The construction of a discipline

Understanding Architecture - What is Architecture? An essay on Landscapes, Buildings and Machines
January 13, 1995

Architecture is more than buildings -- this is the message of both these books, but it would be hard to find two more contrasting styles or intended audiences. Paul Shepheard's chatty and provocative anecdotes are intended to stimulate first-year architecture students to think about their motivation for starting a subject whose complexities they have yet to comprehend. No specialist knowledge is needed to read his short book. Indeed it will irritate some intensely who will regard it as superficial and irrelevant.

This cannot be said of Understanding Architecture, which explains in considerable detail the way architecture has evolved and how to evaluate it. The book is a sophisticated primer of architectural literacy and is aimed at students and the lay public with a serious interest in architecture.

Rather than use such a worthy approach, Shepheard eschews virtually all references to buildings, architects or books. Instead, the five chapters are each a string of short passages, written in a lively novelistic style. Short stories, both real and imaginary, are interspersed with a few sensationalised but familiar tales of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. His message is simple: "Know what your business is . . . where it starts and where it ends." Architects today are offered a bewildering choice of assertions in the media -- "it's like listening to people fighting dragons in the dark" says Shepheard -- and students should not commit themselves to any particular movement until they have listened to all the siren calls and evaluated their comparative worth.

Shepheard warns us that architecture and literature are different, despite the tendency of both arts to regard themselves as the centre of all things. Is not architecture a metaphor, one thing in the place of another -- conclusive; and literature full of meaning -- ambiguous? Finding the answer to the question "What is architecture?" lies partly in the search itself. Architecture cannot be found easily dissected on a library's bookshelves nor just by inspecting buildings on the streets.

Language can be exciting, productive and meaningful, but not conclusive in the way landed things are. Good architectural writers such as Summerson hardly ever use analogies which are literary; for example, character, gesture and proportion are words we use for solid things which stand in space. Shepheard concludes that the ambiguity promoted in architecture at the moment "is a contamination by literature -- no two things can exist in the same place at the same time. They may look as if they do, but that is not the same as being." His is a timely denunciation of one of the frivolities distracting students from more responsible learning and design.

Shepheard acknowledges his cue from Gertrude Stein's 1935 lecture "What is English Literature?", but Stein's insistence on a sense of equality does not find total favour. Democracy has given liberties, yet the babel in this public landscape is utterly confusing. Consensus is a mirage for the fainthearted -- they see only what they want to see. Only abstractions are audible above the clamour, and here lies the paradox: if architects want to design to be acceptable (which includes being fashionable), is this not stooping too low, the approach of the planning committee? If architects have higher aspirations, how can they ignore objectors without appearing to be or actually being arrogant? According to Shepheard, democracy is not the same as civilisation, it is only a mechanism, his machine for living in, a way to accommodate the differences that divide us.

In his introduction to Understanding Architecture, Colin Stansfield Smith, the leader of the RIBA Gold Medal award-winning architects' department at Hampshire County Council, says that any book which helps the understanding of architecture and the unravelling of its complexities is to be welcomed. This may well be true for the literate reader, for the authors of Understanding Architecture labour under the hope that a consensus can emerge and have aimed their book at the lay public as well as students. Its authors are historians who proceed with a measured tone and admirably balanced critical hand, but whose sober prose I suspect would drive Gavin Stamp to apoplexy.

For this is a "wordy" book on architecture, lacking the sensitivity (and sentimentality) of Shepheard. It is also "worthy" when compared with so many frivolous, glossy books on the market claiming the same intentions, but having far less success due to their inferior scholarship. The obvious has first to be stated in order to introduce many different opinions, interpretations and examples. This may be dull for the initiated but it is precisely this comprehensive description of an idea and its development which will make the book valuable to a student or voracious lay person. Anyone wanting to investigate further can rely on the excellent primary sources given in the text and the notes.

Yet Understanding Architecture does not have the wealth of material to become a building source comparable to Bannister Fletcher, whatever may be the disadvantages of that book's comparative method. The total reliance on black-and-white photographs to illustrate buildings, apart from the notable exception of Garnier's Paris Opera House and Short Ford's De Montfort school of engineering, is unnecessarily condescending to the reader's ability to read plans or sections. If the chapter on drawing models and photographs had come at the beginning, interpretations could have been wider. More sketches, as can be found in the glossaries at the back of any Pevsner volume, would explain concepts far more succinctly. Black and white photographs have their own aesthetic quality, which is exploited by Shepheard's images, but deny Conway and Roenisch the increased perception that colour can bring. Architects have recently begun to throw off the old accusations of designing grey buildings, and a new generation should not be denied a palette.

All directors of studies select their intake from as broad a background as possible, for it is impossible to predict the scope or boundaries of the profession in these turbulent times and so it is their duty not to admit clones. They must find it difficult to condense a fresher's reading list into the essential books which they optimistically hope first-year students will somehow absorb. Motivation is just as important as content, and if Shepheard's What is Architecture? does not spark off a response in green minds, then it will have served a purpose in identifying those who are not suited for the obstacle course ahead, thus avoiding great disappointment for them later in their course. Shepheard has produced, so to speak, a visceral guide to the soul of architecture, while Conway and Roenisch have undertaken a diagnosis of architecture's exterior signs. Neither cover the philosophies and methods of designing found in Geoffrey Broadbent's Design in Architecture (1973). Although this may make both books more readable, it leaves a considerable gap in their content; surprisingly, Broadbent's book is not included in Conway and Roenisch's otherwise extensive bibliography.

Shepheard does not provide any answers -- nor does he presume to manipulate peo- ple's aspirations. Conway and Roenisch's dissecting approach to buildings is sometimes unfortunately destructive -- in the process the building's soul often perishes. Maybe Shepheard is right in his assertion that literature, the art of content, has triumphed over architecture, the art of form. But then his own idiosyncratic exemplars have no bibliography, annotation or corroboration, appearing anecdotal with no guarantee of authenticity -- rather like literature.

N. E. Bridges is a chartered architect practising in London.

Understanding Architecture: An Introduction to Architecture and Architectural History

Author - Hazel Conway and Rowan Roenisch
ISBN - 0 415 10465 3 and 10466 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 & £12.99
Pages - 266pp

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