Oct 8, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

What Makes a Building Memorable?

What Makes a Building Memorable?

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC

Courtesy Totya. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic licenses

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For jargon-free, learned, yet entertaining writing about architecture, a Witold Rybczynski book is always something we look forward to. The newest title, How Architecture Works: A Humanist Toolkit, explores everything from ideas to site to skin, in fact the 10 fundamental things that make architecture an object of everyday use.  But more than taking us on a tour of the practical building arts, a Rybczynski book is masterful at exploring the mood, beauty, memory, and all those things we love, or wonder about, when we observe the built environment that surrounds us. Here, I chose to excerpt the introduction to the book, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, which starts with a personal memory of place and time.--SSS


A Jacobean Revival chapel that I attended in high school was my first intimate experience of architecture: timber arches, dark paneling, stained-glass windows depicting suffering Jesuit martyrs— and hard wooden pews. The carved pulpit was like a fo’c’sle overlooking a sea of restless schoolboys. Exactly what makes a building memorable is hard to pin down.

Witold Rybczynski

Courtesy David Graham

It’s certainly not merely fulfilling a practical function—all buildings do that. Beauty? Architecture is an art, yet we rarely concentrate our attention on buildings as we do on plays, books, and paintings. Most architecture, a backdrop for our everyday lives, is experienced in bits and pieces—the glimpsed view of a distant spire, the intricacy of a wrought-iron railing, the soaring space of a railroad station waiting room. Sometimes it’s just a detail, a well-shaped door handle, a window framing a perfect little view, a rosette carved into a chapel pew. And we say to ourselves, “How nice. Someone actually thought of that.”

Despite this familiarity, most of us lack a conceptual framework for thinking about the experience of architecture.  Where are we to find this framework—in the intentions and theories of architects, in the pronouncements of critics, in some kind of pure aesthetic judgment, or in our own experience of buildings? The rationalizations of architects are usually unreliable, intended to persuade rather than to explain. The judgments of critics are frequently little more than partisan opinions. Nor are architectural terms always clear, whether it is the dentils, squinches, and ogee curves of historical styles, or the impenetrable poststructuralist jargon of the contemporary avant-garde. Of course, all professions have their technical terminology, but  while television and the movies have made the languages of law and medicine familiar, the infrequent appearance of architects on the big screen is rarely enlightening, whether it’s the fictional Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or the real Stanford White in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

Why does this matter? Because architecture is for the most part a public art. Despite the media’s trumpeting of “signature” buildings, architecture isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—a personality cult. Gothic cathedrals were not built for architecture buffs or the cognoscenti but for the medieval man in the street, who could gape at the grotesque gargoyles, be inspired by the carvings of devout saints, marvel at the glowing rose windows, or be transported by the hymns reverberating in the cavernous nave. Architecture, if it is any good, speaks to all of us.

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