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You Are What You Read: A New Book Series from Designers & Books — Special Preview from Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown and “The Architecture of Architecture Books”

By Stephanie Salomon and Steve Kroeter November 16, 2016

Designers & Books is planning to launch a book series called You Are What You Read: Design World Luminaries Recommend the Books That Most Inspire Them.

In each volume of the series, a different group of prominent architects and designers will profile — in words and images — one book that has been particularly significant to them, and share why it has been meaningful. Designers will be encouraged to use their pages in any way they like to present their book. To date, 39 independent bookstores nationwide are committed to making the books selected for You Are What You Read available to customers.

By embarking on this project, we hope to build a lasting testament to the mission that has guided our publication of designers’ book lists and related articles since 2010 — to connect readers to books as important sources of design inspiration and creativity.

Denise Scott Brown studying plate LXXXVII from Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s Plan of Chicago, 1909, “Chicago, View Looking West Over the City, Showing the Proposed Civic Center, the Grand Axis, Grant Park, and the Harbor,” painted by Jules Guerin.

The following special preview features the book chosen by architect and 2016 AIA Gold Medalist Denise Scott Brown, who, with architect Robert Venturi, contributed the very first book list to Designers & Books. The book she selected is Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s Plan of Chicago, 1909; her essay also explores the architect and planner’s relationship to the design of the books that serve her profession. — SK

Plate CXXVII from Plan of Chicago, 1909. “Chicago, Bird's-eye View at Night of Grant Park, the Facade of the City, the Proposed Harbor, and the Lagoons of the Proposed Park on the South Shore,” painted by Jules Guerin.
 

 

The Architecture of Architecture Books

by Denise Scott Brown

© Denise Scott Brown, October 2016

Architecture drives a hard bargain with book design. A picture may be worth a thousand words, yet architects who don’t find it beautiful pass it by. We ignore words, too, if they aren’t under pictures, and the words “city planning” will send us on to another chapter, because this one will erode our talent and bore us to tears — or so American architects believe. Europeans, remembering Le Corbusier, link urbanism with design genius.

But almost all of us join in choosing Corbu’s, and now Zaha’s, urban visions over present realities. How can architects engage their creativity in the real urban challenges of today? How can they acquire the knowledge, far from architecture, that they need to do so?

“Book design stakes out my arena”

The issues between architecture and planning pose deep dilemmas; and those between texts and illustrations sound trivial by comparison. Yet book design stakes out my arena. Graphic templates define my space for showing how “boring” urban material can be muse to creative architects. They should help to portray urban issues in ways architects can love and use, but often they hinder rather than help. A book on architecture books should confront this problem.

What urban issues? The challenges change. Sustainability is the latest. But not yet faced are more than six decades of failures in urban renewal. And the social sciences still aren’t in architectural curricula. So we architects remain as we were in the 1960s, more the problem than the solution. And although the causes for failure went far beyond architecture, one was our navel-gazing. We turn only to our own discipline for information. Rather than ask, “What forces build and shape cities?” we ask “What did Corbu do?” Then, lacking information, we turn to visions — long-range plans far enough off to protect our dreams from today’s murky realities.

Plates LI–LII from Plan of Chicago, 1909. “Chicago. View Looking South Over the Lagoons of the Proposed Park for the South Shore,” painted by Jules Guerin; and “Section Through the Park Proposed for the South Shore”

During most of my career, long range meant 2020, but this “perfect vision” year is almost on us, it’s part of our “is.” Perhaps 2050 will be the new target —it depends on the age of the planner. But the Ville Radieuse, Corbu’s soaring glass towers set in parks, not parking lots, remains our “ought to be.”

As an early Modernist, Le Corbusier intertwined architecture and urbanism. Yet, although for him the city was half the story of architecture, his urban ideas, or their misapplication, or his followers’ tenuous grasp on city realities, helped to trip up postwar urban renewal. Therefore, to the extent that a physical image spurred urban decisions, it was the Ville Radieuse that landed cities in the soup.

This was hardly Corbu’s fault. He built none of it. The problem was our own oblivion to wider worlds. And though Zaha is now the go-to guru, turning only to our own discipline is still in the architectural psyche. But the credo of early Modernism was different. Facing massive World War l change, young architects embraced a revolutionary rhetoric of the new, and with it neuesachlichkeit — “the new objectivity.” This was the basis of functionalism, our most glorious concept. Yet, whatever it meant in 1914, modern functionalism failed so starkly in the 1960s that urban renewal was dubbed “human removal” and the “the war on the poor.” Clearly, remedial work on the concept and its meaning was indicated, and still is.

Functionalism refers to relations between uses inside buildings, but it should expand to cover activities and spaces both inside and outside buildings, and how they relate. And it should consider forces as well as functions — i.e., the cultural, social, economic, natural, and technological determinants of form. Our architectural window on the world should be wide enough to encompass all this.

