Books: more thoughts on re:use

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Book covers

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White on White: Churches of Rural New England Photographs, by Steve Rosenthal; essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg; afterword by Robert Campbell FAIA (The Monacelli Press, 2009)

A distinguished architectural photographer, Steve Rosenthal is known to many for his crisp images of New England’s important new buildings, including Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall, Cobb’s Hancock Tower, and Kahn’s Exeter Library. Less known is his longtime, quiet obsession: making black-and-white photographs of New England churches.

These striking images have been bound together in large-format plates in a beautiful book. A foreword by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who is on the editorial board at The New York Times, and an afterword by Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell FAIA provide thoughtful context to view these photographs as art.

Any art form has its limitations, of course. The sonnet form restricts a poem with specific meter and a fixed number of feet and lines. When beauty emerges from a sonnet, it seems all the more astonishing because of the apparent restrictions of the form. However, the tension between the meaning and the form are inextricably connected.

Photography, and particularly black-and-white photography, has many limitations analogous to the limitations of the sonnet form. The photographer’s view of the world is already limited by a monocular lens, but the black-and-white photographer is further limited by the absence of color. Surely color would give a greater scope for conveying meaning?

But in the hands of an artist such as Steve Rosenthal, the black-and-white format intensifies the meaning. The images in this book are astonishing. Their subjects are the iconic white, 18th- and 19th-century structures that were once the center of community life in the region and still define the New England landscape today. Rosenthal gives them an epic stature. Through the sensitivity of his eye and the clarity of his compositions, these frail wooden barns — indeed they were built mostly for farmers — become heroic, timeless architecture.

In these photographs, the reader will find a full education in architecture. Here are essays on siting, context, and urbanism. Here are essays on the efficiency of form as it relates to function, on the use of daylight and sun, and on the role of structure. These photographs are essays in style, and how style carries meaning.

And further, these photographs are essays in the human spirit. Through Rosenthal’s lens, we feel — and this is no exaggeration — the human will to immortality and the reach for meaning across time. The builders of these New England treasures were housewrights and carpenters, whose knowledge of history and the larger world seems hopelessly limited when compared to our age of plane travel and the Internet.

But with the availability of pattern books, the builders of these essential New England buildings were able to reuse the forms of ancient temples and medieval cathedrals. Timeless forms were made new. Steve Rosenthal’s haunting, dreamlike, beautiful photographs will forever change our sense of these country churches.

Build-On: Converted Architecture and Transformed Buildings, edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (Gestalten, 2009)

The possibility of transformation is one of the great promises of working with existing buildings. This is an elusive goal; to begin with something old, introduce a new ingredient, and end with the unexpected — which is somehow both familiar and new — requires both deference and assertion. Several examples of this alchemy appear in the projects illustrated in Build-On. Unfortunately, the book’s enthusiasm is diluted somewhat by the sheer number of examples cited.

With lush color photographs and short descriptive essays, the book features over 85 projects from around the world (mostly Western Europe), including many that may not be widely recognized in the US. Although no table of contents is provided (the projects are indexed by architect at the end of the book), the book is divided into three themed chapters. In the first, “Add-on,” new spaces are added or superimposed onto existing structures. In “Inside-Out,” exteriors remain largely intact, while interiors are fundamentally altered. “Change Clothes,” the most interesting, looks at works that attempt to change the face of the existing structure. Although this last implies a focus on appearance, it features the repurposing of several unused industrial sites. Other themes reappear periodically, such as revealing the layers of time (the Ljubljana City Museum) or the multiplicity of uses over the life of a structure (the National Sculpture Museum in Valladolid). Some simply strive to preserve the relevance of a rare building type (the Cascais Music Conservatory). All share a forward-looking embrace of contemporary sensibilities.

The editors reference the work of Marcel Duchamp and the “as-found” strategy of architects Alison and Peter Smithson as progenitors for a new way of thinking about the built environment. While the editors align the theme of architectural reuse with these strategies, which challenged notions of conventional perception and the dogmatic excesses of the Modernism of their day, the book also shines a welcome light on what are in fact older, more balanced ways of thinking about architecture. The timing of the book is interesting as we grapple with the excesses of our own time. Renovation and addition are by their very nature sustainable acts that require direct understanding of the artifact and its technology and demand a deeper, more intimate engagement with an existing context. I wish Build-On told more of the story of this engagement. The most valuable lessons from these projects are often the dead ends, puzzles solved, and trials overcome. The projects presented deserve our attention, but the telling would benefit greatly from revealing the process, the thinking, and the decision-making that shaped the outcome of each one. The number of compelling examples cited is argument enough to make the case that there is more to say on this topic. At the very least, Build-On can light the path for future study by young designers who are beginning their search today.

In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, by Lauren Weber (Little, Brown & Company, 2009)

Lauren Weber’s description of her penny-pinching dad sounds like my father, and maybe yours, too: they set the thermostat to “chilly” and tell their kids to wear sweaters. But Weber’s dad takes thrift further. He uses teabags 12 times and once attempted to ration his family’s toiletpaper (he failed in this endeavor).

After uncovering her own frugality’s roots, Weber addresses the American relationship with thrift. She begins with the etymology of the word “cheap,” and proceeds through early American history to the present. The first few chapters are dry, as if Weber were producing the world’s longest social-studies report, but her book is important and ultimately fascinating.

The American relationship with money is dizzying. Early Puritans exhorted thrift, but became wealthy by plundering this continent’s abundance. Benjamin Franklin linked parsimony with patriotism; post-Revolutionary patriots acquired goods greedily. Saving has been a virtue during every war but the most recent; spending is encouraged afterward. The speed with which “We the People” ricochet between frugality and indulgence is akin to proclamations about coffee or wine: Good for you! Bad for you! Good! No, bad!

Despite this ping-ponging, frugality was considered a virtue until after World War II, when Americans were enlisted in a new war: fighting recession. Citizens were urged to buy homes, cars, washing machines — setting the stage for the post-9/11 cry, “Go shopping. Show you’re not afraid.”

Weber proffers ideas and resources for thrifty living. From the online network Freecycle to clothing swaps, Americans are learning to trade and reuse, rather than discard. “Freegans” opt out of the economic system altogether: mostly unemployed, they dumpster-dive for food and cultivate tradable skills like carpentry and computer repair.

The author casts a wide net, drawing in American history, the psychology of cheapness, its environmental impact, moral connotations, and its global economic effects. While her scope makes the book a bit messy, she manages a synthesis of disparate subjects — a sort of unified field theory of cheapness.

As Weber explains, the American lust for consumer goods burns holes in our pockets and warms the globe. And the connection between our sense of material entitlement, our personal financial woes, and the national and global economic crises is frightening. The average American savings rate is at an all-time low of zero. High savings rates support business investments; investments fuel growth. We spend more than we save, so America makes up the difference by borrowing from thriftier countries: China. We’re in hock. Khrushchev once bellowed to Westerners, “We will bury you!” China may soon declare, “We own you!”

In Cheap We Trust is thorough and provocative. It will force readers to take a second look at spending and saving — at our needs, our wants, and the world we live in together.

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