Tag Archives: Helen Vendler

Twelve Books on Architecture

Introducing Architectural Theory [issuu, amazon] is a book that gathers together pieces of writing on various themes in architecture for the purpose of getting people – mainly architecture students – to do the following.

theory

The first two, a. and b. – are absolutely necessary. So are the next two, c. and d. and must be passed through in order to get to e. have original thoughts.

The texts in the book are mostly well known and organized into functional groups such as Ornament & Austerity, Honesty & Deception, Function & Form and Natural & Constructed. But even if the selection of texts is balanced, the choice of functional groups is not. It implies they will continue to have relevance (for theory at least) and also that how we think about architecture in the future can be informed by how certain people thought about those aspects of it in the past. This isn’t necessarily true. You may as well go it alone and read whatever interests you, spice it up with whatever crosses your path, let it cook, and see what happens.

Here’s some I’ve read. It’s not an exhaustive list as some I haven’t yet finished and others haven’t yet arrived. Other books I’ve given away and some I’ve gifted, sometimes inadvertendly but I’ve learned something from each of the books in even this small selection. One of the things I learned is that just because a thought is original doesn’t mean it’s any good, although it may make it more likely to be taken, or mistaken, as such. Also worth remembering is that not all the writers were architects. For those that were, I’d recommend keeping in mind the difference between what they said and what they did.

• • •

Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier

41VzhIAnJvL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

Always fun. Read how Le Corbusier praises engineers for their pure thinking and how they applied it to objects that defined the age. See how he takes that thinking, adds to it all that people of the time thought virtuous about the architecture of ancient Greece, and then calls it new. In the chapter “Eyes That Do Not See”, Le Corbusier looks at various machines but sees them only as metaphors for a new architecture obeying old rules, rather than the genuinely purposeful architecture that was sorely wanted at the time.

• • •

The International Style, 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock & Philip Johnson

41K8SZCuIeL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Another classic, whichever edition you have. Be appalled by the lack of argument, the shameless prejudice and the shallow, mean and self-serving agenda. When reading the image captions, be horrified by what the pair thought worthy of comment, and then by the comments themselves. It’s an ugly book and you’ll feel unclean after having read it but, unfortunately, that’s why it’s essential reading. It is wrong to claim The International Style was the first introduction to modern architecture for the US. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics introduced it first and to far more people. The difference is that Popular Mechanics introduced modern architecture as a new way of building, The International Style reduced it to art.

Related posts:
The International Style 1932
Architecture vs. Building
The Things Historians Do

• • •

The Minimum Dwelling, 1932, Karel Teige

TeigeThe Minimum Dwelling

The fact this translation came so late is a shame, for Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Karel Teige is Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic we now know of because this 2002 book, originally published in 1932, was only translated into English seventy years later. Czech, German and Russian architects were blessed with architectural journals translating and communicating American and British developments but the lack of flow in the other direction implies occidental arrogance. You can read what architects of the time were really concerned about, and who actually said what at CIAM meetings. It’s dense with text and thoughts. When read in conjunction with the previous book, it’s shocking to see the difference between how modern architecture was understood in late ’20s/early ’30s Europe and how it came to be communicated.

Related post:
Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige

• • •

 Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, Reyner Banham

a847017d56969b2936b5f9b2eb6a7c18

Modern readers will find this book difficult as it’s not written in Banham’s later and more readable journalistic style. It’s still well worth reading though, because Banham is the teacher you wish you’d had. He’s scholarly in a  good way. He doesn’t make unverifiable statements or attribute ideas to people to fit his argument, or without a thorough assessment of what information they could conceivably had had access to. His conclusions as to who thought what and who was influenced by whom are often at odds with accepted histories. The book was written over fifty years ago but is now a refreshing look at the fifty years before that.

• • •

 The Victorian Country House, 1973, Mark Girouard

the victorian country house

This book reminds you why books exist. It tells the story of these huge houses and the people who commissioned them and why. You read about technological advances, their failures and their successes. You learn how social conventions and pretensions were embedded in house plans as well as manifesting themselves in building size, massing and facades. You will learn that these buildings were a product of the people of their time, their aspirations, vanities and pretensions. It’s a bit gloomy when you realise how little has changed but, to counter that, Girouard’s writing is a joy and that’s something you don’t come across very often in books on architecture.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Related posts:
The Maximum Dwelling
The Maximum Dwelling: RESPECT

• • •

Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture, 2009, Malcolm Millais

41B-LtAYvuL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

If you want to read what an engineer thinks about architecture and its myths, then Millais is your man. Millais’ rebuttal is founded in the realities of physical forces and so is better than most. Read it and then put Modern Architecture and its myths to rest. The real 20th century architectural crime against humanity is how the definition of architectural worth was shifted away from buildings aspiring to provide a real social utility, and towards buildings providing only the appearance of one.

Related posts:
Architecture Myths #23: Architecture
Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis
Architecture Myths #21: Total Design
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

• • •

 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1973, Charles Jencks

I once read an academic paper written about the books of Charles Jencks. I quote from Taylor & Francis Online.

