Building a Case for Architecture—Part 2 in a Series

My first entry in this series was about my experiences reading science fiction. Readers would naturally have expected a continuation of the series with more on SF. So what’s up with architecture?

Here’s what’s up. I got the idea to reflect on my past and present experiences, with thoughts tossed in about what I’d still like to read (or read again) and why. But I want to zero in on the best of my experiences in categories. These categories may be broad, or they may be very focused.

Image.Book Cover.Alain de Botton.Architecture of HappinessWith this in mind, feel free to read the following interview with myself:

Alias: How did you come by this lame idea?

Doug: To begin, I read a lot. Too much for other people’s good. Most of the books I’ve read I own, and the best ones are a valuable part of my library. Among my treasured books are books about books. One of these is a book called The Reader’s Companion: A Book Lover’s Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge, as Chosen by the Experts. Now, I’m not expert about very many things, but books have been great companions for me for as long as I can remember.

Alias: What are some books you remember from your youth?

Doug: I may get to that in a separate contribution to this series. But the other day I was reminded of a whole series of books that I read cover-to-cover. I was riding on the Coaster—a train that runs from Oceanside to San Diego—with my extended family. There were about 25 of us. I got to chatting with one of my young nephews and I asked him what books he liked. He said he likes the Sugar Creek books. So bam! out of the blue comes this memory of all The Sugar Creek Gang books. I was reading those about 35 years ago! So my nephew and I have a lot in common. See what happens when you talk about books?

Alias: So this series is about books that have been important to you?

Doug: Important to me in a way that might be of interest to others who care about the things I care about. I’ve spent a lifetime asking people for book suggestions. I want to write about the choices I’ve made along the way, why they mattered then and whether they matter now, and reasons I might recommend them to others. It would be tough to list the most important books in my own field, and impossible for any other field. But I can list books of value, and that’s what matters. If I’m interested in a genre of literature new to me, like science fiction or epic poetry, I want to select from choice offerings. I poke around and ask people for suggestions. Then I jump in. I get a feel for things, and then I move on. Maybe I come back.

Alias: Why don’t you have a classy name for this series?

Doug: Good question. What would you suggest?

Alias: How about “Books of Value”?

Doug: I like it. Maybe my readers will have some great ideas, too. I can go back and change titles to earlier entries in the series to reflect the name of the series. But a series name should be catchy, and it should reveal something about what to expect.

Alias: This entry is called “Building a Case for Architecture”? Why is that if all we’re doing here is conducting an interview?

Doug: Well, we got a little off track. But architecture is an interest of mine. I mean, I’m interested in certain things about architecture—what buildings mean, why one building is beautiful and another isn’t, whether a particular building fits its surroundings or whether it’s poorly located. How long a building has been where it stands, and what the surrounding area was like when construction was completed. There’s no way that Christopher Wren could have imagine how the city of London would eventually gobble up the ornate churches he designed for the city. There are so many angles on architecture. I guess there was a pun in that.

Alias: What are some other interesting issues?

Doug: Whether the purpose of a building has changed over time. For example, this seems to be the case with so many churches in New England, all painted white and adorned with a simple steeple. What are they there for now? What happened there? That question, “What are they there for now?” sort of grabs me. These buildings have been “re-purposed,” as if that purpose they now serve is the purpose they were designed to serve. “They’re so cute. Perfect for a boutique shop, or a tea room.”

I’m interested in changes in architecture over time, and why some forms of ancient architecture have been borrowed many times since their invention. For example, do you know the architectural basis for this nation’s capitol building? Why was this chosen? Who made the decisions? What was this new adoption of classical architecture supposed to mean to a young nation?

Ot this . . . how does a building make you feel when you stand next to it, or when you’re inside? Is it better to view it from a distance? Is it even possible to view it from a distance, or is it too crowded by other buildings? When I see a photo of aerial view of New York City, what do I see? Buildings. I don’t see one building; I see many buildings. But I may not focus on any one of them. My attention may be on the whole that somehow is NYC. How is that possible? What does it say about NY? What does it say about me? Am I different than most people in the ways my attention is attracted when I see a skyline?

What’s more impressive, the Golden Gate Bridge as such or the terrific human accomplishment it represents? Does it really “represent” human achievement? Is it supposed to? Or try this one. How is the Golden Gate Bridge different in kind than the “carvings” of Mount Rushmore? What does Mount Rushmore “mean”? Are there any buildings that mean the same thing? Could there be? What is the limit to what a building can mean? And what may be a related question, what were the great monarchs or the papacy thinking when they commissioned the design and erection of certain buildings?

Many old buildings get bull-dozed, but others are preserved at great expense? What makes the difference? Who decides? Have there been any major regrets about decisions past? And how, exactly, is a building preserved? You can’t tuck them away in an art museum somewhere.

Alias: And there are books that explore such things?

Doug: Yes! My first suggestion is the book The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. Start here. If you aren’t turned on about buildings after that, then move on. Read about crocodiles instead. If you’re hooked, then learn a little about types of architecture. For this I suggest the morsel Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Ballantyne. It’s not beautifully crafted, like de Botton’s, but it’s short and it’s educational. There are guidebooks for specific buildings or neighborhoods. There are books with sketches of buildings old and new. And don’t forget about biographies of great or celebrated architects: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. And then are biographies, as it were, of buildings themselves, accounts of how they were designed and built, the purposes they served or serve, and so on. Think of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal.

Alias: Are there books on architecture that you hope to get to eventually?

Doug: Yes. Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture, by John Summerson; Lewis Mumford’s From the Ground Up, another book of essays. These authors are good at their craft. They are wordsmiths, which makes reading about architecture (or anything, for that matter) more enjoyable. I like the essay style because you can dip into a work at your leisure and take something away in short order. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space looks interesting to me from this distance. But the style of French philosophy may not be to my liking. We’ll see.

Other Sources for Reading about Architecture (for non-architects):

Readers, do you have suggestions for non-architects reading to understand and appreciate architecture? Leave your suggestions for the rest of us in the comments box.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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