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Monday, May 04, 2009

Book Review: Architecture Oriented Otherwise

Architecture Oriented Otherwise by David Leatherbarrow
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Hardcover, 304 pages

David Leatherbarrow begins his latest book with the sentence: "Forces beyond the architect's control affect architecture's concrete reality, regardless of what was intended in design." Coincidentally, this sentiment is shared by another theoretical book released about the same time, Jeremy Till's Architecture Depends. Where Till takes aim square at the profession and academia to shift architecture's focus towards different ends, Leatherbarrow dances around the influence of external factors, keeping his eleven essays firmly rooted in architectural history and theory, though raising provoking ideas along the way. This difference stems partly from the fact Till's book is a cohesive theoretical argument and Leatherbarrow's essays are an almost even mix of articles published previously and ones printed here for the first time. The consistency of the latter's thought and work creates his book's cohesion, aided by the recurrence of certain ideas and characters.
While the first sentence quoted above is most likely not intended as a summary of the book with an intriguing title, it does find reiteration in the author's insistence on architecture's fit into context, a situation where buildings lose their singularity and become part of a continuity of experience, what Leatherbarrow calls topography. This theme has been explored elsewhere by the author, who sees the term as a link between architecture and landscape architecture. He defines topography as terrain that is endowed with implications extending beyond edges of discrete objects or events. Therefore an architect who incorporates topography into his or her design process will have a better chance of successfully straddling the dichotomies of architecture and landscape, building and city, individual and collective. Leatherbarrow's penultimate example -- a hometown favorite that pops up repeatedly for the Penn Design professor -- is George Howe's PSFS Building in Philadelphia, which he analyzes in depth, from the level of the visitor to the viewer seeing the building on the horizon.
As Leatherbarrow's book is basically a collection of essays, it is best digested as such. His writing can be dense at times, though well worth the effort for extracting the most from his intriguing ideas. Reading it straight through makes one realize his writing could use more variety, as it sometimes seems only Corbusier, Mies, Wright and Loos appear alongside Howe. In this sense a couple of the best essays focus on lesser known architects: the "breathing walls" of Henry Klumb's San Martin de Porres church in Puerto Rico and O'Donnell + Tuomey's Glucksman Gallery in Ireland, which he wrote about for their 2006 monograph. These two essays can be seen as the practice or design side of Leatherbarrow's theory, where the rest is predominantly interested in architectural theory, such as the ideas of Le Corbusier found in his writings. The same ideas, like topography, find mention in the essays on Klumb and O'Donnell + Tuomey, illustrating the consistency of Leatherbarrow's ideas and the form of the architecture and landscape that embodies such ideas.

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