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Architecture an Inspiration

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Never judge a book by its cover. Especially an architecture book, says Rory Olcayto

There are many beautifully designed architecture books, with beautiful covers and beautiful photography and beautiful drawings inside, but because the writing is so bad – pretentious at best, incoherent at worst – you end up regretting the loss of trees.

Architecture an Inspiration, on the other hand, by Park Hill architect Ivor Smith, looks awful. The cover image is a blurred photo of Arup and John McAslan’s King’s Cross station roof, and the interior resembles a printed up Word document in Times New Roman. Because that is what it is. Yet Architecture an Inspiration is a real pleasure to read – informative, colourful and friendly.

Smith has put together a rather special tome here. Reading it is like attending a great lecture – the kind in which you actually learn something and find the experience enjoyable too. Perhaps this is unsurprising – Smith’s post-Sheffield career saw him teach at Cambridge and head the architecture school at University College Dublin.

So what’s it about, you’re no doubt wondering. Well, in the author’s words: ‘Architecture an Inspiration is addressed to those who enjoy buildings, cities and landscapes, and would like to have a deeper appreciation and a basis for their likes and dislikes. A full appreciation demands careful observation, and in these pages there are many explorations of this sort.’ So what we get is a kind of tour. We visit Smith’s favourite buildings – most of them 20th century, most of them Modernist and most of them pretty much canon, although his case studies are, in the main, European works, with a special focus on the craftsmen of the north.

Aalto looms large, so does Hertzberger, and the journey Smith takes his readers on begins with a walk around Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. Smith visits buildings in the south of Europe too, from Moneo in Murcia to Corb in Marseilles, but for every Mediterranean detour (Piano gets the nod more than once) there is a journey back northwards, whether to Edward Cullinan’s Camden Mews, Benson + Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland, Aldo van Eyck’s Amsterdam Orphanage or Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Woodlands Cemetery. Americans don’t figure: Frank Lloyd Wright is given a page and a half; Kahn is given a nod here and there; and there’s nothing on Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, or any corporate Americana for that matter.

The book is divided in two. The first part focuses on the nature of architecture, ‘the basic requirements’, Smith says, ‘that, to varying degrees, must always be met, such as facilitating activity, moderating climate, relating to context, respecting materials and structure, as well as conveying meaning and delight’. The second part is about the nature of design: ‘the use of reason and intuition, the value of experience and precedent, the role of metaphor and the search for harmony’.

There is a coda of sorts, too: a look back by Smith over his own work, in the context of the buildings he explores in previous chapters. Of course Park Hill is discussed, including a diplomatic appraisal of Urban Splash’s retrofit by Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West. There is too little, however, on what looks like a superb, understated project by Smith: Dibleys, a ‘village’ for elderly people in rural Berkshire.

Architecture an Inspiration is thoroughly recommended. It’s personal, for sure, and conservative in that it treads ground already amply covered and does little to redress the biases that plague Modernist histories (there’s nothing on Lina Bo Bardi, Eileen Grey or Zaha Hadid, nor any mention of the likes of Egypt’s Hassan Fathay or Turkey’s Sedad Eldem. But then there’s nothing on Oscar Niemeyer either).

What it does do is tell a straight story beautifully, with charm and eloquence, alongside complementary photos and drawings. It’s overpriced at £24.95 (£10-15 would be a whole lot more reasonable) and the design (including the book’s size, a widened A4) just ain’t good enough. Why? Because Architecture an Inspiration should be on the shelves of every aspiring architect, and every qualified architect too, who’s thinking of putting pen to paper. With an appropriate new look, this smart, engaging book could become a real classic.

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