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Monday, August 11, 2008

Book Review: Writing and Seeing Architecture

Writing and Seeing Architecture by Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, translated by Catherine Tihanyi
University of Minnesota Press, 2008

A conversation differs from an interview in both the contributions of those involved and the goal of the undertaking. In the latter the interviewer is subsdidiary to the interviewee, aiming at extracting as much (hopefully interesting) information as possible in a typically short amount of time. A converation, on the other hand, brings together two individuals (in most cases) with relatively equal contributions to the proceeding, where the dialogue between the two is the point. Unique insights arise from agreements and arguments between those involved, especially when the personalities are from different fields. This "candid conversation between Christian de Portzamparc, a celebrated French architect, and influential theorist Philippe Sollers" is one such conversation, a rewarding read for those inclined to dense, theoretical, well, conversing.

The French intellectual tradition comes across strongly in this conversation, what I would naively define as the willingness and desire to discuss the meanings and merits of different lines of thought and actions. It is a tradition whose think-before-you-act way of being in the world is a welcome antidote to the act-and-then-post-rationalize approach that is the unfortunate favorite today. This admittedly strong oversimplification of French intellectualism can probably be applied to much theory today. (Architectural theory's approach might be jokingly referred to as think-before-you-think-some-more.) This book's emphasis, stemming from that and evident even in the book's title, can be distilled as a dissection of the process of creating architecture and our experience of it and its context. While certainly leaning towards Portzamparc's field of expertise, the writing of the book's title -- an act of expressing thought -- points to the varied illuminating ideas coming from Soller's words.

With the book's academic tone, lengthy statements, varied topics and primarily abstract tone, it is best digested in small parts. Like any conversation the topics don't try to cohere -- outside of the viewpoints of those involved -- but instead they flow, they meander in unexpected ways, even though Portzamparc and Sollers work with a framework that then organizes the eight chapters. One longs for an index, so the book could stand as a reference for later inspiration, but alas one is left with the flow of the words on the page, a transcription of an exchange of ideas that is sorely lacking today.

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