haiku for the book "Writing About Architecture" by Alexandra Lange

buildings made of steel
towering above our heads
toppled by mere words...

I have to admit that I was initially disappointed in this book. The title, "Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities", led me to believe that it would show me how to write about architecture (and master that language!). But that's not what this book is about, at least not in a tell-me-exactly-what-the-hell-I'm-supposed-to-do manner. It's more of an analysis of key examples of architectural criticism and learning from those examples.

Those examples of archi-criticism are stunning: "House of Glass" by Lewis Mumford about Lever House, "The Miracle in Bilbao" by Herbert Muschamp about Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, "Save the Whitney" by Michael Sorkin, "You Have to Pay for the Public Life" by Charles W. Moore, "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns" by Frederick Law Olmstead, and "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" [excerpt] by Jane Jacobs. The price of entry would have been worth it just to read these essays and excerpts. The book's author, Alexandra Lange, helpfully puts the writings into the context of their time (publication dates range from 1870 to 1997) and their authors' experience, expertise, bias, and approach.

Particularly savory, given my vaguely subdued hatred of Michael Graves' post-Modernism messiness, is the slap-in-the-face piece by Sorkin about Graves' design for an addition to Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum:

"The violence offered by Michael Graves's proposed expansion is almost unbelievable. Adding to a masterpiece is always difficult, calling for discipline, sensitivity, restraint. Above all, though, it calls for respect. The Graves addition isn't simply disrespectful, it's hostile, an assault on virtually everything that makes the Breuer original particular. It's a petulant, Oedipal piece of work, an attack on a modernist father by an upstart, intolerant child, blind or callow, perhaps, but murderous."

ummm... Can you hear me now?

The Whitney Museum by Marcel Breuer (photo via Buildipedia)

Michael Graves' proposed addition (image from here)

Lange's message in this book seems to be this: There's no single path to writing about architecture, so just get out there and write about architecture. Some of the authors of her examples are architects, but others are simply interested souls with a creative knack for tying observations to words (calling the Prince of Wales...). An interesting observation Lange makes is that not many people write about architecture, in large part because there are too few big-media outlets that support this writing, one exception being the New York Times. Lange ends by encouraging anyone and everyone with any inkling and urge to observe, write, and publish observations and thoughts about architecture. Writing about architecture is, simply, writing about architecture. In that vein, the book is inspirational and, therefore, worth a read if, indeed, you want to write about architecture.

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