Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Deeply Unfashionable Buildings

The following review by Colin Davies of my and Peter Blundell Jones's 2007 book


appeared in The Architectural Reviiew in October 2007

Case Study Analysis

The first volume of Peter Blundell Jones's Modern Architecture Through Case Studies looked mainly at pre-war buildings, including unquestionably canonical works like the Bauhaus, the Villa Savoye and the Casa del Fascio. But it also included four post-war buildings, the latest of which was Kahn's Kimbell Museum of 1972, so the chronological subtitle of this second volume is rather puzzling.

The new book is puzzling in other respects too. This time Eamonn Canniffe has contributed about half of the studies, even though the two authors, to quote from the introduction, 'hold different ideological positions, would not have included the same examples if working alone and do not always agree in [their] judgements'. This might account for a certain lack of focus in the book as a whole. You begin to wonder who and what it is for, exactly. Perhaps it is trying to extend the canon, rejecting many obvious mainstream examples (no late Corb) and including some downright obscure buildings, such as the Chapel at Dachau by Helmut Striffler and the Waisenhaus in Eichstatt by Karljosef Schattner. But it also includes some over-familiar buildings like the Centre Pompidou and Foster's Willis Faber Dumas in Ipswich. Or perhaps there is some hidden theme, something of particular relevance to architecture now. If so it is very well hidden indeed. What could Carlo Scarpa's Castelvecchio Museum possibly have in common with Aldo van Eyck's Orphanage in Amsterdam, or Eisenman's Wexner Center with the Smithsons' Economist Building?

It doesn't really add up, but it's a rewarding read nevertheless, and a useful reference work. The case-study approach has limitations, but 4000 words devoted to each building allows for an unusual depth of scholarship. In order to understand a piece of architecture it is important to look at it closely and know something about the circumstances of its creation. One cannot, for example, fully understand the relationship between the Leicester Engineering Block and the Stuttgart. Staatsgalerie without knowing something about the internal politics of James Stirling's office, and Venturi's Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery would be an enigma without a knowledge of the influence of the Prince of Wales. So this is a book worth reading for its own sake, as history. Its core readership will be students and they will learn a lot from it, but it might be hard to interest them in what they will surely see as a collection of deeply unfashionable buildings.

For all its faults the purpose of the book was to write a history that did not follow the usual path of excluding anything that fails to fit within some determinist model of inevitable progress. It seems on reflection to mark a phase of rapid development, disappointment and confusion and therefore might be thought of as timely. And those last three words of the review I wear with particular pride.

1 comment:

AM said...

deeply unfashionable buildings

eh, eh :)

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