frontiersmen had to be, if not young, then at least “scrappy” and “hungry.”  These were men who took on the British army and (after many losses) won and then built a nation.  Frontiersmen faced harrowing experiences themselves while seeking to fulfill the idea of Manifest Destiny – starvation, an unyielding geography and climate, or Native Americans who were understandably mistrustful of Americans – yet they kept moving West until they hit the Pacific Ocean.  The early United States took elements of other nations’ architecture, culture, philosophy, and made it their own, so much so that now democracy, the Capitol, and the frontier house are strongly associated with the narrative of the United States. The Founding Fathers and the frontiersmen refused to throw away their shot: they adapted and created buildings, governments, and ways of thinking about American destiny that, though perhaps not entirely American in origin, are now closely intertwined with the American consciousness.  Today, Americans are known for their creativity, tenacity, and innovation, in part because of United States history and belief in itself; contemporary generations have shown themselves to be just as scrappy, just as hungry, and just as unwilling to throw away their shot at shaping the American narrative, landscape, and destiny as those who came before.

New Book: Disability, Space, Architecture

Boys, Jos, editor. Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader. New York, Routledge, 2017.

imagesNew this week is Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader, edited by Jos Boys.  The book is somewhat interdisciplinary, “exploring the interconnections between disability, architecture and cities…[with contributions from authors in the field of] architecture, geography, anthropology, health studies, English language and literature, rhetoric and composition, art history, disability studies and disability arts and cover personal, theoretical and innovative ideas and work” (Pg. 1).  There is no one argument throughout the book, but rather it seeks to provide an overarching, innovative perspective on disability and how spaces are viewed through that lens.

Disability, Space, Architecture examines the nature and experience of disability itself, and pays particular attention to contrasting it with ability, when appropriate.  Several of the authors are themselves disabled in some form, and the insights they provide to how they view the world and architecture, particularly, differently from others.  The book is organized by themes, including “Theory and Criticism,” “Education,” and “Projects and Practices,” each of which provides an important element for thinking about disability and architecture.  Of particular note is the part on “Projects and Practices” exploring ongoing or planned projects that adapt to the needs of the able and disabled, as well as what could improve in standard practices to better insure inclusivity.  One chapter examines the Ramp House, a home designed by a couple (both architects) for their wheelchair-bound daughter, Greta.  The house is an example of how a space can be disability-friendly without feeling so.  A friend of Greta’s, who is not disabled, explained that the house “is really thoughtful, it doesn’t feel unusual that it has a big ramp instead of stairs and it’s very well designed because it has everything that Greta needs and all the equipment she needs, but it’s not in the way…it’s really bright and spacious…and colorful” (Pg. 261).  The essay goes on to argue that designing a home around a disabled child drastically changes the home and can improve the lives of the family – when a child can do things for themselves, it is less stressful for parents and the child feels more self-sufficient.  The house becomes more inclusive to all and can even make the surrounding community far more aware of the accessibility of spaces.  This essay exemplifies in many ways the stories and other articles in Disability, Space, Architecture, as the article explores a range of issues and features personal stories and experiences that greatly add to the value of the piece.  Many of the essays contain similar aspects, but there is something meaningful about “The Ramp House” piece that makes it stand out among the pieces.

Boys’ and the contributors’ work on the relationship between disability, ability, and architecture is groundbreaking.  Disability, Space, Architecture seeks to view the world through the eyes of disabled individuals, and to reveal the privilege of the able-bodied in something as simple as moving about their home.  When spaces are designed to be inclusive, it undoubtedly improves the quality of life and experiences of everyone, whether disabled or not.  A disability impacts not only the person who is blind, deaf, or wheelchair-bound: it affects everyone around them, particularly family and friends.  To create a space that is welcoming to those with disabilities sends a strong message, especially in a world where moving around a house in a wheelchair can be difficult, or trying to navigate a city as a blind person can be nearly impossible.  The word “disabled” itself can imply that some places or activities are off-limits.  Disability, Space, Architecture seeks to change that.  When spaces, and especially architects, are conscious of the needs of people with disabilities or special needs, the spaces becomes more open and inherently more welcoming.  It is possible, with a little sensitivity, consideration, and a good architect, to turn this inability and disability into an ability.

