WEB EXCLUSIVE: “It is architecture that turns a pile of stones into a church.”

The following is an excerpt from “Twenty-Five Buildings Every Architect Should Understand: An essential guide to architecture, 2nd edition,” by Simon Unwin (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group).

You cannot understand architecture merely by looking at photographs. You cannot understand architecture just by reading words. Yet many books on architecture have only words and/or photographs. The only way to approach an understanding of architecture is through the medium used in its creation – drawing. Long ago architecture was made by drawing directly on the ground, maybe first with a stick and then by digging trenches or piling stones into walls. For centuries architecture has been drawn at a small scale on paper before being built. Now the same happens on computer monitors. These are the fields, the grounds – earth, paper, screens – where architects have created and continue to create architecture.

There is no one right way to do anything in architecture. It is not possible to write instructions (formulae, rules) for how to do architecture without restricting its possibilities, any more than it is possible to write instructions for what to say without constraining the possibilities of language. When we begin we learn the workings and potential of language by attending to and imitating how others (parents, friends, teachers…) speak and write. Gradually we find our own voices, using language in different ways. Learning the workings and possibilities of architecture is similar; it is cultivated by studying how others have, in their own multifarious ways, done it and by trying it ourselves.

Drawing is situated between the mind of an architect and the architecture that mind wants to create. That is why drawing is termed a ‘medium’. Architecture resides in the drawings (and nowadays in the computer-generated models) of buildings. It is in drawings that you find the intellectual structures architects give their designs. It is through drawing that you, as an architect, give form to your ideas. It is appropriate therefore that it is through drawing too that you should study and imitate how others do architecture so that you can learn to do it yourself and find your own architectural ‘voice’.

In learning to do architecture, the study of plans and sections takes precedence even over visiting buildings. Visits to buildings are enjoyable and provide a chance to see how products of architecture, conceived through the abstraction of drawing, change the real world and make places for life. Visiting buildings gives you the best chance to experience architecture in relation to the world of light, sound, setting, weather, people… and to assess the effect and performance of the abstraction when made real. But to understand the underlying architecture of buildings you need to study them in and through the medium of drawing.

Architectural ideas

To add a layer of complexity, architecture is itself a medium, through which we change the world, making it better: more comfortable, more beautiful, more efficient… according to our aspirations and beliefs. While drawing mediates between the mind and the architecture it wants to create, architecture itself mediates between the life it accommodates and the world around.

In architecture we do not deal in ‘truth’, we deal in a kind of fantasy (dreams, visions, philosophical propositions, political manifestos) though sometimes those fantasies focus on what we think might count as ordinary everyday pragmatism (‘reality’). Architects often try to suggest that their particular fantasy is the truth of how the world should be. But different architects (like politicians and philosophers) propose different answers; and they can become frustrated when the people they design for fail to use (or appreciate) their buildings in the ways they think they should. Architecture is a matter of proposal and evaluation, call and response, proposition and trial… where imagination interacts with (hits up against) the world in all its multifarious complexity. Architecture depends on giving form to ideas and launching them into the world as buildings (cities, gardens, landscapes…).

We tend to think ideas are expressed in words. Architectural ideas, however, are expressed in line (drawing) and manifest in material construction, formal composition, spatial organisation… Architectural ideas are the intellectual structures (you might call them self-generated, intrinsic ‘laws’) by which buildings are designed and conceived.

In his 1893 essay, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ George MacDonald theorised about how to write stories, fairy tales in particular. He suggested that however fantastic and far from natural reality a story might stray, to be plausible it must obey its own intrinsic laws. To make a story without such discipline was, he suggested, like throwing a pile of stones on the ground and calling it a church.

MacDonald’s use of an architectural metaphor is pertinent and revealing. It reminds us that it is architecture that turns a pile of stones into a church, i.e. that architecture is the mind’s share: the sense, the order, the organisation of form, the ideas that a mind applies to material in the design of a building.

MacDonald, Queen Victoria’s favourite writer of fairy tales, lived in the nineteenth century. In the twenty-first century, a pile of stones might itself be considered a work of art – in that merely the decision to throw the stones into a pile, or even to leave a found pile of stones undisturbed, might be asserted a generative idea. But the point of MacDonald’s parable remains valid: that the creative activity of human beings depends upon (is strengthened, given ‘backbone’, by) the generation and application of ideas that give discipline (consistent form, sense – even if it is a sense hermetically sealed in its own realm) to their work. This argument holds even if the operative idea applied is one of formlessness, indiscipline, mystery, chance, emptiness, irresolution… But without an idea (without the involvement of the mind) nothing, not even the undisturbed pile of stones, can be said to have form. It is in the mind – the realm of ideas – that architecture (whether of a building, a story… or of a pile of stones) originates. And it is through drawing, on whatever ground (even if only that of the imagination), that such ideas are forged.

Analysing architecture

The present book is related to another. Analysing Architecture first appeared in 1997 and has subsequently been published in second (2003), third (2009) and fourth (2014) editions. It has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Persian and Portuguese. As one reviewer commented (gratifyingly and reassuringly), Analysing Architecture ‘establishes a systematic method for analyzing architecture’. The book’s aim was to begin to formulate a methodology for exploring the workings of architecture in ways analogous to the ways in which the workings of language and the structures of its products have been explored academically (as grammar and syntax) for many years. And to do so on the premise (as stated in Analysing Architecture) that ‘place is to architecture as meaning is to language’ – i.e. that the fundamental burden of architecture is identification of place. These arguments are explored in more detail in the relevant chapters of Analysing Architecture but they also pervade the analyses that follow.

My aim in assembling the twenty analyses in the first edition of the present book was (as I have said above) to assess further the applicability of the methodology explored and illustrated in Analysing Architecture by applying it in more depth than was possible in the case studies at the end of that book, and to a diverse vari
ety of examples from different countries and dating from various times during the last eight decades of the twentieth century. Architecture has never been more diverse than during that period. In this second edition five more buildings have been analysed, reaching into the twenty-first century and widening the geographical spread of examples.

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