This paper will discuss Jencks’s historiography of Post-Modernism by looking at the seminal texts that he wrote from 1970 until 2007, beginning with Architecture 2000 and ending with Critical Modernism. The main focus of this article is critically to examine his major work, the Language of Post Modernism, and to trace its evolution as a means of evaluating his contribution to the development of this movement, as well as to architectural historiography.

First published in 1973, we’ve all grown up with some edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture. A succession of covers and revisions created the appearance of prolonged relevance and pushed its rediscovery into the future, thus making space for something even more egregious.

• • •

Yes Is More, 2009 Bjarke Ingels

big_architects_book_b111109_1

The scary brilliance of BIG’s architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images. The scary brilliance of the book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images. Neither is a healthy development. The book spreads its simplistic message as efficiently and ruthlessly as the plague but do not think the book simplistic. It is a sophisticated and ruthless marketing tool for a hugely successful architecture and publicity machine. Its comic book format is not the first time text was used to ornament images but it hastens the death of language all the same.

Related posts:
YES MAN
Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (14% More BIG)

• • •

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011, Patrik Schumacher

If you don’t want to buy the book, let me know and I’ll give you my heavily annotated copy as soon as I finish reading it. I should warn you that I began reading Volume I in October 2012! But my offer stands. I’ll toss in a mint-condition Volume II.

• • •

The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 2017, Douglas Spencer

cxpebikweaevck7

The antidote to the previous three books or, if you haven’t yet read them, the vaccination.

• • •

Against Architecture, 2012, Franco La Cecla

“A passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” La Cecla argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good.”  An interesting notion – I think La Cecla might be onto something!  

• • •

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1999, Helen Vendler

51JSEBhyibL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_

This book has more to do with the guts of architecture than some of the others in this list. Vendler takes each of Shakespeare’s sonnets and identifies and analyzes the poetic devices and mechanisms by which Shakespear managed to construct such breath and depth of poetic meaning and beauty. With some sonnets it’s their structure, with others their rhythm or onomatapaeia, and still others the strength or combinations of allusions, associations or imagery. They all work within the constraints of the sonnet and the conventions of Elizabthean language.

“During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.” [from Paris Review]

For her efforts, Vendler has been criticized as “clinical” and her analysis as “forensic”. These days, her book is marketed as a companion volume to understanding the sonnets in order to pacify those who prefer to worship the unknowable magic of creative genius, and whose only wish is that it remain unknowbale. However, for those wanting to see how one man mastered the techniques of his trade and put them to good use, I know no better textbook.

Related Posts:
Aesthetic Effect #3: COMBINE

 

Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE

COMBINE is the name I give to the aesthetic effect that arises when what we see is reinforced by what we know. That simple term “what we know” includes all those subjective things resulting from culture and education that something we look at makes us think of, remember or recall, regardless of whether or not some designer wants us to or not. If the result is some sort of aesthetic pleasure, then we’re talking about the mechanisms of aesthetic response and in this and similar posts I plan to probe the sources and types of that aesthetic pleasure. I’ll cover Aesthetic Effects Nos. 0:SEPARATE, 1:UNITE, 2:DETACH, 3:ATTACH, 4:EXTRACT in later posts and will start with 5:COMBINE because it’s one of the easiest to understand. I’ll talk about its uses in architecture at the end of this post.

Shakespeare_Cobbe

But first, some Shakespeare. I have Helen Vendler’s forensic analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets to thank for these next thoughts. [Vendler, Helen (1997). The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press] It’s brilliant. She takes nothing for granted. All mystery is there to be analysed. She identifies the structures, techniques and skills that underlie Shakespeare’s Sonnets and which make them Art. People like me welcome this. Some others would rather not know, preferring they stay inexplicable and allow them to remain in awe of the magic and mystery of the creative process. 

The following is an extract from an interview in Paris Review.

During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.

For now, just consider the line “When I do count the clock that tells the time” from Shakespeareʼs twelfth sonnet.

vol2sonnet12website

Upon hearing this, an attentive person with no understanding of English might think the iambic pentameter of the first line reminds them of the ʻtick-tockʼ of a clock because the stress on every second of these single-syllable words makes that sound. (Not everybody will recite it this way but that’s okay.) Appreciating the meaning of those words depends, of course, upon understanding English. The meaning of that line – its “lyrical content” – is reinforced by the clock-like pattern of sound that illustrates it. We have a combination of tangible and intangible. The tangible sound can be heard by anyone, but the intangible knowledge must be present if any connection is to be made. An attentive listener might also think that the meaning of each line gets determined only on the final word of each line and this forms a secondary rhythm not unlike the swinging of a pendulum. Analysing poetry is tough work. 