Come by the Architecture and Planning Library to see the other new books we have this week!

Friday Finds: American Skyline

American Skylines - CoverThis copy of American Skyline: The Growth and Form of Our Cities and Towns by Christopher Tunnard and Henry Hope Reed was published in 1956.  The book explores the changes in the skylines of American cities from the colonial era under British control to 1953, when the book was originally published.  The authors explain in the introduction that “this is a book about the American townscape – the man-made America of industries, homes, skyscrapers, hotels, highways and parking lots…, how this scene was shaped, how it became part of the American heritage, how it affects the lives we lead, and how we may in turn shape it toward the future” (Pg. 15). Throughout are drawings and images of skylines at various points in history in many different cities.

Tunnard and Reed move chronologically through American history. They pay close attention to growth rates and celebrate the efforts to “rediscover the architectural and decorative art traditions” of the United States, and advocate for protecting the heritage of American architecture (Pg. 196).  There are discussions of the highway system, which was then brand new, as well as the rise of suburbs and the changes in architecture and planning brought about by the Civil War, namely Reconstruction and the massive rebuilding of the South.  It is important to note that American Skylines makes no mention of segregation in the South, which is the only notable gap in their coverage of the history of American architecture and planning. While the book focuses on skylines, city planning is also a major topic of interest, which makes the lack of mention of Jim Crow laws all the more glaring, but perhaps not surprising, given the era.  In 1953, Martin Luther King, Jr., had not become a household name yet, Brown v. Board of Education (the case which ended school segregation) had not been decided by the Supreme Court yet, and racism and racial tensions remained high.  Also notable is Tunnard and Reed’s close examination of the revolution of American architectural styles and preferences, as well as noting how these tastes seem to cycle in and out of fashion.  The fluctuation between modern and classic becomes clearly throughout American Skyline.

Interestingly, there are several ways that American Skyline proves rather forward-thinking.  Already in the 1950s, Tunnard and Reed are advocating for the preservation of historic buildings, something which is an ongoing battle in the country today.  Many cities fail to protect these sites in favor of industrial growth over historic preservation, which as led to efforts across the nation to protect historic buildings.  This stands in stark contrast with many European countries that carefully protect their buildings.  Granted, the United States has a relatively short history in comparison with other Western nations, but so far it has not been as devoted to historic preservation as Europe.  But then many European cities do not possess the iconic skylines of American cities.  There are, to be sure, famous buildings that stand out, but nothing quite like the New York City skyline, filled with nearly monotonous skyscrapers, yet instantly recognizable.  Perhaps, it might be argued, this kind of skyline is unique to the United States, in part due to its failure to preserve historic buildings.  So, this means that out of the loss of so many beautiful and historically important buildings sprang a uniquely American phenomenon.

There is something fascinating about skylines.  They offer only a glimpse, an outline of a city, but they also reveal a great deal about it.  Skyscrapers now dominate most American skylines.  Here in Austin, the skyline that once included the University of Texas Tower, the dome of the Texas State Capital, and the Frost Bank is now mostly overshadowed by towering condo buildings.  Visible in the Austin skyline is the rapid growth of the city in the last ten years, the need for more housing, the fact that Austin is a city filled with many young people who are drawn to living downtown instead of in the suburbs. Also reflected in these changing skylines are the advances in technology, building, and changes in architectural styles.  Where early American architecture is Greek revivalist (e.g. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, or the U.S. Capital), and the Empire State Building includes elements of the Art Deco style popular at the time of its building, many of the most visible buildings in the United States today are sleeker and decidedly modern.  Church steeples used to be important parts of the skyline, representative of America’s roots in the Protestant Puritans who left England to escape religious persecution.  Skylines can even have an emotional impact, as with the iconic New York City skyline without the Twin Towers – for years there was a sadness evoked by the empty spaces, but now Freedom Tower fills some of that space, meant as a beacon to the world that the United States remains loyal to its values and remembers the tragedy of 9/11.  Every skyline is unique, filled with the architecture of the city and revealing part of the story.  In a way, a city’s history is written in its buildings; if so, then a skyline is the literal outline of the city and its story, a silhouette that  intrigues and hints at what a city offers.

