by Kathleen James-Chakraborty. University of Minnesota Press, February 2014. 512 p. ill. ISBN 9780816673971 (pbk.), $49.95.
Reviewed July 2014
Is there really a need for another architecture survey text? And why begin at 1400? (Perhaps because second-semester architectural survey courses constitute the presumed readership.) The author, of University College Dublin, attempts to answer both questions: she eschews the more conventional reliance on style as an organizing principle, and 1400 marked the start of a global cross-fertilization of architectural ideas.
What differentiates this survey is its attempt to correct a tendency to favor Western architecture, thus marginalizing the rest of the planet, and the added value of cross-cultural observations. The aim, it seems, is to challenge the dominance of the Italian Renaissance as the high-performance engine that drives our view of buildings. Rather, by locating buildings in their culture and political environments, the author assesses their achievement in terms of civic presence and social values.
Since the method is cross-cultural, it is suitable to compare the treatment here of three topics to their interpretation in two competing publications, Buildings Across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture, by Michael Fazio, et al. (McGraw-Hill, 2007) and A Global History of Architecture, by Frank Ching, et al. (J. Wiley & Sons, 2011).
On Henry Hobson Richardson, the analysis centers on the abstract, organic quality of the glacial boulders piled up at the Ames Gate Lodge, while the other sources displace the Gate Lodge with the triumphant Trinity Church, adding to that a group of his houses and examining their textures and spaces in admirable detail. Of the three, only Professor James-Chakraborty includes Burnham and Root's Rookery in Chicago, emphasizing its income-producing aspects and erroneously describing its load-bearing masonry walls as skeletal. And on the subject of Louis Sullivan, the coverage varies most widely, with Ching all but dismissing his achievement, Fazio providing a satisfactory overview, and James-Chakraborty providing what emerges as her characteristic parti analysis of materials and ornament in the Carson Pirie Scott store.
Despite ample references and an index, the book's apparatus is otherwise inadequate: floor plans are few, and exclusively black-and-white photographic illustrations are consistently flat. Nevertheless, a few important and fresh observations emerge: the atavistic reference in Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken store in Stuttgart to the deeply suppressed Chicago windows in Carson Pirie Scott; and an insightful link between the geological imagery in both the Gate Lodge and Fallingwater. Thus, this is a book not for those interested in teaching or learning about the core concepts of architectural experience, but rather for those who seek a deeper orientation toward the poetics of building design.
© 2014 ARLIS/NA