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Peter Buchanan on McCarter and Pallasmaa's architectural experiences

The theorical reflection and descriptive reportage of the publication suffer from information underload

This handsomely designed and produced book, a collaboration between two of today’s most prolific and respected architectural writers, Robert McCarter and Juhani Pallasmaa, is inspired by John Dewey’s Art as Experience. Emphasising the experience of architecture, it comprises 12 essays by Pallasmaa on various experiential aspects of architecture and descriptions by McCarter of visits to 72 buildings or architectural environments. Together these will immeasurably expand and enrich any reader’s appreciation of the multi-faceted nature of architecture.

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The Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 447-406 BC, Ictinus and Callicrates © Getty Images

It is thus a valuable contribution to the very topical and necessary quest to recover architecture from the reductionist dead end that modern architecture and its education became, as well as from the concept-/theory-driven design that too many still take seriously. The book may draw on the sort of theory now fashionable in architectural schools, particularly phenomenology, but because grounded in the actual experience of buildings what it has to say is in marked contrast to the obfuscatory theorising found in academe.

That said, few, or perhaps only the initiated, will find Pallasmaa’s essays, though immensely illuminating, to be an easy read. They are a concise distillation of a lifetime’s deep thought and wide reading, which has furnished the illuminating quotes (many of them gems) liberally used in the essays and to introduce them. All these ideas have been explored over the years at greater length in Pallasmaa’s copious writings so that some of what is said in compressed form here would be more readily grasped in all its ramifications by those already familiar with his writings. So the book is most definitely not the primer claimed in the subtitle. It is unsuited as an introduction for lay people and students in their early years. Instead it would be better suited to architects, or those nearing the end of their studies, as a reminder of all that they have yet to learn about appreciating architecture.

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The Acropolis, Athens, Greece, courtesy Phaidon Press

The immediate question provoked in the reader is why was Pallasmaa not encouraged to elaborate upon these texts and unpack their ideas in more detail so as to be accessible to a wider readership. One answer might be that they would then be much longer and the book unwieldy. Besides the book could still be an immensely useful educational tool if the essays became the core of seminars that would expand upon them so that students could fully grasp and internalise the ideas. Sometimes a single sentence could furnish the theme for a whole seminar, such as this chosen more or less at random: ‘As structural forces are inescapable physical facts, they provide the ground for a heightened sense of reality: an architectural approach that aims at precise structural articulation and expression turns into a form of poetic realism.’ A few words express an enormous amount that will probably only be fully intuited by those who have already read and thought deeply about these matters.

McCarter describes visits and walkthroughs to a well-chosen selection of buildings and places. These are augmented by good photographs (the picture research must have been quite an undertaking) laid out in a sequence indicated by red line marking the route of the visit on the accompanying plan. McCarter is a wonderfully sharp-eyed observer and draws attention to things that many might have otherwise missed when visiting or studying the buildings. This could prove a useful corrective to the reportedly widespread misapprehension of students claiming to know a building having merely looked at pictures of it online. But this approach is also of limited value as it does not discuss the building or place in use, nor the experience of it over time, both of crucial importance to any experiential appreciation of architecture.

Indeed, the whole book deals little with function or use, perhaps because these aspects have been too exclusively focused on during the modern era. It also largely ignores post- modernity’s concerns with meaning and narrative. This too is highly problematic as they also can so influence the experience of architecture. For instance, it is the density of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel’s multi-layered meanings and narratives, as well as the highly synthesised nature of its design, that makes the experience of it so powerfully moving in contrast to that of the spuriously contrived and decorative, vapid confection of Steven Holl’s Chapel of St Ignatius − one of the few buildings that does not merit inclusion here.

032 Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, France, 1950-5, Le Corbusier Wolfram Janzer/Artur Images

Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, France, 1950-5, Le Corbusier Wolfram Janzer/Artur Images

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Chapel of St Ignatius, Seattle, Washington, USA, 1995—7, Steven Holl Paul Warchol Photography Inc

There are other consistent problems. Generally neither photographs nor plans show the buildings in context, although this is often crucial to the understanding of them. For instance, the experience of Ronchamp, a pilgrimage chapel, starts with the first distant glimpse of it and includes the whole processional route up to and around it, all now irrevocably mutilated by Renzo Piano’s recent additions.

Also, as with the Acropolis, the route marked is not the processional one intended by the architect, which is again to ignore the mode of use designed for. Something similar applies to the presentation of the Alhambra, which is again not shown with any contextual views showing its elevated siting, nor does it include an explanation of how it was shaped mainly for evening and night-time use, as adorned with rich fabrics and banners in guttering lamp light.

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The Alhambra, Granada, Spain, 1238-1391

Furthermore, missing from all plans are north points and indications of scale. Most serious of all is the lack of sections, so crucial to understanding the internal volumes and experience of the buildings, and which could usefully have included a human figure for scale, or an indication of the human eye level.

Nevertheless, this is a book to be treasured, studied and reread. A lot of care has gone into writing, assembling the illustrative material and designing the book. But it sorely misses the guidance that can come from an informed and discriminating editorial and publishing team.

Understanding Architecture: a primer on architecture as experience, Robert McCarter and Juhani Pallasmaa, Phaidon, London and New York, £49.95

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