New Books: Relics of the Reich

Philpott, Colin. Relics of the Reich: The Buildings the Nazis Left Behind.
Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books, 2016.

51kejxbQHNL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_New this week at the Library is Colin Philpott’s 2016 book Relics of the Reich: The Buildings the Nazis Left Behind, a fascinating analysis of Nazi architecture, examining “the physical legacy of the Nazis, their buildings, their structures, and their public spaces” (Pg. x).  The Nazis were strategists, everything carefully calculated to serve their ambitions and hopes of a master race, and this included their buildings, everything from the Reichstag to Berchtesgaden to Dachau Concentration Camp.  Philpott’s book emphasizes just how critical the physical spaces were to the Nazis’ success in maintaining power and committing genocide.

Philpott explores themes in Nazi architecture, including what he calls “establishing the faith,” “enforcement,” “showing off to the world,” “future fantasies,” and “downfall.”  Within each theme he discusses specific buildings that served that purpose.  For example, “showing off to the world” focuses primarily on the 1936 Olympics, the 1937 World’s Fair, and other locations international visitors passed through, such as airports.  Similarly, “future fantasies” discusses the future plans of the Nazis that never came to be due to the escalation of World War II, including a vast plan to forever alter Berlin and rename it “Germania.”  Hitler planned “for Germania as Welthaupstadt (World Capital) of a trimphant Germany…[to represent German] world domination” (Pg. 113).  Philpott describes the plans as being so grand and megalomaniacal as to be absurd. Through these plans, it becomes clear that Hitler had become consumed by his desire for power, and so confident in his control over Germany and ability to dominate other countries by 1939, that these self-aggrandizing plans to essentially renovate the whole of Berlin seemed realistic and inevitable.   But of particular interest is Philpott’s theme on “Holocaust.”  Not only does Philpott highlight the physical spaces of the Holocaust, but he also discusses the ways those spaces and the horrors which took place there have been commemorated.  Philpott points out that some of these memorials were self-serving, especially those built while Germany was split between the Allied powers; the Russians sought to paint Communism as a liberating force that freed victims from Nazi rule, while the American side of Germany produced monuments after facing pressure from survivors to do so.

Countless books have been written on the Third Reich, the genocide it perpetrated, and the lasting impact of a regime that committed unmatched horrors.  There is a tendency to focus on the terrors of the Holocaust, and rightly so, but to better understand the Holocaust, one must also seek to understand other aspects of what the Nazis sought to achieve.  Adolf Hitler and his colleagues hoped to build a master race, eliminating Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally disabled in order to build the Aryan society of which they dreamed.  Thus, the systematic murder of six million people became a priority for the Nazi regime.  But the development of this master race also included building, as well as destruction and murder.  It required the building of concentration camps to house the people they planned to murder, the construction of ghettos before Jews were forced into train cars like cattle, they had to build the gas chambers and the crematoriums, and there had to be new government buildings to symbolize the new era.  This physical, architectural element was crucial to the Third Reich’s plans for their “Final Solution” and the world they tried (and failed) to build.  Everything they did, everything they built was coldly calculated to serve those interests.

The systematic murder of six million people is an atrocity that remains somewhat incomprehensible.  For all the books, the studies, and the conversations, there is something about understanding the Holocaust that remains elusive because of the sheer scope of it.  The questions that keep recurring involve the unanswerable: why?  Why did Hitler and the Reich murder millions of people?  Why did so many Germans do and say nothing?  We have some answers to these questions, but they will never be complete, and they will never be enough to make up for the six million lives taken. But by examining what the Nazis built, and the careful planning required to carry out their Final Solution, Philpott’s Relics of the Reich provides more answers – and more questions.  The Holocaust, if possible, becomes worse in a way because of the cruelty and coldness evident in the planning of the gas chambers, crematoriums, and concentration camps, as well as the callous and narcissistic ways in which the Third Reich planned Germany’s future as it carried out mass murder.  And so, we have more “whys.”  Why did the Nazis feel so little empathy and so little respect for human lives (those who did not fit their vision of the Aryan race) that they felt compelled and justified in committing genocide?  Why did no one speak out when the crematoriums were built, especially when locals could smell the burning bodies?  Why would they plan to renovate the whole of Berlin while millions were dying in the gas chambers?  You can ask “why” over and over and over again. There will never be an answer, at least not a satisfactory one, but the answer is nonetheless worth the seeking.  And, perhaps surprisingly, the physical spaces built by the Nazis play an important role in discovering answers to the mysterious, tragic “whys” of the Holocaust.

