Fit: An Architect's Manifesto

November 8, 2012

Fit is Robert Geddes’ attempt to distil a lifetime of learning during a distinguished architectural career into one slim volume. It evolved in response to sociologist Nathan Glazer’s critique of Modernism’s inability to engage with contemporary urban life, but alas only really serves to reinforce Glazer’s point.

I was excited at the prospect of reading this book, and was poised to order multiple copies for our incoming higher fee-paying first-years. Why? Because I have yet to find a simple, short, easy book that says what is important, unique and useful about architecture. Fit is presented as “an architect’s manifesto”, acknowledged as one way of looking at architecture, but to an uncritical student it would appear as a presentation of truth. But it is Geddes’ lack of criticality that has made me pause on the order button. He does not tell us why virtually all the book’s examples are from the US (admittedly creating a helpful round-up of American architectural history in the process), with the odd smattering of cases from the UK and Italy. His resolutely apolitical vision appears to be of apple-pie order unthreatened by technological innovation and governed, presumably, by men of his type. I would like to review the book on its own terms, rather than my own, but since these are so well hidden, I can’t.

Geddes is definitely working in the great US classical tradition, an account of architecture that starts in Classical times with Vitruvius, moves through the Renaissance via Thomas Jefferson to Mies van der Rohe (whose Seagram Building he describes as excellent - in one of the few clear value judgements made here).

Across its three sections - “The Origin of Architecture Is Nature”, “The Task of Architecture Is Function and Expression” and the “Legacy of Architecture Is Form” - the book’s structure is ostensibly simple, but I found it hard to digest as there is so much slippage between terms. Despite the recognition “that the relationship between architecture and society is a true dialogue, dynamic and complex”, aesthetics are much more on the agenda than society.

I particularly liked the first section on nature, where Geddes observes: “Sometimes nature is taken as a model of regularity; sometimes it is revered for its irregularity.” There are some startling and simple truths here that are definitely helpful to an educator. I absolutely agree with Geddes that architects love trying to create order and systems, and they have to start the process of design. The subheadings within the sections, put together, would read well as a list of architectural concerns to the beginner architect, but their clarity is lost in the observations that follow.

Seemingly aimed at a non-expert audience, namely the aspirant architect and the reader of Architectural Record and House Beautiful, Fit has that particular tone - including many quotes from distinguished American commentators - that is often used for such an audience. It is advertised as “a book for everyone”. Despite the pioneering democratic appeal of Geddes’ assertion that “we are all designers” and his acknowledgment of the importance of “home improvement” (self-build) on our environment, he never establishes the architect’s role in facilitating design, a key issue of concern in the UK.

Fit “argues that architecture should be designed to: fit the purpose; fit the place; fit for future possibilities”. It follows in a long tradition of architectural manifestos - its short paragraphs and un-footnoted assertions are very reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s infamous 1923 work Vers une Architecture. Indeed, the sections on scale, form and narrative could have been lifted from that book. Unfortunately, it differs from its predecessor in being unlikely to contribute much to a profession in need of a new beginning, although it shares in its methodological slipperiness a common characteristic of architectural writing.

Fit: An Architect’s Manifesto

By Robert Geddes. Princeton University Press. 144pp, £13.95. ISBN 9780691155753. Published 14 November 2012

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