And we have started. Architects study sustainability, climate change, and flood prevention. But turning thought to action goes slowly. And in other areas, for example, the social economy, we run scared. Ending the war on the poor arguably resides there, but we avoid it. Peter Smithson in the early 1950s, claimed to have caught a “whiff of the powder” of the 1930s and tried to reactivate early Modernism’s social concerns. He hoped to work with sociologists to readdress neuesachlichkeit, and recreate an “active socioplastics” on the ruins of World War II. But he found sociologists unable to answer his questions and gave up. So the social continued to avoid the physical, and vice versa, and they still do.

“Inextricably ‘intertwingled’ patterns’”

I took up where the Smithsons left off and paralleled as well urban explorers such as Crane and Appleyard. But my goals were different from theirs and venturing into uncharted territory I reached Las Vegas. I took photos, planned an expedition, and invited Bob to join. The “Learning from Las Vegas“ (LLV) studio was assailed as a Pandora’s Box, but we saw it as an Aladdin’s Cave, and students who joined us agreed, as do those who read and still read Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas. Their thoughts have guided architecture since the 1960s.

Plate 1 from Plan of Chicago, 1909. Frontispiece (facing title page), “Chicago. Bird’s-Eye View, Showing the Location of the City on the Shores of Lake Michigan with the Smaller Surrounding Towns Connected with Chicago by Radiating Arteries,” painted by Jules Guerin.

Communication was the focus of the study, and including it among the functions of architecture had good results. But other, less noticed vistas of Learning from Las Vegas could broaden architects’ notions of function and their performance in cities. Most originate in planning but can be put to architects in ways that show their relevance for design and the joy of working with them. Land use and transportation, subjects SO boring that we turn the page (please don’t!), are keys to the patterns and densities of urban activities, and through them to the rhythms, cycles, and dramas of urban life. We must learn to take their inextricably “intertwingled” patterns of activities and movement up to, into, and through buildings. And book designers should help us make the connections visible, beautiful, and intriguing to architects.

But other forces shaped settlements before these patterns or our design visions. In the beginning were land, water and air. If most cities form in concentric circles, why is Chicago half a circle? Lake Michigan is the reason. And the Johannesburg-Gauteng urban region follows the Rand, a gold reef a mile below ground. No planner could relocate these large-scale natural determinants, and urban development must accommodate natural forces or, as in New Orleans, divert them at peril.

It would take a tome to describe how forces — sociocultural, economic, technological, and governmental — make form before form ever follows function. But economic forces channel most other forces into built structure, and “regional science” and land economics explain the geometry of settlement. Starting with the patterns that form where roads cross, in rural villages or Los Angeles, it grows them hypothetically on flat plains, then considers how they shift and reassert themselves when a rail line with stops is introduced, or Chicago nestles against a lake, or a university occupies a quadrant of the town center.

Though decked in mathematics, the concepts of land economics — “city physics” and “linkage,” for example – are simple. The functional relationships they describe, within cities, sub-areas, and the surroundings of buildings, are the urban equivalent of the diagram of bedroom related to bathroom — not more than that — and they can be seen as functionalism for the outside. But they are key to our understanding of the relationships that surround our designs and plans. And they include our buildings and penetrate their insides.

“Architecture books should lead us to information beyond architecture”

Techniques for analyzing and channeling forces to guide form call upon disciplines beyond architecture and ground our urban understanding in more than our navels. I have used their ideas, mainly from the social sciences and particularly from regional science, in research and design since the 1950s. Bob joined me in the early ’60s, and some architects are hungry for them now. I am happy to help, but one of my roles will be to warn against creating yet more science voodoo in architecture. We should meet claims for the moral superiority of the sciences with a measure of skepticism, and learn what they can and can’t do. The holistic education of architecture omits a lot — including my content here — but it helps us to know, sometimes better than researchers, what we, as synthesizers, require of their material and to spot its gaps. And as with structures, some architects can grasp principles and apply them with insight without knowing all the math.

The Book

Plan of Chicago, 1909 Daniel Hudson Burnham
Edward H. Bennett

I hope architects will see the diagrams of regional science as evocative heuristics for design. But I predict they will be drawn first by the beauty of the patterns they lay on the land. I hope these will help them to link their design creativity with mathematics as Paul Klee did, and find themes in his art that will lead them to urban graphics and the joys and uses of maps, mapping and photography — aerial views for land structure and urban patterns; crowd scenes for social organization and space use. I love poring over all these, admiring the beauty of their patterns and using what I learned to decipher how the life they represent plays out on the ground.

