Monday, June 25, 2018

Opening doors

The third of my summer book reviews is a general book on world architecture with a fresh and visual approach.

John Zukowsky and Robbie Polley, Architecture Inside + Out: 50 Iconic Buildings In Detail
Published by Thames & Hudson

When I was a teenager and starting to become interested in architecture, I looked everywhere – bookshops, the local library, other people’s houses – for information about the subject. After a while it became clear that certain buildings – star examples – recurred in many books, and some of these buildings baffled me. Two of the most baffling were Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel of Note Dame du Haut, Ronchamp; another was Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower, Potsdam. Both of these unusual, curvaceous structures seemed to be puzzles. What, I asked myself, was going on in the Ronchamp chapel’s extraordinary billowing roof? Whatever, apart from the telescope at the top, was inside the Einstein Tower – what did it do? There were plenty of books that told me about how the structure of a Gothic cathedral worked, but few that explained how the shell-like roofs of Sydney Opera House stood up or even that showed me the spatial organisation (if organisation is the word) of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. I wanted not just to look inside these buildings, to open their doors, but to get deeper under their skins.

It’s a bit easier to find this kind of thing out today, but the range of architecture and its bewildering forms (think the Guggenheim Bilbao, all wriggling shimmering curves, or Calatrava’s various essays in white-painted steel) means that there’s still a role for a book that gets under the surface of some of the world’s great buildings. That’s where Architecture Inside + Out comes in. It shows us 50 buildings (a representative selection, featuring a wide range of places and styles, but with a heavy stress on the 20th century architecture), each in a selection of colour photographs and in Robbie Polley’s cutaway drawings that reveal interiors, spatial layouts, and structures.

To take one example, at Bilbao, the short explanatory text is accompanied by a colour photograph of the Guggenheim’s exterior plus a couple of interior shots that give a sense of the character of the museum’s diverse internal spaces. To these are added a drawing of the exterior (giving a sense of the titanium skin and the rectilinear organisation of the building, something difficult to grasp in most photographs), a cutaway drawing showing the way the skin and inner framework connect, a cross-section, and a plan.

Each of the 50 buildings has a series of variations on this mix, which takes in – inter alia – public buildings from the Colosseum to the London Aquatics Centre, buildings for the arts an education from the Soane museum to the National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., places to worship from Hagia Sophia to the Sagrada Familia, and, yes, Ronchamp. The approach of photographs plus drawings works less well in some cases – there’s a limit, for example, to how much a cutaway of a an honest, almost transparent building like the Charles and Ray Eames House in Pacific Palisades can tell us – but overall the approach works and gets us closer to what makes these diverse buildings tick. Anyone looking for fifty ways into architecture should consider this book.

1 comment:

bazza said...

I would have enjoyed that book when in my twenties and, alone among my friends, interested in buildings. I am going to check the local library!
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