May 23 2013

A Journey Through the Ages, As Seen by the People: A Book Review of Architecture without Architects


Architecture Without Architects

Without the usual fashion cycles of period architecture, vernacular architecture remains, as always, “immutable, indeed, unimproveable, since it serves its purpose to perfection” –  or so Bernard Rudofsky, author of Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, believes. Rudofsky’s brief foray into non-pedigreed architecture takes us across time and space, highlighting some of the world’s most abundantly unappreciated architectural works. 

A wide array of architectural styles is presented pictorially and accompanied by candid language, allowing the reader to be whisked away into the unknown world of architecture without architects.  The heavy reliance upon photographs is not aided by the light descriptions, or by the black-and-white nature of the photographs; yet, there is something to be said for the simplicity of the form, the casual presentation of casual architecture.

The forms presented in Architecture Without Architects span the globe, beginning with amphitheaters in Muyu-uray, Peru. These terrace amphitheaters were home to approximately 60,000 people, with terraces about 6 feet high each and 23 feet wide – a truly monumental dwelling. Next come “homes for the dead,” an interesting array of cemeteries, some of which were later converted into dwellings; troglodytic architectural forms, which are crude yet durable and versatile housing chambers, often carved into the earth. One of the more interesting housing types was a baobab tree that was carved into a dwelling. The section on primeval forms showcases the volcanic forms of the Anatolian valley in Turkey, which are teepee-esque formations hollowed out for habitation.

Baobab Tree House

Baobab Tree House

The book slowly zooms out to whole towns built upon rocks fallen from cliffs in Sudan, organically formed villages and hillside metropolises in Italy and Spain, and the geometric shapes of African cities. The author describes a photo of Zanzibar as “almost pointillistic,” but the image evoked the thought of stem cells to me – perhaps a sign that city building is engrained in our deepest being as humans. The vast majority of the architecture pictured in these photos is primitive, beckoning back hundreds if not thousands of years. But the book suddenly turns to the arcades of Europe – repetitive, beautiful structures home to communities and often set around narrow cobblestone streets or plazas.

Zanzibar Satellite Imagery

Zanzibar Satellite Imagery via Google Maps

Though Rudofsky highlights a great many varieties of architecture and aspects thereof, the book generally hops from one subject to the next without any transition. This is exacerbated by the lack of text content in the book, which would have been the mortar between the photographic bricks. Though the materials used in construction and being protected by the architecture is considered within these pages, the interdependence of these places is never considered. The human aspect that created this architecture in the first place, the very reason for being compelled to appreciate architecture and cities, is missing.  I do not mean to say that this book is incomplete – on the contrary, its very nature, the global scope, the vast amount of time it covers, may be its hindrance. Architecture Without Architects could be broken into many volumes, each covering a specific architectural piece in a survey, which may do more justice to the topic of the beautiful buildings and cities created without the pomp and pedigree inherent in the world of contemporary architecture.

Do you live in a city where architecture without architects presents itself daily? If so, post a picture and description in the comments, I’d love to see it!

Architecture Without Architects is currently available in paperback from Amazon for $23.70. The Grid is giving away four FREE copies of the book. Follow the link to Rafflecopter Giveaway to enter for a chance to win your free copy by May 29, 2013. Best of luck and happy reading!

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

James Gardner

James is a graduate student in Urban and Environmental Planning at Arizona State University. Growing up in a small, sprawling town in Arizona, James became attracted to the field of planning and design by taking a critical look at his surroundings, and realizing there is a better way to live. With a Bachelors in Public Planning from Northern Arizona University, James has received extensive education in planning, and has worked as a Planner for Yavapai County, Arizona. James is currently focused on the health effects of the built environment in the Phoenix Metro area, and the integration of this focus into topics of transit, transportation, and bicycle and pedestrian planning. James hopes to become a Planner who advocates for a healthier built environment in order to make the cities we live in more vibrant and habitable. James blogged for the Grid with a focus on Phoenix, Arizona projects.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 23rd, 2013 at 2:38 am and is filed under Architecture, History/Preservation, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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