Pale Fire

Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion

by Mark C. Taylor
University of Chicago Press, 346 pp., $45.00

Writing about the art of building has a long tradition. Inspired by the ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, who wrote On Architecture, the oldest surviving dissertation on classical architectural theory, Renaissance architects like Alberti, Vignola, and Palladio all produced theoretical treatises. So did Jacques-François Blondel in the eighteenth century. The practice continued in the twentieth century with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, and recently Robert Venturi and Aldo Rossi.

Initially, architectural books were practical instruction manuals like Wenzel Roriczer’s fifteenth-century manuscript, On the Correct Building of Pinnacles. Even a scholar like Alberti devoted as much space to practical subjects such as the correct way to apply plaster and the manufacture of brick as to aesthetic issues. But Alberti, like many succeeding writers, was also a polemicist, and his book was intended to convince the reader of the rightness of his Classical cause.

Sometimes, as in the case of Vitruvius or Wright, one senses that the polemical writing was, at least partly, driven by a desire for self-promotion. After all, architects need to attract clients, and books illustrated with their own work (as Wright’s always were) are a useful publicity device. Other authors, like Le Corbusier, Venturi, and Rossi, seem to have been inspired by inactivity as much as anything else; it is no coincidence that when their architectural careers prospered these men wrote less. Busy architects are occupied with building, not writing, and successful practitioners like Edwin Lutyens and Mies van der Rohe wrote no major theoretical works; neither, for that matter, have the most lionized architects of our day, Frank Gehry and Richard Meier.

Nevertheless, celebrated architects have sometimes summed up their theories and experience toward the end of their careers. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote A Testament in 1957, only two years before his death, and Palladio published his famous Four Books of Architecture when he was sixty-two, ten years before he died. In this book, which would influence architects for centuries to come, he included descriptions of his own buildings with detailed plans and dimensions, for proper proportioning was considered to be one of the chief skills of the architect. Interestingly, historians have discovered that there are many small discrepancies between the drawings in the book and the executed buildings. It appears that for Palladio the book was an opportunity to put on the record his idealized vision, not the messy reality.

Building is unavoidably messy. Constructing large buildings has little in common with the autonomous creative process of the painter or the sculptor. In addition to the designer, architecture involves the contractor, tradesmen, technicians, the architect’s assistants, and, of course, the client. Moreover, designing and building is a long process, with unexpected changes and on-the-spot modifications of the original concept. Architecture also costs a lot of money. The only other art form that comes close is film. This summer’s blockbuster, Batman Returns, is said to have cost over $55 million, but the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, now…

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