Yet they are at best hard to read, and even harder with the object-buildings and postage-stamp maps of architecture books. These insulate us from a wider urban understanding. Certainly architects, myself included, love beautiful buildings. But I love other things, too, and so do they. I watched our students in Las Vegas grow passionate over their research graphics, and bend deeply into inner-city land use maps, where red and yellow —commercial and residential — form a fine-grain mix on every lot and building floor. Drawn to them as to a Canaletto or Klee, we imagined what the delicate patterns could mean. Students who had come seeking help as designers learned that buildings were not their only sources for design information or aesthetic excitement.

Plate LXXXVII from Plan of Chicago, 1909, “Chicago, View Looking West Over the City, Showing the Proposed Civic Center, the Grand Axis, Grant Park, and the Harbor,” painted by Jules Guerin.

Architecture books should lead us to information beyond architecture. And to help us go there, as architects not imitation scientists, books must serve our patterns of cognition, thought ways, and learning styles. And to go further, to put to architects information they don’t know they need, books must enlist their passions. Finding ways to draw students via their loves was a major focus of our teaching, and this pedagogical jujitsu is relevant to architecture books too — not all of them, but those that show how urban concepts can stimulate our creativity and help us avoid mistakes.

Plate CXII from Plan of Chicago, 1909. “Proposed Boulevard to Connect the North and South Sides of the River; View Looking North from Washington Street,” painted by Jules Guerin.

Such books need large pictures. Their content will be unusual to architects. Their arrangements must illuminate the relationships considered in their texts, and they must provide comparability. Nothing can replace the slide table for quick comparisons. It broke backs and strained eyes, but it allowed all illustrations of a lecture to be planned at once. Books can’t offer this, but they are arguably better than computers for complex, multi-image browsing and comparing. Tile twenty images onto a screen and you won’t see enough of any of them. Nor can you move them around as you would slides, and to compare those on and off the screen you must use your mind’s eye. But putter from page to page in a book, slide pages partly over each other, and you can compare aspects of each, without the waiting and manipulating computers require. Of course you can’t rearrange images in a book and your only record will be underlines and post-its, yet these may outlive hard discs.

But for comparability book pages must be big enough. Ironically the revised version of Learning from Las Vegas, though reduced in size, increased the dimensions of some graphics and allowed some needed comparisons. This was because its graphic template was more flexible. And you can read it on a bus.

In architecture books, pictures as well as text carry content. I argue with designers who brand books with graphic insignia – Braille or semaphore dots, red diamonds, or green circles. To place one of these over a sign in a commercial strip photo is like hiding a word in the text. And why compete with Las Vegas? It will always win. And why use matte stock that you would turn down for a big book on Canaletto?

But page size governs the opening of architectural windows onto cities. When pages are small, citeis and their plans can’t be read and certainly can’t be loved. And with advances in technology, economies of scale should now be attainable for books larger than pocket-size. How to achieve a big bright book, mainly in color, that will invite architects’ to lean their noses into its illustrations and love the complexity of the urban reality they reveal?

“Burnham’s book teaches me what to do with the ‘City of Is.’”

Do such books exist? The best I know was published in 1909. Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago is a controversial document. Criticized for booster optimism, ignoring poverty in immigrant Chicago, and cleaving to Beaux-Arts architecture and the City Beautiful movement while modern architecture was initiating in the city, it was respected for the framework it established despite its incomplete plan. But its attempts at holistic planning and a systems approach raised mixed feelings.

For us, it's an example of book design that glues architects’ noses to the page through the beauty and intricacy of its map and pictures. “What's this?” we ask as we lean in to a spread of parks and parkways, following its patterns across two pages, or dwell on the fine-tuned detail and subtle chroma of Jules Guerin’s watercolors, delicately depicting Chicago, booster city, growing without end over the horizon to invisible edges.

Plate XLIV, from Plan of Chicago, 1909. Map of Chicago showing “topography, waterways, and complete system of streets, boulevards, parkways, and parks.” 

Chapter opening design from Plan of Chicago, 1909
 

Its format is designed to inform and teach. Large spreads are for maps and views, small insets for didactic references to antiquity or Beaux-Arts Paris. The whole is held together by harmony within its techniques and by delicate beige borders to black-and-white photographs and drawings. I wish that among the maps and renderings were some of existing patterns of activities in Chicago. They too could have been beautiful. But who could afford to publish books as Chicago did then?

But the book teaches me what to do with the “City of Is.” And perhaps Burnham, who died in 1912, had he lived, might have learned from experience to adapt his systems thinking to reflect the reality of what planners and architects can do, and placed himself as surfer catching the waves rather than captain at the helm.

A picture worth a thousand words started us with architects’ proclivities. How can we work with these, and all the benefits they bring, to shift the field strategically to where cities need it to be? And how can the architecture of books help?

Plate CXXXIX, showing proposed Chicago Civic Center Square, from Plan of Chicago, 1909

 

Bookstores participating in the You Are What You Read series

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