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date26 Nov 2008 10:27 CST
placeMilwaukee, WI, USA
tagsurbanism, architecture, history
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previous[Previous Post] I'm intrigued by how blog parts and networks fit together

Great buildings engage people

In reading about great buildings in 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die: The World's Architectural Masterpieces edited by Mark Irving, I'm struck by how modern architecture had lost an ability to touch people's emotions on many levels. By focusing on rationalism and fads, architecture might speak to other architects, but the users of that architecture and the general public get left out and thus can't form an attachment to a building. Great buildings engage human emotions in ways beyond the rational, or even describable.

Editor Mark Irving surveys about 5,000 years of built structures in his book: everything from churches to civic buildings to museums, homes, burial sites, and more. What is striking is that architecture seems to have taken a sudden turn in the 20th century with the development of what was called "modernism" (an awkward term for a movement that is pushing 100 years in age). The turn was away from people--away from any sense of engaging people with visual cues and structures that had anything to do with history, culture, tradition, whimsy, grandeur, mystery, or emotion--and toward a self-referential world built by and for specialized audiences.

Book Notes I write about 1001 Buildings in my Book Notes section.
Thus, we get the famous Seagram Building in New York City that set the stage in 1958 for office towers soaring above an empty plaza. This pattern was replicated by less able architects than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the results are what Daniel Solomon in Global City Blues describes as "The Monster" (p. 25)--a system of taking architecture from a role of serving human needs to a role of showing off an elite sensibility.

What was missing is what Robert Wilson documents in A Certain Somewhere describes. He shows that human beings do not form entirely rational relationships with places or buildings. There is room for tremendous variation and eccentricity which the Moderns seemed to have thought must be eradicated.

Photo of the Day Blue Gate
So what I get from 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die is a story that doesn't end in the 20th century. I admire many buildings from this book. Hagia Sophia (built in 537) in Istanbul, Turkey soars above its urban surrounds with towers announcing its presence and an inviting, light-filled, glorious and beautiful interior. The Great Mosque (built in 998) in Cordoba, Spain has interior arches which suggest an infinite interior suffused with a subtle mystery that reverberates with human imagination. Notre Dame de Paris (1330) stands on its island with a facade in indescribably pleasing proportions replete with freshness and vigor. The Château de Chambord (1566) reaches skyward in an abundance of towers, chimneys, dormer windows, and turrets--an unembarrassed exuberance of form and decoration that seems timeless. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1867) in Milan, Italy presents an arch soaring above shops and cafes that instills dignity and celebratory air to the people who chose to walk and linger in its shelter. I also admire 21st century buildings: the Beddington Zero Energy Development (2002) in Beddington, England presents a stubborn dignity by fulfilling its mission for energy-saving apartments, workspaces, and nurseries.

The practice of architecture is not dead. More than 5,000 years of human experience revives it. [End of Post]

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