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Friday, February 01, 2013

28 in 28 #1: Key Buildings from Prehistory to the Present

February is Book Month on A Daily Dose of Architecture. The "28 in 28" series features a different book every day of the month.

Key Buildings from Prehistory to the Present: Plans, Sections and Elevations by Andrew Ballantyne
Laurence King Publishing, 2012
Hardcover, 320 pages

The first "key building" in Andrew Ballantyne's survey from prehistory to present—in a chapter on "culture-defining moments"—is not a building at all. It is Uluru, familiarly known as Ayers Rock, a landform in Australia's Northern Territory. What follows this first entry is a fairly typical list of buildings—if more international than most architectural histories—most of them from before the Industrial Revolution. So Uluru, and to a lesser degree the rest of the first chapter, seems primed to provoke. What makes a natural feature a building? Is architecture more than the shelters humans create for themselves? Is there value in a plan, section, and elevation of a large rock?

Ballantyne reasons that architectural history should notice cultures that don't produce monuments. In contrasting European colonists and Aboriginals, Ayers Rock was seen as a geological formation, but Uluru was formed by singing or other means during Dreamtime, the age of the Aboriginal's ancestors. By today's (Western) definition of architecture, the orange rock is beautiful and substantial but hardly something to be considered with the Great Pyramid at Khufu, the Parthenon, or the Eiffel Tower. Its inclusion reminds readers that different cultures and epochs have different ways of living, none of which is unimportant. Such is why the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange in Los Angeles is found at the end of the first chapter.

Other distinctions between eras are visible in the drawings that make this volume and other "key buildings" titles valuable. Orthographic drawings—plans, sections, elevations—are helpful in understanding space and structure, but they are also technological; they are conventions that architects have used since the Renaissance. Buildings before the Renaissance—Machu Picchu, Medina at Fes, Houses in Burkina Faso, for exampe—are more readily understood in the photographs provided rather than the drawings, which can't capture the complexity of the architecture. But these are the minority, for most of the drawings do a great job in aiding the understanding of some of the most significant buildings in history, all over the world. With drawings on the included CD-ROM, this is a title especially valuable for students of architecture.

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