Observations on Two Books

I finished Desert Solitaire today.  I hate to emulate the reviews that adorn its back cover, but they really have nailed it.  Abbey is a man of tremendous force and courage.  He has ideals and convictions so strong that he subordinates his physical well-being to them.  There are instances he relates of dropping down a shear 15 ft ledge to get down a canyon with no knowledge of whether the way down continues.  It doesn’t, as it turns out, and he confronts his own mortality in a stagnant pool above a hundred foot sheer drop to the canyon floor below.  When, at the top of Tekhunikavats, he has the choice of glissading down a long patch of snow and ice that terminates in boulders or hiking back down, he grabs hold of a slab of rock and starts sledding down, because everyone has to die at some point.  He stops just short of it, ripping the soles of his boots nearly off in the process of stopping.

He is a rebel and a loner, a man who, at a glance, seems easily scorned for his condemnations of modern culture and disdain for safety and prudence.  But after reading his book, it becomes viscerally apparent that he is the embodiment of these values.  He is a man, to be sure, with internal conflict, vice, and loneliness, but he does these fantastic and sometimes theatrical things without pretense.  He goes a little crazy in the Utah desert, but manages to convey the animal freedom and unfiltered appreciation for the world around him he gains in the wilderness.  He is a man to fear and admire.

***

I also read From Bauhaus to Our House, a history of/polemic against the course of modern architecture.  The book is a required reading for Cities by Nature (though not for several weeks), but Brett Shea insisted that I read it as soon as possible because it would add to my experience of the rest of the coursework.  Tom Wolfe decries the “glass box” design developed by Gropius and Corbusier and laments the theoretical box placed around the occupants of the ubiquitous compound of modern architecture.  I think more than the specifics of the evolution of modern architecture, Wolfe manages to convey the absurdity of retreating to ivory tower intellectualism.  The architects of the early 20th century became too caught up in their own ideas, in what ultimately became a vain, moralistic denial of both our humanity and the desires and needs of ordinary people.

As I have written in the JA Architecture blog, architecture, like anything else, should be a process of constant reevaluation and analysis.  The disciples of the Silver Prince that Wolfe writes about were inspired in the Bauhaus by the idea of starting from nothing.  They reinvented structure and form.  But they did it with profound bias against the “bourgeois,” and they became so absorbed in their conclusions that they became a collective espousing a single, rigid dogma.  Collectively, people can achieve great things, but groups of individuals perhaps even greater.  Just as cities flourish through inefficiency and variation of work (as espoused by Jacobs in The Economy of cities), so to architecture must flourish by having a great many architects working independently of each other.  Sure, a great many will fail, or be unimaginative, but some of the outliers will advance the art, and through a sharing of work (not a tandem development) the discipline as a whole may evolve – diverse, organic, and constantly self-evaluating.

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