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Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: On Architecture

On Architecture by Fred Rush
Routledge, 2009
Paperback, 184 pages




Books on architecture by philosophers are much rarer than philosophical books by architects and architectural academics. Of the former only Roger Scruton's The Aesthetics of Architecture and Karsten Harries' The Ethical Function of Architecture come to mind. Now they are accompanied by University of Notre Dame associate professor of philosophy Fred Rush's contribution to Routledge's Thinking in Action series. Where Scruton's book obviously tackles the subject of architecture visually (his conservative stance is embraced by many New Urbanist, Classicist, and other neo-traditional architects today) and Harries' collection of essays is broadly structured around the responsibility of the architect in a Heideggerian manner, Rush uses Maurice Merleu-Ponty's writings on phenomenology as the basis for his essay on meaning in architecture.

Embodied experience is the name of the game for Rush, and Steven Holl is the architect who, well, embodies embodied experience. Midway through the accessible but still dense first chapter on phenomenology, the author discusses Holl's recent addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, an exercise that is helpful in instilling Rush's main argument in the reader. He also briefly discusses Arakawa + Madeline Gins, though their unique brand of environmental awareness is an extreme version lacking Holl's more applicable though pricey precedents.

The first chapter's explanations of phenomenology and examples of it in architecture arm the reader with ideas for tackling the two remaining chapters, respectively on architecture's relation to art and the urban/environmental context. These chapters are lighter in tone than the first, but they are far from light in subject matter, as each contributes to Rush's argument for an architecture than acknowledges and elevates embodied experience. In the book's final chapter it is refreshing to hear somebody discuss New Urbanism who is not either a staunch proponent or enemy, even though his critique of it reiterates positions heard before.

What can be called Rush's "outsider position" helps his argument (what he calls "snapshots to get one thinking about architecture and its autonomy") have equal chances of being embraced or dismissed. To me his phenomenological approach, while not new, is commendable, particularly in his call for how architecture can be improved via those philosophical ideas. Bringing embodied experience to bear on architecture is a fitting potential antidote to both iconographic eye candy one the one hand and cheap, uninspired buildings on the other hand, both the product of abstraction and formalism replacing the human body's place in architectural thinking.

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