Friday, March 21, 2014

"If it's not Baroque, don't fix it!" - Book List About Architecture

I love architecture. I think if I had a completely different brain, one the would allow me to do math like a regular adult, I'd loved to have been an architect or a civil engineer. Since that is not the case I will just have to be satisfied with reading books about it. For the sake of variety, we have 1 fiction and 1 nonfiction, we'll start with the fiction.

"The Paris Architect" by Charles Belfoure

Lucien Bernard is an upcoming architect with a flair that leans toward modern in 1930s Paris. He's got a wealthyish wife, a striking and famous mistress, and everything would be coming up roses if it weren't for the Nazis. He doesn't hate the Nazis for their policies, he just doesn't  like that it complicates things for him.  He was raised in a pretty anti-Semitic household but frankly Lucien is really to self centered to give a rats behind about anyone else.

When Lucien gets a call from Monsieur Manet, a rich industrialist, he has high hopes for a lucrative commission. He is surprised when Manet's real commission is to create hiding places for Jews who are on the run from the Gestapo in some of the buildings that he owns. Lucien is taken aback, if he was to get caught the best he could hope for would be a fast gullet through the brain courtesy of their occupiers. When Manet offers Lucien the contract to design a factory outside of Paris if he also makes the hiding places Lucien can't help himself and agrees.

Lucien ends up having to work very closely with Nazis to design the factory, all the while thinking of creative hiding spots for Jews. Lucien doesn't really develop feelings about saving Jews but he  does start  start to enjoy the feeling of pulling something over on the Nazis.

There is betrayal, torture, surprising goodness in people, surprising badness in people, sex in unusual locations, tense moments and murder most foul... I enjoyed this book very much. I have only 2 complaints: I wish that they'd included one or two graphs or blueprints showing the hiding spots. The second complaint is that I feel like this is the 5th book I've read  this year with people running around on their spouses, kinda bums me out. Anyway, I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars!

"Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People That They Made" by Tom Wilkinson

(I received this e-book from netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. It will be published in about July.)

Right off the bat I'll tell you the buildings, this isn't a spoiler considering you can see them in the book descriptions at various websites:

-Tower of Babel, Babylon

-Nero’s Golden House, Rome
-Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu
-Palazzo Rucellai, Florence
-Garden of Perfect Brightness, Beijing 
-Festival Theatre, Beyreuth 
-E.1027, Cap Martin
-Highland Park Ford Plant, Detroit 
-Finsbury Health Centre, London
-Footbridge, Rio de Janeiro

There is a great amount of variety between these buildings; some are homes, some are public spaces, and one wasn't even built to completion. The author breaks down each building and what makes it important, interesting, and what it contributes to history and the area around it. 

There was a question that the author brought up that I thought was so fascinating.If a building/structure/infrastructure/piece of architecture is built/commissioned by an entity that is terrible is the architecture morally bad? (The author obviously put it better then that, but I sum up). Let's talk about 2 examples.

Emperor Nero was crazier then a shithouse rat, by most accounts. He was self indulgent and narcissistic to an extreme and it seemed like Rome was there purely for his enjoyment, however that's not altogether true. He built some really amazing state of the art public buildings, including the baths that are discussed in the book.

Another example is the Nazis.Hitler had his own personal architect and he had some GRAND plans for the architecture for the 1,000 year Reich. Some of them weren't even technically possible given technology at the time, the man was not one for understatement. Many of the Nazis planned architecture projects never happened, but a few of them did. One I bet you've heard of: the autobahn. The author says that the autobahn network is "elegant, and contoured to a t and enhance the landscape". But the autobahn was built to facilitate quick troop movements and convenience for the Nazis. And parts of it were built by slave labor.

So these interesting, practical, useful pieces or architecture were built by horrible people, does that make the work morally bad? Should we have ripped down the autobahn because of how and by whom it was constructed? Is it okay that it still stands and is used everyday? I think this is a question to be wrestled with, also the next time I need to sound smart at a cocktail party I'm going to bring this up. I keep thinking about it and I still don't know what the answer is....

Sex and eroticism and sexuality come up a lot in this book. I guess I never really considered that aspect of architecture (maybe I don't have the right kind of graphic imagination?). It especially comes up on  E.1027, I think not in any small part to the very public sex lives of the people connected to the building. Also in the very beginning of the book they talk about how many artists do their work in what we would consider small little shacks. Gauguin had a little cabin in the South Pacific and he called it his "maison du jouir, the house of orgasm". This is when I butt in and remind everyone that Gauguin died in agony due to advanced stage syphilis. 

I enjoyed this book immensely. As previously stated I find architecture fascinating and I love how this book made all the connections to history and time and place. I think my favorite highlighted building was the Festival Theatre. My only complaint is that I feel like the author really let a lot of his personal beliefs show through in the sections about the Tower of Babel. It's absolutely their prerogative to do that but I think the facts would have been sufficient without their bias. I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5!

anne frank stairs

This is a picture from the Anne Frank House. The bookcase swings and then there's stairs. The stairs are almost more like a ladder, they were some of the steepest stairs I've ever seen and there was almost no head room. Everyone should visit that place.

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