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Constructing Architecture: Materials, Processes, Structures - A Handbook Edited by Andrea Deplazes.

Birkhäuser, 2005. 508pp.Euro 49.50 (£34)

The lineage of educational books on construction has been woefully limited in recent times and dominated by the wildly outdated Mitchell's Building Series. Those books focus on construction as a process or as an assembly of parts, with no reference to a cultural and artistic dimension. The banality of construction detail used and the lack of cultural context ensures that any relationship between construction and architecture is missed.

Constructing Architecture, edited by Andrea Deplazes, should both dominate any previous material on the principles of construction and contribute to a refocussing of the role of construction and its relationship to architecture.

Deplazes is a significant force within current Swiss architectural culture. As chair of architecture and technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), and as partner of Graubündenbased Bearth & Deplazes, his teaching and building has dwelt on how construction-orientated thinking finally manifests itself in architecture.

'For me, designing and constructing are the same thing, ' says Deplazes, going on to express the need for construction principle and architectural concept to be integral, and concluding that 'understanding construction means to grasp it intellectually after grasping it materially, with all our senses'.

From the outset, then, it is plain that this book is more than a compendium of known and current architectural and technological issues, but one with a clear intellectual position which recognises its place within the continuum of ancient and 19th century European architecture. So it is not suprising to see reference to the ideas of Gottfried Semper, in his notable essays which explored the separation between material as a medium for meaning and its mass (or loadbearing character).

The origins of the book lie in papers and lectures prepared by Deplazes and his teaching assistants over a period of years at ETH. Formalising them within this book has ensured that the original research remains live with its distribution open to a wider audience.

The book is organised in five sections: Materials;

Elements; Structures; Selected Buildings; and Components, with each section containing theoretical and technical essays, reference material and detail drawings. The essays have the character of lectures, which vary in presentation style, language and quality (from good to excellent).

Apart from Deplazes himself, and teaching colleagues such as Christoph Elsener and Cordula Seger, noteworthy contributors include Martin Tschanz and Christoph Wieser (editors of the highly respected magazine Werk, Bauen & Wohnen), Roland Barthes (an extract from his early piece on plastics), and historian R A Moravánsky, whose 'The Pathos of Masonry' stands out as a highly articulate exploration of Semper's theories on tectonics.

While the projects illustrated in the essays are both contemporary and historical, with a wide range of references from Scottish castles to Herzog & de Meuron, the technical essays use construction photographs and diagrams to clearly explain strategy and detail. It is typical of the attitude to learning that the technical commentaries often refer to the flaws in a given approach, warning the reader of the possible consequences of a particular approach to detailing. The last section of the book contains a comprehensive catalogue of construction typologies drawn in plan, elevation and section, and annotated in a clear and generic language.

Ten contemporary projects are selected and presented as case studies, and while their choice clearly reflects the architectural preferences of the editors (including three projects by Bearth & Deplazes and two by Peter Märkli) they demonstrate, in each case, an architecture of both conceptual and constructional rigour, often with a holistic understanding of sustainability.

By starting with a single raw material, via the joining of different building parts, up to the finished building, this book succeeds in showing how much architectural expression depends on its constructional composition. And by offering a specific critique of architectural culture and demonstrating how some of the best contemporary projects have been made, it also provides a bridge between education and practice, between student and architect. In this way it will be a source of reference and inspiration to both equally.

Stephen Bates is a partner in Sergison Bates

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