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Book Review of “The Language of Architecture” by Andrea ...

Book Review of “The Language of Architecture” by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke

“The Language of Architecture: 26 Principles Every Architect Should Know” is an architectural textbook published in 2014 by Rockport Press, written by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke with essays by seven others. The book is 225 pages of text, supporting essays and images demonstrating 26 major considerations of design planning. The Principles are chapters of

by Dan Malo May 9, 2018
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“The Language of Architecture: 26 Principles Every Architect Should Know” is an architectural textbook published in 2014 by Rockport Press, written by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke with essays by seven others. The book is 225 pages of text, supporting essays and images demonstrating 26 major considerations of design planning. The Principles are chapters of easy to remember one-word points, from Analysis and Concept, ending with Presentation. The Principles are elaborated upon poignantly with fantastic photographs, sketches, and design plans of interesting structures from around the world. I’ve read many dry textbooks—this one is pretty good. It gave me a great deal to think about and is certainly pertinent to modern architecture students or anyone interested in design.

The table of contents reads as a checklist of considerations that go into design. The Principles are covered in chapters of varied length, and the book is generally an easy read. There is an abundance of content in this book. Every page shares a curious sketch, plan, photo, building, or designer’s name to take note of and later search the Internet for additional details. This can make the read a bit jarring at first—for instance, some essays seem to blend into the instructional text; that, or they start on the following page unexpectedly. They could occasionally disrupt the linear flow, and admittedly, I found some uninteresting. I skimmed through one essay discussing the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, largely because it read as a brochure. For the most part, however, the essays were complementary to the Principles. Like all textbooks, the layout is predominantly text blocks and inset images and mixed fonts, though in this case, not off-putting. Page turning may, however, require reorientation; you might wind up in the middle of an essay. Instead of reading linearly, take your time through the short paragraphs and accompanying pictures. A great feature of the book is an extensive glossary and index. In addition to being a very useful and instructional text, the diverse range of architectural styles in “26 Principles Every Architect Should Know” should prove to be inspirational for the reader.

Book Review of “The Language of Architecture” by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke

It’s an attractive book, from cover-to-cover, and there are many examples of sketches that are paired to photographs of final designs which effectively demonstrate the Principle being conveyed, such as Le Corbusier’s cross-section plan for the Carpenter Design Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. A blurb states a design intention that in order to accommodate exhibition spaces, studios and theater space while accentuating the second-floor “heart” of the building, ramps were designed to lead up from adjacent street frontages, rather than provide the building with a traditional ground level entry. A cross-section plan of the building and a walk-up angle photograph of the ramp demonstrate the achievement of the goal. One image, by itself, would not have been enough to conceptualize Le Corbusier’s idea.

These images can be found in the chapter on “Program”—an excellent section that reminds the reader that one of the first needs and requirements behind every project is, essentially—"What are we trying to do and why?” Developing a program that answers those questions requires strategizing and problem-solving—weighing and balancing the needs and requirements of the project against costs and a large number of other considerations. Some designs require special attention to ceiling height and egress widths, such as warehouses, retail or office space. Foresight extends even to their parking lot designs, with attention to turning radii for trucks and dimensions of loading docks and mechanical equipment and other site needs. Additionally, building use changes over the course of time. Can the present design, made for one use, be adaptable (and safe enough) to accommodate the building’s future uses?

Book Review of “The Language of Architecture” by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke

Also weighed into any program are constraints—building codes, zoning regulations, and other land use controls which impact such things as height, accessibility, stormwater plans, and more. These codes differ by country and state; in some jurisdictions, local ordinances add to the layer of restrictions, limiting or requiring certain setbacks, paint colors or other materials. To meet clean-water goals, some localities no longer allow for piping of stormwater, requiring low-impact designs such as swales, or retention ponds. There are many constraints that go into engineering a design, and sometimes these are unforeseen. To design and construct often involves coordination with other professionals, attention to legal dates for noticing and hearing, and an amazing project engineer to reign all of the factors in. Inattentiveness to these fine print details—grant deadlines, building codes and other land-use regulation or even recently passed legislation—can lead to costly design revisions, if not pre-considered and planned. Part of a program considers “who might be affected by the effects of construction as it alters an environment: shadows, emissions, traffic pattern, and so on.” Designs, public or private, must meet this checklist of requirements from different agencies which guard the safety of the occupants and address concerns of the neighbors. The author is correct in stating that “the designer who understands these codes during the programming stage will immediately know the range of a project’s possibilities.” While it is impossible to know every code in the book between every trade, material, and jurisdiction, it is urgent for any architect to be aware that these codes exist and can change design plans.

