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Architecture in Wood: A World History


By Will Price. Thames and Hudson, 2005. 320pp. £39.95

Wood is not traditionally seen as a monumental material, which means that in countries that have the appropriate resources, brick, and particularly stone, have usually replaced timber structures.

As Will Pryce points out in Architecture in Wood - A World History, this is in spite of timber's superiority in terms of insulation and earthquake resistance. Wood, he writes, is not an inferior building material, simply a different one.

Pryce has already produced an acclaimed book on brick architecture (AJ 29.01.04), although for that he only provided the photos. Architecture in Wood follows the same formula, but to show that wood is 'different', not inferior, he has to go to parts of the world that have clung on to their timber heritage. This is a bonus for the reader in terms of unfamiliarity.

We may know something of Beijing's Forbidden City or of Germany's half-timbered merchants' houses, but how many of us are familiar with Norway's stave churches, the Shaker structures of North America, or even the interior of Sydney's Finger Wharf, despite the fact that it sits right beside the Harbour Bridge?

It is not only the freshness of the subject matter that makes this book so good - it is that Pryce is a very 'ne photographer indeed. There is a seeming artlessness to his pictures that, coupled with the large format and excellent printing, makes you feel that you are there.

This is accentuated by the fact that he did not have limitless time and so could not always choose the conditions.

So we see Japan's Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji in the rain, complete with visitors under umbrellas, and colonial Massachusetts in the snow.

Similarly, the plastic water bottles and hanging towels surrounding the praying monk at the monastery of Nyaung U in Pagan, Burma, remove the picture from the realm of sterile architectural photography. But the real shock comes when you see buildings that you know.

These seem like themselves, but more so - an indication of the care and art that have gone in to Pryce's work.

In the text, he displays considerable knowledge of the history of architecture around the world, of timbers used and of structural systems. And his writing is as fluent as his photography. But there is sometimes a disjunction between images and text, as if the words have been written afterwards, so that the pictures do not always display the key points. Similarly, the captions sometimes seem a little throwaway.

And while a common complaint with such coffeetable books is a lack of plans and sections, in this case one hungers more for drawings of structural systems and jointing details. But that would add another layer to a book that is already a tour de force - an inspirational book on the architecture of wood by someone who, unusually, combines the skills of photography and writing.

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