Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Architecture: A Very Short Introduction

Title: Architecture: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Andrew Ballantyne (OUP)

This short little book has an idiosyncratic way of presenting architecture. Throughout the text, Ballantyne tries to explain that he's writing a very euro-centric view of architecture, but why is this not stated right at the start? The title or the blurb could give a better indication of this.

The IFC (inside front cover) text begins with:
'The balance of posterity and practicality in architecture throughout history, and its cultural relevance ... are skillfully examined in this Very Short Introduction.'
That's incorrect! Ballantyne does not cover architecture 'throughout history'; he only covers Western history, and not even that, just key sections of the history that he feels are important. He doesn't mention Renaissance buildings or Art Deco buildings, which was quite significant in 20th century architecture. But he does write a lot about the Art Nouveau style, which I think is less important in the history of Architecture. I make complaints about misleading book titles frequently ... but I really believe it's a legitimate complaint. It is very presumptuous and arrogant to claim to write the history of anything, and then not actually covering everything.

Another reason why this book is eccentric is that the writer doesn't cover the history of architecture in a chronological way, and not even really by theme, but by whatever he wants to go on about, like how we can find continuity in 'modern' and antiquated buildings by looking at interesting buildings like the Chiswick House.

Chiswick House?! Rather random. Granted, it is in the Palladian style, but if you're going to pick 20 buildings to talk about in your grand narrative, you really wouldn't pick Chiswick House! What a myopic take.

Ballantyne purports that 'canonic buildings' shouldn't be seen as having timeless value, that buildings are not intrinsically good or bad but that culture instills meaning into the buildings. So the Parthenon is not amazing in itself, but that throughout history, each generation prescribes meaning to the Parthenon so that we will find something in it as being 'amazing'. All of this sounds wonderfully post-structuralist (if post-structuralism is defined as the necessity to study both the object itself as well as the systems of knowledge that produced that object), but 90% of the buildings he mentions in this book are classically canonic - the Egyptian pyramids, Roman temples, Parthenon, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc.

So at rare times, he digresses onto random structures like Chiswick House, but generally, though he tries to explain why, for example, the pyramids are so highly regarded then as well as now, he writes mainly from the basis that if you don't agree that the pyramids are one of the wonders of the world, then you are an uneducated lunatic.

Not to give you the wrong impression, I did enjoy reading this book. It was a quick read, and I learned something new: the Seagram Building in New York is the first 'modern commercial building' ever. It looks very unimpressive nowadays and no tourist would visit it because of the very fact that every commercial building now imitates it. So that's kinda cool. (Note: I was told that I'm an idiot for not knowing the significance of the Seagram Building before ... oops).

Also, another interesting point Ballantyne discusses is how people are still motivated to travel around the world to see architecture, when armchair travelling is so readily available. What makes one want to go to Egypt to see the 'real' pyramids, if you've already been inundated with the images of the pyramids throughout your life? Or the Sydney Opera House, for that matter? Why visit Australia then? It is the sense of being familiar yet unfamiliar, real yet unreal. In terms of where this perspective sits, I guess it's a bit Derrida here and a bit Baudrillard there.

I'm currently re-reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl, but following that I'm hoping to get a copy of McEwan's Solar.

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