By Dan Cruickshank
A history in 100 buildings.
I am an architect, a building enthusiast, a connoisseur of fine spaces and at times fine books, and with this I have certainly struck gold by all accounts. Dan Cruickshank is a British Journalist and much like me an architectural aficionado, but with this particularly incredibly researched book he strikes a chord on many accounts. Even after finishing a five year degree in architecture and topping it with another year of Masters in the subject I had a lot to learn while reading this book, and the learning here as always was as organic as ever. The hundred buildings that Cruickshank chooses to document are extremely relevant, the descriptions of par excellence and the book had me look up many of the buildings for a lack of pictures. The few pictures that are included give a brief idea of what is being said, for the pictures in architecture make up about a million words.
Now apart from the very well known architecture in the world, there are the lesser known ones and even with the well-known architectural wonders there are facts that we don’t know about all of them. A few buildings that were documented and impressed upon me their brilliance are the Thorvaldsen Museum, it’s colours of the Mediterranean, look so splendid and much like the Dulwich Picture Gallery say volumes about the utilisation of colour, that too colour of character on the walls, with white or off-white on the ceiling, that adds so much depth and beauty to a space. The piece on The Fallingwater building in the United States is almost an ode to its most impulsive and brazen architect, who’s fame hung on the rocks just as precariously as this famous building. Frank Lloyd Wright’s arrogance and pride may just have served him very well architecturally as it did to cope with his unique set of situations in life. However brazen and bold, the Fallingwater and Wright have become icons of adoration. With The Hanging Temple in China Cruickshank gives an insight into a very different kind of religion, Taoism, one that does have slight inclinations towards the greater abstract philosophy of Hinduism and its patriot Buddhism with a tad bit of non-doing and simply being added to the mix of an ideology based on Simplicity, honesty and compassion, just like the Hanging temple that is rooted in the mountain base. The Taj Mahal in India, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan is a visual treat but lesser known facts about it are the sounds that it’s architecture generates making use of the wind by letting the wind in through its many jaalis and swirling it into its onion-shaped dome, swirling and sobbing as the day goes, eternally epitomising Shah Jahan’s grief.
And then there is the Sagrafa Famila, one that unsettled me immensely from the outside but provided to me a warm embrace in the sun-kissed and sun-lit interiors. Inside I felt like I was in heaven and the murals on the facade? Well those were clearly hell, I couldn’t make sense of it, finding so much more peace in Park Guell, but when Cruickshank writes about this wondrous structure by Gaudi, he analyses it for me and that analysis finally provided me some peace. The spontaneous, unplanned and irrational aspect of Sagrada Familia though is perfectly laudable. He also says that this ode to God and place of worship celebrates architecture as an organic art and buildings as children of the imagination. Conceived to be a place of atonement and spiritual healing, it has turned out to be an act of penitence. Of the Sydney Opera House he writes that the building in a sense reinvents Modernism, evolving it from a box-like primary functionalism to something more humane, emotive, sinuous and artistically rich, it is no doubt a great symbol of beauty and a compelling symbol for not only a city but a whole country and continent.
And then there is information that one would not have known even visiting these marvellous pieces of architecture. For example, of the Great Wall of China, it took 10 years and 30000 men to build this wall, that has the bodies of thousands – dead of exhaustion, or sacrifices – mixed into the brick clay and mortar. As much as mortified I am by this information, the arguably longest graveyard in the world is still known by many Chinese people as the ‘Wall of Tears’. But it’s power is undeniable, following ridges, climbing and tumbling, it snakes through the landscape like a great work of nature rather than of man. The miraculous Forbidden City he writes, maintains and retains its tranquility, poise and harmony as if it really were a little piece of heaven on earth. The Church of Transfiguration in Kizhi, Russia is particularly spell-binding as is the Catherine Palace. Russia is an enigma, certainly the home to the most beautiful city in the world, St Petersburg, but it also is home to architecture that is excessively unique. If architecture is a mark of civilisation, then the Russian civilisation is exquisite. Colour is often employed as a crucial means to bring a sense of Mediterranean exuberance and gaiety to a place or space.
A wonderful read for the knowledgeable, and the architects of course! And a mini-trip around the world, from the confines of one’s home in a quarantined world.