The Architecture Reader: Essential Writings from Vitruvius to the Present, edited by A. Krista Sykes (George Braziller, 336 pp., $35)
Written into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990–2004, by Peter Eisenman (Yale University Press, 177 pp., $35)
Reflecting on the task of book reviewing, W. H. Auden once argued that there wasn’t much point in writing negative reviews because while some books are undeservedly forgotten, “none are undeservedly remembered.” Though I admire Auden greatly, I think this was a supremely silly thing to say. Bad books, and the bad ideas that they express, are not only remembered, they also continue to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This is perhaps most palpably the case in the realm of politics and economics, as the syllables “Karl Marx” and “John Maynard Keynes” show.
Bad books, and the bad ideas they express, are also an important factor in the cultural realm. They shape the way we think about the world and our place in it, informing our feelings, tastes, manners, and morals. By failing to criticize what is bad in bad books, we collude in the propagation of the bad things that they advocate.
Consider The Architecture Reader: Essential Writings from Vitruvius to the Present, and Peter Eisenman’s Written into the Void: Selected Writings 1990–2004. At first blush, both books might seem ideal candidates for Auden’s compassionate prescription: pass over ’em in silence and trust that they will disappear soon. The catch is that these books, the first by a young and ambitious Harvard Ph.D., the second by an influential architect and writer about architecture, are bound to reinforce some very bad intellectual habits, not only among people who think and write about architecture but also among architects themselves.
Does it matter? The health of art and culture can never be a matter of indifference to society. But in the case of architecture, deformation is especially troubling, because architecture is never a private pursuit, as poetry or painting, for example, can be. It is by its very nature an enterprise that impinges upon the public square. Architecture is an art that, by shaping our physical environment, shapes the temperament of our social interaction and domestic tranquility.
In Britain during World War II, when gasoline was scarce, one frequently came upon admonitory posters asking, “Is your journey really necessary?” I had a similar feeling when paging through Sykes’s book: “Is this anthology really necessary?” It bills itself as a collection of “essential writings” from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius to the present. But this is a misnomer in two ways. First, there are only the barest scraps of anything written before the twentieth century. There are nine pages from Vitruvius’s long book On Architecture, just over three pages from Abbot Suger about overseeing the construction of the Abbey Church at St. Denis, and four pages from the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Most of the book is devoted to writings from the last 50 years, with most of the ink devoted to items written in the last 15.
Second, it is a misuse of language to describe this as a collection of “essential” writings on architecture. “Essential” in this context means “necessary” or at least “important.” The writers and architects Sykes leaves out would fill a book. There is nothing by John Ruskin, for example, or Montgomery Schuyler or David Watkin; there is nothing by Mies van der Rohe or a long list of important architects who have reflected deeply on the vocation of architecture.
Most of what Sykes has gathered is best described as “trendy” or “ephemeral.” Philip Johnson. Robert Venturi. Hassan Fathy. Peter Eisenman. Charles Jencks. Bernard Tschumi. Rem Koolhaus. Daniel Liebeskind. Norman Foster. Frank Gehry. Sykes has rounded up a rogues’ gallery of brittle egotism in which contempt for the traditional canons of architecture is exceeded only by contempt for the public. “The only important task,” we read in one typical expostulation, “is the vigilant corruption of the chain of causality that begins with ‘client’ and ends in ‘building.’” In other words, please pay for this building, but don’t bother me with any demands about how it looks or functions.
Which brings me to Written into the Void by Peter Eisenman, the man who brought the deconstructivist theories of Jacques Derrida to architecture. Eisenman has specialized in two things: buildings that flirt with deliberate absurdity and prose that embraces owlish hermeticism as a virtue. It is the work of a moment for him to put office windows at ankle level, build a stairway that goes nowhere, or design a house that features a hole in its second-story living room in order, says Eisenman, to highlight the “repressed possibilities” of dwelling.
The critic Jeffrey Kipnis, who provides an introduction to Written into the Void, observes that the book’s essays show Eisenman at his “most viscous” and recommends that neophytes “put this volume aside” and start with an earlier collection. “Viscous” these essays assuredly are. But Kipnis is much too modest. Genuine solicitude should have prompted him to advise readers to put aside all of Eisenman’s books, back slowly out of the room, and run gratefully to the nearest building by Stanford White. When you get there, take out John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art. The fact that I provided a testimonial for the book prohibits me from reviewing, but not from recommending, this brief but bracing blast of common sense, the most amusing book about architecture since Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House.