Understanding Architecture by Juhani Pallasmaa and Robert McCarter
Hardcover, 448 pages
Readers of this website probably know I'm a big fan of Juhani Pallasmaa's books. They theorize architecture primarily in terms of how buildings shape embodied experiences. While his writings can be lumped into a phenomenological approach, they defy easy categorization in terms of style and other means. He is for architecture that creates meaning through the prioritization of human experience; he is not for modern architecture, or traditional architecture, or this or that strand in between. That variety can be found in the selection of 72 buildings that make up this architectural primer he wrote with Robert McCarter, an architect, professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and a capable author in his own right.
When I received the book late last year I immediately included it in my Notable Books of 2012 list at Designers & Books. There I described that Pallasmaa and McCarter "contend that experience 'is the only valid means of evaluating a work of architecture.' Of course, a book’s reliance on photographs means that the visual takes precedence in one’s appreciation of buildings and spaces. To help overcome this predilection, each of the 72 works in this sweeping view of architecture spanning millennia is accompanied by a floor plan that locates the photographs and traces the body’s movement through the spaces. Photos are also keyed within the texts, which are rich in description and analysis, going well beyond the simple formal descriptions in Phaidon’s contemporaneous 20th Century World Architecture atlas."
Each of the 72 projects—ranging from the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt (ca. 2500 B.C.), to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (2001)—are fit into one of 12 chapters: space, time, matter, gravity, light, silence, dwelling, room, ritual, memory, landscape, place. Of course, the buildings could fit into just about any chapter; the Pyramids may immediately make one think of "gravity," but the authors put it into the Silence chapter, stating, "The profound silence of their presence immediately affects us, eliciting the deepest of emotions, reminding us of our fundamental relationship with the world." The Folk Art Museum, on the other hand, falls into the Memory chapter, and the authors see the building as capable of "allowing the inhabitants to enter the spaces of memory opened up by the art." It's clear from these brief quotes how the book prioritizes human experience, both in terms of the body and our interconnected minds.
As I mentioned in the D&B write-up, one of the most commendable aspects of the book is the way each building's photos are keyed to a floor plan where a red path traces the body's movement through the spaces. I can't stress how important these illustrations are, both as an educational tool for orienting one's gaze in space, and as a means of re-grounding architectural photos in their realities at a time when the image of a building takes precedence over what it represents. In terms of the thematic chapters, the writing approach, and the means of illustrating the buildings, this book stands in stark contrast to standard architectural histories that emphasize form and material through photos and the occasional drawing. There are not enough buildings to make it a comprehensive architectural history for students, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in its commendable approach to truly understanding architecture.