Friday Finds: Secret Chambers and Hiding Places

Secret Chambers - CoverWritten by Allan Fea in 1901, Secret Chambers and Hiding Places: The Historic, Romantic, & Legendary Stories and Traditions About Hiding-Holes, Secret Chambers, Etc. explores “the gloomy hiding-holes, concealed apartments, passages, and staircases…[which are] the very groundwork of romance…[and] vitality of a plot” (pg. 12-13). Fea considers both fictional portrayals of hidden chambers and passageways, as well as historical uses of such architectural elements.  He is fascinated by the mystique of secret chambers, as well as the fact that they can serve malicious (as in the case of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed assassination attempt on the King James I of England) or benevolent purposes (young James II, while captive, became known for discovering hiding places during games of hide-and-seek, and so escaped while playing the game).

Secret Chambers and Hiding Places features entire chapters focused on the above mentioned instances, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and James II’s escape, but also explores specific houses, their owners, and the intended use of the secret spaces in every case.  He explores the phenomenon of “priests’ holes,” which were hiding spots built into the homes of Catholics in England during the time when Catholics were persecuted, in order to hide a priest in the home, sometimes including passages for escape.  In Salisbury, an old mansion “is said to have been a favorite hiding-place for fugitive cavaliers [Royalists] at the time of the Civil War” (pg. 160).  Fea provides a detailed description of the passage itself, as well as how it was not discovered until the late 1800s by complete happenstance; someone bumped a panel, which then opened to reveal a ordinary-looking cupboard, only to find that when one shelf was removed, the cupboard became a door leading to a small staircase which provided a concealed lookout point and a hiding spot.  All this within a small country manor-turned-inn.  Fea supplies such details in most of the chapters of the book, providing a deeper understanding of the mechanics and cleverness of these chambers.

Fea was a historian and author, and Secret Chambers and Hiding Places was his first published work, followed by seven other books, including one on James II (to whom two chapters of Secret Chambers and Hiding Places is devoted) and another called Nooks and Corners of Old England from 1907.  Clearly, Fea possessed a strong interest in hidden spaces, focusing on elements of plots and stories that were of little interest to other historians.  Like many historical works of the era, there are no citations or sources mentioned in Secret Secret Chambers - Pg. 148Chambers and Hiding Places, but rather Fea likely works from stories, other historical works, or perhaps even some myths.  Today, historians are expected to provide evidence for their claims and arguments, and to work primarily with facts and not rumor, yet somehow the mystery of Fea’s sources adds to his overall point about the mystique of these secret spaces – nothing is known for certain about who hid there, how they felt, why they hid, but Fea makes conjectures about such things, which are unknowable, to add to his story.

Though in some ways Secret Chambers and Hiding Places is a questionable work of history, it is a valuable historical source.  Fea provides drawings of the secret spaces he discusses, to help describe the mechanics of the chambers and provide useful context.  He shows that he has been to many of these spaces (as he did the drawings himself) and wishes for his readers to be as mesmerized by them as he is.  Secret Chambers and Hiding Places never claims to be a history, but Instead seeks to blend history with legend.  Fea makes the two indistinguishable.  It is unclear what is fact versus fiction, history versus legend.  But that seems to be Fea’s point.  He takes things which are hardly discussed (hiding holes for priests, secret passages for escapes, tunnels for assassination attempts) in the stories known by many English citizens and turns them into grand, important elements in the epic legends and history of Britain. There is something elusive and mystical about these hidden spaces that fascinates people, but it makes up only a small part of the story. What Fea’s book lacks in historical truth, it makes up for in highlighting the importance of secret spaces to England’s most famous historical events and mythologies.

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.