The book broaches that “overly restrictive codes may permit only predetermined design solutions—a replication of set ideas.” I definitely find this to be the case in my review of building and site plans that come across my desk. Largely, there is no innovation or pushing of boundaries in design or program in the single-family homes or parking lots I review. They could probably be located in any town of the state I work in, or any place with similar regulation or code. Occasionally, program concepts such as a museum space in a newly renovated mill or the daylighting of a watercourse for the purpose of stormwater management creep into the designs I see—however, these are usually stipulations of grant-funded work, which places additional restrictions and considerations. For the most part, I only review what can be called predetermined design solutions. I’ve heard it said that most of our legacy structures, infrastructure, and urban areas would not be built today if constrained by code. To me, the common theme in architecture today is constraint and economy.

Book Review of “The Language of Architecture” by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke

There are standard forms, and it is not necessarily unfortunate—while standardization can be perceived as a blow to creativity, it can also be seen as a necessary set of best practices. Not every building made will be a work of art or a Pritzker winner, or an experiment in form or philosophy. For the most part, our needs are situated by fully functional standard designs. Some people may hardly notice a prefabricated modular construction, nor do they care that it was made in parts somewhere else and transported to its location. Planning in the modern era of permitting and zoning can sometimes be costly to design, and that is why we see standard forms. They’re easy to plan costs around, and they’re within the boundaries of building code; if it’s a project that proposes something novel, it can be difficult to articulate to planning commissions and building officials. It is up to the designer to have an awareness of these codes, or alternatively, lines to color within; amidst the constraints, there is ample avenue for original thinking.

“26 Principles Every Architect Should Know” can help to that end. Continuing to read through, some Principles point out that there are always options. One avenue of originality that can be achieved is through the choice of materials. Though there are many restrictions to the composition and incorporation of approved materials, the authors correctly state that “materials are an architect’s instruments.” The impression the materials give—an aesthetic—is deeply psychological, having a “profound effect on both the form of the work and its reception by an audience.” Though I never really considered material choice anything but something determined by availability, cost, or aesthetic choice, after reading, I now concur with the authors—“materials retain traces of their origin, and they communicate intrinsic qualities that evoke associations and responses.” Good design is more than a like for a certain visual presentation. It means something.

The Principle of Materials, located in chapter ten, is my favorite in the book. It discusses the philosophy of material choice and the textural, acoustic, and permeability considerations that go into picking a material. Materials have a finite lifespan—an “inevitability of transformation,” and “anticipating such material transformations is a significant aspect of the design process.” Picking a material to work with is not a simple choice. Does the floor material echo in the hallway? Is that the intent, or is it an oversight? How long is the material planned to last? How does it hold up to the climate? Ultimately, location, program, and cultural considerations can determine the material to be used—mud brick may be more apt in a desert, as a log cabin might make more sense in a forest.

After all the considerations that have been made in design planning, it is time to build—a process which also leaves an imprint on the structure, seeing as “the equipment, tools, and methods that form and assemble a structure’s materials are essential in defining the character of a finished work.” The chapter on Fabrication uses two widely different applications of concrete as valuable examples to demonstrate this point. First, it covers the benign influence that the texture of a simple plywood form bears on the finished concrete surface. Many construction processes remain with the finished product as clues of its birth. A second poignant example describes “The Truffle”—a boulder-like habitat in Spain overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A hole was dug and filled with hay bales, after which concrete was poured around the perimeter. After the hardening of the concrete, the site was regraded to reveal the structure. A section of the Truffle was opened and a cow was invited inside to consume the leftover hay inside of the foundation, helping to define—or design—the shape of the interior.

