April 1, 2013
by Canadian Architect
Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
By Alexandra Lange. Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.
Architects are notoriously poor writers.
Two new books address this problem–Alexandra Lange’s Writing About Architecture and Tom Spector and Rebecca Damron’s How Architects Write. The simultaneous appearance of these texts and the question of how to teach architecture students to write are the focus of an edifying Pedagogy blog recently hosted by the Society of Architectural Historians. The discussion topic of “Teaching Writing to Architects” makes abundantly clear that more than a few architecture schools are trying to address the problem.
Lange’s book is particularly groundbreaking in its stance as a handbook. She takes six classic pieces of critical writing in architecture and analyzes each one’s rhetorical strategies. Lewis Mumford on Lever House, Herbert Muschamp on Bilbao, Michael Sorkin on adding to the Whitney, Charles Moore on the monument, Frederick Law Olmsted on parks, and Jane Jacobs on cities: these all serve as snapshots of architectural criticism since 1870, and especially since 1952.
Lange believes that we can all become better critics by studying the writing techniques of these masters. This incitement to imitate (plus a healthy dose of repetition) is the way we learn to dance, to play music, to cook, to drive and even to design buildings.
Limitations? It’s written from a decidedly New York point of view. And some readers may wonder why a piece by the late Ada Louise Huxtable, who set high standards for criticism as the first full-time architecture writer hired by the New York Times, isn’t among the six works profiled. Still, it’s a huge contribution to architectural education everywhere.
Annmarie Adams is William C. Macdonald Professor and Director of the School of Architecture at McGill University.
Architecture and the Canadian Fabric
Edited by Rhodri Windsor Liscombe. UBC Press, 2011.
This tome collects essays from a range of scholars deploying some of the latest approaches for the study of Canadian architecture. The scope of the collection is ambitious, beginning with two strong pieces on European perceptions and symbolic landscapes in New France, proceeding through Upper Canada, Confederation and modernity, closing with a useful excursus on ways of learning about First Nations building practices.
The most compelling essays break new ground in the analysis of familiar buildings or bring previously obscure architectural works to light. These include an appreciation of the postwar Quebec bungalow and a particularly coherent assessment of the term “Brutalism” and its appearances in Canada. Other essays of note include an exploration of the imagined national space emanating over the radio waves from Maple Leaf Gardens, an analysis of typological change in six different city markets built on a single site in Toronto, and a study of a federal architectural experiment in modern Arctic colonization.
The deployment of contemporary critical theory and the serious investigation of vernacular architectures are very welcome. As a criticism, the Prairies and the Maritimes, not to mention the category of “users,” figure only marginally in this collection. That said, the essays greatly advance the field of architectural history in Canada. Given the breadth on display, Canadian architects and historians surely will find items of interest and pertinence to their practice.
David Monteyne is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.
The Disappearance of Darkness
By Robert Burley. Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.
In 2005, as Kodak Canada announced the closure of its Toronto plant, architectural photographer Robert Burley set out to document the final collapse of the analog photography industry. Within years, Kodak’s empire would be reduced to rubble, Polaroid’s once state-of-the-art complex–designed in part by Alvar Aalto–abandoned, and Agfa left bankrupt. Only Ilford, the British producer of high-quality films and papers, would survive to cater to a small minority of diehard film fanatics.
Burley remains, to date, one of these. All of the images in this volume are shot in film–a testament to his enduring love for and trust in the tools of his trade, tinged with a certain irony.
These spaces are sad to contemplate, bearing their disuse like open wounds. In time, nearly all will be demolished, built over to house the new technologies that crept up so stealthily on the industry: dead before they hit the ground.
Among the crowd of ex-Kodak workers gathered to watch the demolition of the Chalon-sur-Saône plant in France, Burley acutely observes that he is the only one to document the event with film. In a cloud of smoke, the building seems to let out a final cry: “Et tu, Brute?”
Cerys Wilson is a photographer and writer based in Montreal.