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How Architechure Speaks
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Whig-Standard, Sept, 1999

I’ve done an incomplete and informal review of books on architecture for the layman, which includes myself. One of the most delightful and informative books I’ve encountered is Harry Mayerovitch’s How Architecture Speaks –and fashions our lives. (Robert Davies Publishing, 1996). What’s so helpful about this little book is that it goes to first principles concerning architecture, rather than list off a series of styles or explore one aspect of a style or the work of a single architect. It explains and illustrates the themes and principles that are at the heart of all architecture without necessarily labeling the examples.

In many architecture books it’s all too easy to get lost in technical details or the minutiae of style. "I agree," writes Mr. Mayerovitch, who is a practitioner and retired professor of architecture at McGill, " that many books on specialized subjects can be esoteric, through pretentiousness or too long an academic immersion. I believe that most subjects can be dealt with in a more easily digestible form."

Small nuggets of text are presented with light-hearted illustrations that walk us through a history of ideas without condescending or over-simplifying. Like a good reporter, Mayerovitch begins with the idea of a building and walks us through the steps we take in interacting with it. How do we perceive it? (sight, touch, hearing, all our senses…) What does it say? (Disneyland and Toronto City Hall, for example, present different ideas, passions, politics…) How Does it Speak? (in patterns derived from the geometry of nature, rhythm, proportion, scale…) How is it Made? (the physical elements, columns, windows, roofs…) How is it placed? And finally, What makes a Good Building?

Any one of these subjects is fascinating and provocative in itself. If you’ve been out shopping for windows for your new house or renovation lately, for example, you probably haven’t consciously thought of all the complicated and various aspects involved: "Windows are the eyes of the building. They are as expressive as human eyes – peculiar two-way eyes revealing and admitting the outside world…A tall narrow window suggests elegance…A low squat one implies intimacy…A windowless wall shuts off all communication with the outside world…The window speaks…"

The architecture of a building, in other words, is not simply something to look at. It’s the expression of a wide range of our beliefs and emotions and ideas, and in turn deeply influences us.

Only someone with a profound and long-developed understanding of a subject can explain its first principles in a manner at once so elegant and apparently simple.

Many of us, perhaps, think of architecture as something distinct from our personal world. Much of architecture, past and present, after all, concerns itself with monumental structures – public buildings, banks, cathedrals, business towers - the world that has little to do with the way we actually now seem to live our personal lives. Mr. Mayerovitch’s book teaches us, however, that the most simple and humble building is speaking in a language that we can learn, and that we need not think of architecture as the province of the high and mighty. And while monumental building may be expensive, good design is not.

This is a book to point your way past all the doggerel of historical and political correctness and teach you to see, daily, how architecture continues to speak.
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