Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Book Review: Forty Ways to Think About Architecture

Forty Ways to Think About Architecture: Architectural history and theory today edited by Iaian Borden, Murray Fraser, Barbara Penner
Wiley, 2014
Paperback, 280 pages

What at first glance appears to be a collection of forty essays on architectural history and theory is actually more focused, since the "Forty" in the title also refers to Adrian Forty, Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL). Called "the UK's leading academic in the discipline," I'm ashamed to admit I have not read one of Forty's books. Of course, this may be excusable given that he's only written three books since 1986, when Objects of Desire: Design and Society 1750-1980 was released: Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, his most popular book, published in 2000, and 2012's Concrete and Culture: A Material History. The forty contributors – academics, old students, architects, historians and critics – follow in the broad interests evident in these three books: the appreciation and understanding of design in a general sense of the word, the strong relationship between architecture and writing, and the material reality of architecture.

But before the editors present the forty essays – ordered A-Z by first name, something I found curious at first but grew to appreciate in its informality – they feature a lecture that Forty gave at the UCL in 2000. That the lecture happened 14 years before the book's publication may seem odd, but it is really not that important since, as we learn in the book, Forty is very careful with the way he articulates his ideas, be they in book form or in a lecture. He takes his time with things, such that his takes on things are thoughtful and deep and his words then become more lasting, which is certainly important for a historian. The lecture was probably chosen since it was the first inaugural lecture in architectural history at The Bartlett since 1970, when his teacher Reyner Banham gave one called "At Shoo Fly Landing." Forty's lecture, "Future Imperfect," honestly exposes his interests and approach to history, making it a perfect preface for the forty short essays that follow.

As can be expected with so many essays, the contributions are a hodgepodge in terms of subject and how the contributors chose to address Forty's forty years of teaching (yes, another play on that word/number!), though, not surprisingly, the whole leans to the UK. The highlights tend to be from contributors who discuss Forty directly in some manner, such as Andrew Saint's piece, "How to Write About Buildings?", Briony Fer's part-visual essay on Forty's photography, Murray Fraser's piece on Reyner Banham's cowboy hat, and Tony Fretton's response to Words and Buildings; or those that take a parallel approach to Forty, as in Eleanor Young's take on Colin St. John Wilson's British Library fifteen years after it opened. The essays that stake their own ground outside of any obvious relation to Forty are less appealing, since they could find their way into just about any other book rather than this one. Regardless, the short essays add up to a solid collection that, if anything, emphasizes the importance of Forty's teaching and writing and makes me want to grab one of his books and delve deeper into his ideas.