The book "Understanding Architecture: A Primer on Architecture as Experience," published in hardcover by Phaidon, covers 72 buildings, internationally, over time. Written and compiled by the American architect Robert McCarter and the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, it provides a virtual guide of different building types according to what it would be like to actually walk through them. The building's plan, which is included alongside several vivid photographs for each structure, provides a key to the various human-scale experiences. Each entry is a concise and descriptive journey through the Alhambra in Spain, Hadrian's Villa in Italy or Peter Zumthor's Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland. Each description takes into consideration how the space is arranged, what one would first see when walking in, and how both the materiality and structure of the building affect us.
Organized according to 12 different themes of Space, Time, Matter, Gravity, Light, Silence, Dwelling, Room, Ritual, Memory, Landscape and Place, the various buildings are listed in chronological order, with six suitable projects for each theme. The text explains each theme in an introduction to its meaning in an architectural context before delving into the experiences of the buildings themselves.
Through this book, it is possible to visit the ancient hillside Roman Markets of Trajan, a veritable city on a hill, then take a jaunt alongside the seemingly endless Jeffersonian columns at the University of Virginia, to end up at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, whose demolition became the subject of much controversy last year. This is just a small sampling of the myriad buildings that this text chronicles as if the authors had actually visited each and everyone of them. Maybe they did!
They certainly want their readers to do so. "If when they are finished reading, our readers feel compelled to experience these places, to inhabit them with their feet, hands, ears and eyes - with their entire embodied awareness - we will have succeeded," they write.
Robert McCarter has written previously on Alvar Aalto, Carlo Scarpa and Frank Lloyd Wright and takes an experiential approach to considering and writing about architecture. He is a professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis and is currently researching monographs on contemporary architects, including Enrique Norten and Wiel Arets.
Juhani Pallasmaa is a Finish architect and a professor emeritus at the Helsinki University of Technology and has written over thirty books. He also views architecture as primarily a sensory experience and has taught at Washington University in St. Louis previously.
Both of the authors of "Understanding Architecture" come from a standpoint that architecture should be a sensory, "embodied" experience of "inhabitation" rather than an analysis of an abstract object.
In the introduction to the text, they lament that architecture has become so image-oriented in the 21st century, and the selection of projects in the book reflects their appreciation of the more time-tested and tactile structures of our common heritage. Most of the buildings included have been built before the 20th century, and there are almost none from the 21st. The most contemporary architects featured in the text are the likes of Rafael Moneo, Steven Holl, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano and Glenn Murcutt, among others who are of another generation.
If you are looking for a detailed but concise journey through seminal buildings of our history, with a very slight bias toward 20th century Scandianavian architecture and civic buildings, then this might just be the book for you.
What is your favorite sensory piece of architecture? Do you know of any sensory architecture from the 21st Century? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments area below.
“Understanding Architecture: A Primer on Architecture as Experience,” is a Phaidon publication. The Grid is giving away one FREE copy of the book. Make sure you go to the Rafflecopter Giveaway to enter to win your free copy of “Understanding Architecture.”
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