This article is excerpted from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full issue, why not subscribe? Now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
DThe quality of books on architecture covers the entire gamut from excellent to passable. Recent releases are not a reliable guide to greatness. Just two weeks ago, I picked up a fancy six-part series at a second-hand bookstore Cathedrals, AbbeysAnd Churches of England and Wales Published by DG Bonney, 1892 for just £20. Professor Boni’s work feels like the last word on the subject. So there must be a good reason to write another book about architecture, and we all need an even better reason to read it.
Le Corbusier once said „styles are a lie”. Hugh Pearman, in his new book About architecture, shares that sentiment, believing that we should evaluate buildings for what they do rather than the style in which they are built. Here he follows the venerable Nicholas Pevsner History of building types (1976), mentioned in the endnote, and he does a very commendable job of introducing this approach to us (whether working architects or lay people). This is what creates it About architecture Worth reading.
However, we start with a second: I struggle to see what is „essential” about the book. Although the blurb portrays it as a revolutionary essay, About architecture Nor is it, nor (as far as I can tell) does it seek to be. We don’t see a coherent argument for how we should think about architecture differently; The introduction sets the tone rather than establishing a statement.
What follows is a list of 55 exquisitely detailed buildings, arranged by 11 „categories”, all made interesting and admirable by Pearman’s gentle description – somehow, the Magna Park retail warehouse near Milton Keynes.
It is interesting and useful to read not about styles or movements, but about why a given building was built and how the problems of its construction were solved by the architect in question. That’s the idea behind it About architecture (slightly under-titled), it rises.
How refreshing that there are no obvious stylistic preferences (or serious talk of „style”), or any kind of agenda or explanation for why or how a particular style evolved. The old is not revered or ignored; The new is not presented as some sort of inevitability.
Buildings from all over the world and across the centuries are displayed juxtaposed without bias. (That said, although Pearman suggests that Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai is one of the world’s finest Gothic Revival buildings, it has a 20th-century bent and lacks true Gothic.)
So we have to judge for ourselves based on the most brilliant photo reproductions that we consider to be the best. The past becomes not something that was now, but one of many possible solutions to the enduring problems of how to create the things we need and want.
For anyone who works in an office building, the Central Beheer Insurance offices in Apeldoorn seem like a classy alternative to the uninspiring environment we’re all too familiar with. Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a vision of what a modern shopping mall should be, a civic monument akin to a retail center. Bearman’s neutrality helpfully reveals that many of our urban problems and needs are intractable and archaic. Cities need green spaces, for example, and any weary metropolis will yearn for Kyoto’s masterful Zen gardens.
About architecture Become a treasure trove of possibilities. Its internationalism is also inspiring: with relatively little attention paid to historical-cultural differences, the buildings – and the architects – are allowed to speak for themselves. We compare Isfahan’s 16th-century town planning to Berlin’s or Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar after reunification with Hong Kong’s Langham Place Mall.
Pearman writes well. Sometimes panegyric lapses aside (the chapter on Lima’s Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia campus is one of the few implausible case studies), his judgment is always prudent. He gives the impression that he genuinely loves what he writes about and relishes the opportunity to do so. As he describes the paper-thin onyx „windows” of the Beinecke Library at Yale glowing at night and bathing the interior in golden light during the day, it’s hard not to share in his rapture. We believe this is a good architecture.
I doubt it would even be surprising to the intellect. Less joy comes from reading about the Parthenon or Angkor Wat than reading about the Fiat Tagliero Service Station in Asmara, the Moulin Saulnier Cocoa Mill in Noisial, or the Ningbo History Museum in China.
About architecture However, it should not be read from cover to cover. Select a building, or an entire “category,” and read that chapter. Division in offices may be better. This includes London’s Somerset House, Hamburg’s Sillihaus, the aforementioned offices in Abeldorn, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters in Wisconsin, and the strict CCTV headquarters in Beijing.
Bierman clearly explains the architectural thought behind each building, and anyone who doubts architects (thinking that the „proto-modernist” Adolf Luce isn’t really human) will have their concerns resolved by Bierman’s pragmatism. The book succeeds in demystifying the architectural process and humanizing architects.
What is the main lesson of the book? All with a capital „A” architecture – not just the extraordinary buildings Mies designed for his wealthy industrialist patrons, such as the expensive Villa Dugentat, but also buildings such as the Georgian stock-house of Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin. Le Corbusier’s famous chapel at Ronchamp is interesting but of little import; Ljubljana’s modest market arcades feel like a workable solution to the ever-present problem of how we build in city centers.
Even the most mundane buildings, even the Shenzhen Energy Ring, come away with the sense that everything should – and can – be designed well. As for the architecture of the book, I enjoyed the lemon-yellow endpapers. Bravo.