Monday, December 10, 2012

Thinking Architecture

Taking advantage of the student "reading days," the period between the end of classes and the beginning of finals, I have been reviewing some new books that might be used as textbooks for introductory classes. Although, teaching free for a whole semester as I go on sabbatical, I am capitalizing on the teaching buzz of this semester to plan my capstone seminar in Fall 2013. This browsing period has proven to be extremely productive in that I have found two brilliant new books that I would wholeheartedly recommend to any novice or teacher of architectural history.

During the 1960s, teaching architectural history witnessed its greatest calamity when two academic disciplines bifurcated. Schools of Architecture and Departments of Art History decided to part ways, a rather unfortunate divorce for architectural historians who served both communities. In the 1980s, the golden decade of post-structural theory, School of Architecture took a dive into deep theory. The same can be said about art historians dealing with visual texts. But architectural historians that had no relationship to contemporary architectural practices did not. Interestingly enough, both are now in crisis. The high theorists of architecture our spinning their wheels, while the positivists art historians are losing their audience by the minute. 

Colin Davies has written the first textbook that has successfully bridged the gap between the anti-historical theorists and the anti-theoretical historians. Thinking about Architecture: An Introduction to Architectural Theory (London, 2011) is a phenomenal accomplishment. In just 150 pages and organized around eight themes, Davies has interjected history with the passion of its internal hermeneutic tradition but has also tamed the seemingly incomprehensible "architecture speak" (or theory light) still dominant in schools of design. Each chapter is divided into coherent sections with obvious primary sources for the student and a very economical number of monuments that most efficient illustrate the point. I have embraced the book for its clarity and sophistication and its classroom-friendliness. 

Another new book that I absolutely adore is a little collection of essays on the architecture of the home. Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic for the Financial Times and his essays originate from those pages. His little book, The Meaning of Home (London, 2012), takes the reader through a philosophical tour of every nook and corner of a home. Each essay is a few pages long but rich with evocations on historical meanings. It makes an ideal textbook for a class on the philosophy of houses if supplemented by an investigation of the textual comparenda that it brings to the reader (literature, philosophy, film, etc.) But it also makes an inspiring read for anyone interested in the cultural power of houses. This book fits well in Christmas stockings (but beware of ugly cover).

I also reviewed Alexandra Lange's, Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (New York, 2012). The book is intended as a handbook on writing contemporary criticism. It takes six classic texts of criticism and analyzes them as strategic documents. The texts are Lewis Mufmord's "House of Glass," Herbert Muschamp's "The Miracle of Bilbao," Michael Sorkin's "Save the Whitney," Charles Moore's "You Have to Pay for the Public Life," Frederick Law Olmsted's "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns," and Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." The collection is a wonderful idea and I can imagine how it could be used for a writing seminar on criticism. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out any other objectives and found it difficult to incorporate it in any classes that I teach. Lange gave a seminar at Queens College this last semester on What to Do with an Art History Degree. I would have loved my students to attend since, outside of New York or Los Angeles, few consider a career in architectural criticism.

1 comment:

Sasha said...

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States

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