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Monday, October 01, 2007

Book Review: Strange Details

Strange Details by Michael Cadwell

During a stay at the American Academy in Rome, architect and academic Michael Cadwell studied the buildings of Carlo Scarpa, specifically the construction details the now well-known and admired architect is known for. In Scarpa's Querini Stampalia Gallery in Venice, Cadwell "abandoned his attempts to categorize [the details] theoretically and resolved instead to appreciate their idiosyncrasies" of the odd details and patterns of the building and garden. This book presents Cadwell's exploration of that design, as well as three other works by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn.
Not surprisingly, the most thorough and enjoyable essay is the one on the Querini Stampalia, where the author delves into the intricacies of the joinery and the spaces, seeing relationships that only the most "cultivated sensibility" -- as Kenneth Frampton says -- would find. But Cadwell does not see architecture as merely the resolution and accumulation of materials and their construction details. He finds that the gallery and garden are greater than the sum of these parts, a strange, yet unresolved succession of spaces that destabilizes the visitor. Having visited the gallery years ago when the garden was closed for repairs and now reading this essay, I feel like I missed out on a great deal of the experience, as if the voyage was incomplete. In that regard my appreciation of the building on the level of details is justified, though obviously incomplete.
The three other essays present the Jacobs House by Wright, Mies's famous Farnsworth House outside Chicago, and Kahn's Yale Center for British Art. Like Scarpa's Venice project, Cadwell gives great attention and care to his exploration and presentation of each, with drawings, photographs and sketches accompanying the text. The essays not only give insight into each building and architect; they also present to the reader a unique approach to thinking about architecture and nature, since after all the former is made up of the latter. This is the type of book that should be more common, a mix of case study, theory, and history that's insightful and thought-provoking.

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