Every structure will see the Principle of Transformation during its lifespan and good architecture should accommodate it. The book proposes that this can occur at any scale, “from the smallest particle to an entire building, and at any interval, from a one-time event to cyclical transformation.” This can allow for a redress of the interior to accommodate stage space or swap meets. This could also be structural and planned entirely for transformation, such as the “Dynamic Façade” for the Kiefer Technic Showroom in Bad Gleichenberg, Austria. The façade design over a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows allows the appearance of the building to be many different things—windowless, all windows, checkerboard, etc. While most aspects of architecture are static, “the experience of architecture can be highly dynamic.” Another example is the Aravena low-cost housing project in Chile, consisting of concrete structures built intentionally incomplete to allow each unit to be modified by its future inhabitant. The before and after photographs of the project are compelling. While appearing uniform at first, the project filled in with additions, garages or great porches using the leftover space. Essentially, the residents transformed and finalized the design by personal choice.

A building designed and constructed can even move from the place it was created. “Conceived as a mobile architecture,” Prefabrication takes advantage of standardized parts or modules, and the benefit that it “can either be moved or reassembled,” in addition to “minimally disturbing the context to which it has been brought.” While the components are standardized, perhaps implying uniformity of aesthetic, there is still room for originality, like the shipping container skyscraper from Spillman Echsle Architekten. While shipping containers have become a blasé material, the right context, lighting, and scale can present something unique. The biggest achievement of prefabrication is its sitelessness. It can be made anywhere and assembled anywhere else. But prefabrication may sometimes imply lower grade finishes and poor durability. Although met with the same code constraints built-in-place structures, this form of design has pre-conceptions to overcome to assuage clients of their quality and safety.

Book Review of “The Language of Architecture” by Andrea Simitch and Val Warke

The Principles conclude with a chapter on Presentation— “a device that embodies and communicates the most important ideas.” It’s a shorter chapter, but all that it needs to be. A presentation is meant to sell an idea to an audience. For the most part, I felt this book was successful in its presentation. There are many takeaways to consider. Architecture is a complex field and an architect bears a lot of responsibility. This is a great book for any student to help break the ice and provide awareness of issues down the road. I enjoyed the read, except for some of the essays and sketches—while visually interesting and the handiwork of a famed designer—a few seemed too abstract to demonstrate the Principle the authors were trying to articulate, such as the incoherent polygon models featured in the first chapter demonstrating Analysis. I’m also reminded of a photograph of a hillside home featuring a crown-like roof; a sketch accompanied it that was seemingly a few squiggly lines. The authors did mention the architects crown-on-a-hill intent; even though the drawing was crude, it might have conveyed its point. This book, overall, is much easier than the crown house to interpret, and very effective at communicating the architectural Principles they present.

“The Language of Architecture: 26 Principles Every Architect Should Know” is full of inspirational photographs of some of the most interesting structures around the world. Many hours will be spent outside of the book, searching for and learning about the subject of the images. If the book relied on images and plans of standard single-family homes and warehouses, it would be less engaging and successful. It is true that most of the interesting examples in the book are architectural experiments; grandiose ideas and structures which are designed to make statements, and I assume that most architects are far more constrained with the work they are hired to take on. I’m sure many careers are made out of ordinary projects. However, these ordinary projects share Principles with the grandiose—universal aspects that made them successful; these same principles will continue to apply to even the most ordinary project.

It’s great to see an accessible primer for all the considerations that go into design. Besides buildings, many of these Principles can be used in the creation process for anything. It’s a quick and enjoyable read and a convenient reference to universal considerations of architectural design. It gave me many insights into the plans I review for my work—why I see the similarity that I see. Yes, we work largely with standard forms, but any project big or small, low-key or renown, relies on a similar process flow of considerations from thought to finish. The Principles aren’t a new technology or innovation, they are considerations that have informed architecture and design through history. This book tells them well.

A design can incorporate many considerations, but sometimes a few are missed and they make or break a project--perhaps the design is unintentionally offensive, or out of character, or dangerously unsafe. Can you think of a design that failed at its goals by missing a key Principle?  Share your thoughts and your stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Images by Dan Malo, Lorenzo Cafaro, Archinect and elementalchile.cl, Capsa Container. Data linked to sources.

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Dan Malo graduated from the University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT), where he obtained a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. He works in municipal land use enforcement for the Town of Windsor Locks, CT.

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