life and soul

A while ago I had the pleasure of suggesting a good book to Peter over at He has repaid the favour twice over by encouraging me to read What Is Architecture? by Paul Shepheard. I read it during the Christmas holidays, being sure to carry a pencil with me at all times so that I may mark the ideas I wished to pass on to others.

It’s a wonderful book. In a field that is usually dry and often inpenetrable, this is an architectural theory book that has life and – though I’m not entirely sure what I mean by this – soul.

I’m glad that it has taken me ten years to get around to reading this book. Glad that it’s ideas weren’t handed to me on a plate when it was first published in 1994. Glad because it seems there is much that Shepheard and I agree on, and to have arrived at the same destination (or, perhaps, point along a much longer journey) without the help of a guide, makes the miles travelled seem much more worth while. To stumble across a clearing in the forest is a relief; to find a camp already set up and tea boiling over a roaring fire is bliss.

The camp fire analogy is useful for another reason – story telling. The biggest appeal of this book is the teaching of architectural theory through anecdotal tales. It’s a technique I’ve always tried to employ here on no, too self. There are at least two reasons for this; firstly, the style of delivery is (like every other website in the world today) a diary or journal written in the first person. Subjective, anecdotal evidence is exactly what you should expect to find in someone’s personal diary. Secondly, I happily allow the blog format of the site to encourage me to write in this fashion because I’m interested in the story more than anything else. If this were an academic essay I would undoubtedly be accused of being woefully short of objective reference material. Factual objectivity is less of a concern when you believe, as I do, that the cultural, social, emotional and mental conditions of the people who make or critique architecture is the richest seam in the gold mine of architectural history. Perhaps, after all, I do know what I mean when I use the word soul.

Paul Shepheard should start a blog, it’s a format he would be comfortable with.

The following quotes are some of the ideas/statements I enjoyed the most. Readers who’ve been with me over the last year will spot some common ground; the handful of new subscribers whose existence is betrayed by my webstats, might like to click on a few of the links.

Anybody interested in reading more about the value of a story over Truth, should buy themselves a copy of the fantastic book, Life of Pi.

It seems to me sometimes that we’re all sitting in a huge valley with people shouting contradictory things at each other. – p6

Stones with character, that’s one definition for what architecture is, although it’s as primitive as cave painting to put it so simply. – p11

…a building is a performance: a one-off, never to be repeated performance where the supervisor is like the conductor and the builders – skilled workers? – are like the musicians in the orchestra. – p23

Morality, is another way of describinq the results of human discourse, of describing the trust between human beings. – p36

What is architecture? I think it’s about being invisible but still having character. I think of it as a very modern theme – not inevitably contemporary, perhaps, but modern. Le Corbusier, in Vers une architecture, says, “Day by day our epoch is defining it’s own style. Our eyes are yet unable to see it.” And never will, I think, it’s invisible. If we see anything it’ll be the side effect of something else. – p48

There are illusions of form in literature. The pages of the books, with their margins and footnotes and headings, for one thing, and the structure of letter into word into sentence into paragraph, for the other. Well it must impress itself onto our senses somehow. The words must have order and form enough to be perceivable, but how many ways there are for them to break into the physical world. Words can be spoken as well as written. They can be coded into morse. They can be transmuted into binary numbers and put on a compact disc and sent down wires. The content stays the same. Here’s Hazlitt’s essays on my desk. Here’s T.S.Eliot’s. The books are exactly the same, in structural terms. The structure that makes them different in a critical sense is a mental notion. It doesn’t exist.

Now look at this building. It’s a temple but if it were used as a strip joint, it would still be this shape. The base of the column doesn’t mean the base of the column – it is the base of the column. Look at that concrete bunker over there. It doesn’t mean the defence of the country – it’s part of it. Just as the soldier inside is part of it. That’s form. The mess of patriotism running through the soldier’s mind, now, his reason for preparing to die for his country – that’s content. – p75

Compromise sounds weak, but it means bind – as in promise – together. It represents the end of the argument, the conclusion. In physical terms it means the fitting together of the parts. – p86

Those stealth bombers are not painted black to evoke menace, or to disappear into the night: this is ablative black. The paint is full of ferrite particles that absorb radar energy and make the machines harder for the other side’s radar to see … It’s difficult to see how character survives in such an environment. Here’s an example: the big black submarines that cruise under the Atlantic Ocean are invisible, and apparently anonymous. But throughout the life of the machine, the hull picks up dents and scratches exclusive to itself, and consequently the sonar signature of each machine is slightly different. It acquires character through use. – p109 (my emphasis)

Nap of the earth implies a close fit between the architecture and the ground it occupies. Not a “contextual” fit with the other buildings; nor a “programmatic” fit, with its users; but a fit in the vernacular sense. Opportunistic, energy efficient, buildable, and wise. – p112

The idea is that every building is really the conclusion of some dramatic impulse, made specific by the circumstances that surround it. – p124

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