Interestingly, there were two or three sonnets Vendler wasn’t able to crack. She said it  was unlikely there was nothing to find – it’s just that she “hadn’t yet managed to find the spring that opens the lock”. Her book shows us that none of this poetic beauty is beyond explanation. Beauty is not the result of magic or inspiration and creativity, but the result of the creative application of knowledge and mastery of the craft. What we think of when we encounter Art may sometimes be spontaneous and uncontrolled, but a poem or any other aesthetic endeavour usually only affects us in a certain way because someone has designed it to do so. That person responsible was following certain rules either consciously or unconsciously and with some aesthetic goal in sight. COMBINE is one of those rules.

* * *

Music has many examples of COMBINE, particularly in opera where characters or events are regularly given signature keys or motifs that shift and develop as the drama unfolds. In Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for example, the climax of the Act I love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly occurs when, after much conversational and harmonic to-ing and fro-ing, Pinkerton and Butterfly gradually sing together and then in unison for the first time, declaring their love. When that happens, they are also for the first time singing in the same key (her, in his) implying that the entire exercise was, after all that, a seduction. Sure, it’s all very well to say that, for opera is a fusion of music and drama and voice, but COMBINE is how they are fused.

Or how about the famous “Slaves’ Chorus” from Verdi’s Nabucco? In this clip you get to see a bit of what goes on inside an opera house – in this case the one in Oslo by Snøhetta.

The power of this comes from the combination of everybody singing the same song in the same way, made more forceful by the knowledge that they are (playing the role of) slaves. Each person has no identity other than as a slave. The composer is forcing a single status onto the diverse range of human voices and making them into a single instrument where all sing the same.

The juxtaposition of a tangible phenomenon along with some reinforcing knowledge is also found in more recent songwriting. Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye has the line “How strange the change from major to minor”. This is a very literal example of a type of musical illustration that has been in and out of fashion since the Baroque.

The Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song “Canʼt get you out of my head”, famously sung and even more famously performed by Kylie Minogue, makes its eponymous point by beginning with the chorus – unusual enough in itself for a pop song – but also with a fade-in as if the nagging chorus is working its way into our consciousness as would a headache.

Here’s those efficient lyrics, in full.

“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

Every night
Every day
Just to be there in your arms

Won’t you stay
Won’t you lay
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

There’s a dark secret in me
Don’t leave me locked in your heart

Set me free
Feel the need in me
Set me free
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
I just can’t get you out of my head
I just can’t get you out of my head…

Repetitious lyrics and the repeating of lyrics are two tangible ways of illustrating and reinforcing the meaning those lyrics are conveying. Not only that, the very sparseness of those lyrics also works to highlight the criticality of the problem stated. (Repetition also features in the opening CGI sequences of the video but this is merely the use of a visual means to reinforce the combined effect of sound and lyric. It’s done well.)
1306017928_kylie-minogue-cant-get-you-out-of-my-head
All these examples have the same combination of a tangible phenomena and some type of knowledge combining to create a powerful aesthetic effect. COMBINE is merely one effect in a songwriterʼs bag of tricks.

Or an architectʼs. In this next example, each of the radiotelescopes has the same alignment as the others – a tangible unity. If we understand what it is a radiotelescope does, then we’ll know their alignments are also united in the common purpose of observing the same thing – or so we imagine, since we can’t see it. The power and grandeur of these radio-telescopes is due to their Alignment generating this aesthetic effect COMBINE.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here’s an example of COMBINE for Position. It’s a lighthouse standing on a singular landscape feature. There’s the obvious physical unity of one thing and one place but, since we know what lighthouses do, we know it’s not there to look pretty but to warn ships of submerged dangers. This knowledge makes the lighthouse seem more “at one” with its position. The position of this simple building suddenly has that thing called “depth” or – to state the obvious – “meaning”.

farofindelmundo11

Both these examples require knowledge of the building’s function and purpose. So does this next example of COMBINE, again regarding Position.church-on-hill

One building dominates one hill. However, if we know it’s a church and have an idea of the basic tenets of Christianity, then the fact that the building is atop the hill means it’s that much “closer to heaven” and thus in an appropriate position to mediate between God and the laity below. Knowing it’s a (Christian) church gives intangible meaning – some might say “depth” to its physical positioning.

This feeling of “at one” with its location is much valued in architecture. Clients like it, reviewers like it, historians like it and (therefore) architects like it.

Much talk about architecture is couched in the language of ideas that forge conceptual unities that reinforce some physical unity between building and land or cityscape. 

Much of this talk is talk about Shape, but Colour and Pattern are also commonly spoken of as “resonating”, “respecting”, “recalling”, being “redolent” of, “chiming”, or “echoing” with some nearby feature. The above examples show how Position can “resonate” with a location and Alignment can resonate with an orientation. So whenever you hear any of these words implying some sort of conceptual unity, just check that it’s not just some simple visual analogy trying to create the impression of a logical design process that led to an inevitable solution appropriate for a particular location. Take a second to ask yourself “Does it really?” If it doesn’t resonate quietly and strongly, it’s most likely just a soundbite or meaningless text to accompany an image.

The effect of COMBINE is a simple yet powerful sense of purpose.