Friday Finds: Men and Buildings

Gloag - Cover SheetOriginally published in 1931, John Gloag’s book Men and Buildings examines architectural history and trends.  Gloag gives special attention to Italy, England, and changes in more contemporary times.  Gloag notes that “despite new materials and the need for work on a bigger scale, it is a peculiar weakness of our time to take refuge in the past for inspiration” (pg. 4).  He argues that “only if they are humanized can the austere experiments of the present prepare the way for an eventual coherence in architectural taste and a new majesty of form,” one which reflects modern values and an understanding that others will inherit those forms (pg. 228).

Men and Buildings is nearly as focused on the future as it is on the past.  The epilogue even includes a theoretical discussion in the 50th century among archaeologists interpreting the uncovered remnants of a 19th century bridge.  Gloag discusses the recurring theme in architecture of looking to the past for inspiration.  He pays particular attention to England’s recycling of Roman architecture, even naming the chapter “England Edits Rome.”  Additionally, Gloag notes Italy’s reuse of Roman architecture, as well as the numerous advances in materials and the dearth of quality modern architecture featuring new ideas.  Overall, he seems to mourn the state of architecture as of 1931, feeling that it lacks originality and does not reflect the values of society.

In Gloag’s fictional discussion in the epilogue, the archaeologists discover coins under the bridge.  The elder archaeologist believes the coins to be there by chance, while the younger theorizes that they were thrown intentionally.  The young archaeologists, it is revealed, is correct – the coins were thrown by those wishing for luck.  The story serves several purposes.  Gloag consistently argues for the reflection of “values” in architecture.  While it is easy to sort some priorities from the architecture of a home, for example (e.g. a large dining room might indicate the importance of entertaining and family), but it is more complicated with a bridge.  However, the presence of the coins might indicate a bridge so grand and so beautiful, that it inspires people to treat the river below as a wishing well.  The epilogue also implies the importance of the younger generation in innovation and discoveries.  The elder archaeologist dismisses the theory of the younger outright – had the determination of the apprentice archaeologist not been so strong, he might never have been proven correct.  In this sense, Gloag seems to be suggesting that it is time for the older generation to listen to and pass the baton on to the next.  Humans are taught to respect their elders due to their wisdom and experience, but new developments often come from the young.  Oftentimes, the ideas that change the world start as a radical, preposterous notion in the mind of an adolescent.

New Book: Architects’ Homes

Patch, Bethany, editor. Architects’ Homes. Victoria, The Images Publishing Group, 2017.

Architects' Homes - Cover pageBethany Patch’s Architects’ Homes examines the homes architects build for themselves, arguing that “architects use the design of their own homes both as a design experiment and as a representation of their own beliefs and ideals” (pg. 7).  The book contains what Patch believes to be “a small segment of the designs that result from a successful collaboration between the architect as the designer and the architect as the owner” (pg. 9).

Architects’ Homes contains photographs and descriptions of the homes, including the materials used and the architects’ wants and needs.  The styles and locations of the home vary widely.  Many of the homes have distinctive tastes and serve as family homes while also being pieces of art, in a sense.  The architects have put themselves into these projects in a way they cannot in their work for clients.  As both architect and client, the owners of these homes have taken great care in the materials, layouts, and elements they include in their plans.  Most of the homes are also well-suited to their surroundings.  For example, the McKinley Resident in Southern California, owned and designed by David Hertz, fits nicely into its context.  It is at once modern and modular with elements of a traditional beach house.  There is an outdoor shower to use after going to the beach, as well as countless windows “to take advantage of the abundant Californian light and cool ocean breeze” (pg. 108). In keeping with California priorities, the house includes recycled woods and runs on solar energy for electricity, hot water, and heating (there is no air conditioning because of the cross-ventilation created by all the windows).  Many of the houses similarly fit into their environments and locations, while also being distinctive for the architect’s particular tastes.

Providing an in-depth look at the homes architects design for themselves, Architects’ Homes supplies insights into architects’ processes and personal tastes.  While the job of the architect is to serve the client, how does that change when the architect is the client?  Does it make the process more difficult or easier?  How do their priorities and styles differ when it comes to their own homes?  These are fascinating questions raised by Architects’ Homes which the book only begins to explore, but there can be little doubt as to the uniqueness of these buildings and the fact that, to the architects, they are much more than any other house they might design – they are home.