Who teaches us about architecture?

The other day I visited an exhibition in the lobby of one of Sydney’s finest office towers, Australia Square. Completed in 1967, it’s the work of Sydney’s most cherished C20th architect, Harry Seidler, and the exhibition was about his collaboration with one of the world’s best engineers, Pier Luigi Nervi, whose sports halls for the 1960 Rome Olympics had shown just how elegant concrete buildings could be. I’ve been in the lobby of this building several times and, as usual, I was struck by how beautifully the ceiling radiates out from the central core of the building and how gracefully the windows touch it. The original Le Corbusier tapestry that faced the entrance was replaced in 2003 by a mural by Sol LeWitt, a band of rich colour that further emphasises the glorious circular space. Even if I had no interest in architecture I am sure I would still be impressed by this place. Being held within a circle is kind of fun, after all.

Afterwards, I tried to remember which was the first building that made me want to learn more about architecture. I couldn’t remember. Instead my mind trailed through a whole host of buildings that had made an impression on me when I was a child. I don’t mean the places I saw in books but the buildings I actually walked into, the ones I was familiar with. As I ran through them in my mind, I realised it was a pretty broad selection. There was the beautiful Norman church where I sang in the choir (angelic little boy that I was), an assortment of traditional cottages, and the various houses, old and new, that my family and grandparents lived in. One friend inhabited a ramshackle sixteenth-century manor house, so sprawling that they had empty rooms they couldn’t afford to furnish. Another lived in a tiny Victorian terraced house, complete with ‘best room’ at the front and a dark  scullery kitchen where washing hung  from a rack suspended from the ceiling. Add to that the various stately homes and castles we visited on family jaunts and it’s safe to say that, by the age of ten, I’d already had quite a good architectural education, almost by default.

That got me thinking about how we learn about buildings. Who teaches us about architecture? At school we occasionally touched on buildings but only in oblique ways – Roman villas built around a courtyard, the motte-and-bailey of Norman castles, the great hall of medieval villages and the half-timbered houses cantilevered over city streets. I don’t think we ever touched on the difference between Classical and Gothic buildings, or why skyscrapers could be built so tall. It was left to me to work that out.

Why does it look like this? (Goulburn courthouse, 1887)

Even if you think you’re not interested in buildings, you can’t help experiencing them, and the more you travel, the greater variety you experience. Every town and every street is an education. Everyone’s experience is different. If I’d grown up in Australia then maybe I wouldn’t have been familiar with so many old buildings but I’m certain my interest would have been piqued by the imposing Victorian government buildings and different sorts of housing. Simply being around buildings is an act of learning. You develop favourites. If you look up then you will usually find a detail that will charm you.

Looking up gives you more than a stiff neck (The Sun building, Sydney 1926)

It seems, in many ways, incredible that we are not taught about architecture when it affects so much of our lives, from the homes we grow up in to the buildings we work in. How amazing it is that we simply inhabit what we are given. It’s natural that we develop an opinion of them, whether it’s a dislike of tiled floors or a love of concrete. A lucky few get to design their own living space, but as TV’s Grand Designs has amply demonstrated, that’s rarely a smooth road.

Why is this important? (Cameron offices, Belconnen ACT 1976)

Before I moved to Sydney in the late 1990s, I ran a couple of evening classes in Brixton on the history of modern Western architecture. This was before Google and  Powerpoint and I had to borrow slides from the Architectural Association and supplement them with my own slides. That meant I had to race around London taking photos of relevant buildings, everything from the first public housing blocks of the 1890s to the new towers rising in the docklands area. Every week was a different decade and the people who attended were from all walks of life, young and old. Some knew nothing, a couple worked in local planning, but Monday evenings became a lovely, lively two hours as the group of fifteen shared thoughts and impressions. The best moments were seeing people’s eyes light up when I showed a building they’d never seen before, or when we talked about the pros and cons of brick.

Why does our built environment look like this?

In an ideal world, I’d love it if architectural history was taught in schools, even at the most basic level. The only question would be: why? Why does it look that way? Why do some buildings work and others don’t? Why use those materials?  It might help us to understand that architecture is about all buildings, not just the ones by famous architects. It’s about the house next door and around the corner, the shopping strip, the new school. Maybe this is wishful thinking but surely, as informed citizens, we might then start to demand something better of the built environment. It may stop builders from constructing houses that don’t address local climatic conditions, and to always address noise and privacy and all the other things that should be non-negotiable. In the end, we might have a built environment that is still gorgeously muddled and interesting, but with suburbs and towns and streets that showcase different ideas rather than a mindless repetition of whatever everyone else is building. That muddle is a treasure trove. It’s what drew me to architecture in the first place, after all.

Who or what taught you about architecture?


Categories: Architecture, OtherTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. In my twenties I shared a house in Sydney with a designer. Very late one night, when we were walking home from the city because we couldn’t get a taxi, my housemate suddenly spread his arms wide against a tall building and said reverently, “That’s exfoliated granite from Sardinia.” I’d always like old buildings until then, and that was the first time I’d heard someone express love for a modern building. His reverence made me start to notice and appreciate modern architecture. Years later I worked in that building and it always gave me a thrill. It was a Seidler building too: Grosvenor Place. It felt like being in a ship, with a view of the horizon from everywhere. But if my housemate hadn’t embraced that wall in 1989 I wonder if I’d ever have developed a fondness for modern architecture…or even looked at it properly.

    • We all need friends like that, opening doors to new understanding and appreciation. A great example of why we often need others to point out something we would otherwise overlook. Lovely that it became such an important place for you, too. Like Australia Square, it has a dazzling lobby and entrance area I like to check out anytime I’m passing.

  2. Well, I know you know that answer to that question when it comes to me. Having an architect for a father, our holidays were always full of architecture and art. His passion and vision certainly set me on the road to art history. I remember he particularly liked the Ospedale degli Innocenti by Brunelleschi in Florence.

    Although a successful architect, he was operating at a time when modern architecture had a bad name in the UK, namely the 70s. He would wistfully look at the architecture in Paris and wish than the London planners had that kind of vision – he would barely recognise London now! It did not help with Prince Charles sticking his Carbuncle nose into the debate.

    My father used to wish that he had taken up the offer to go to Australia as a young architect, as he felt he would have had a much greater chance to be adventurous in his design. I think it is very difficult for architects in comparison to other artists as they are trying to produce art that also has to be lived in – an almost impossible task.

    And, by the way, it was you who taught me to always look up!

    • And I think the very first time I went to Florence, it was with you and you insisted we go to the Ospedale first – so thank you for that! And I always think of you when I visit places in Italy (I love this process of how places are passed on to others!) I’m not sure your father would have fared any better in Australia at that time – from what I’ve heard, it was a pretty bitchy, egocentric architectural circle with too many architects fighting over too few commissions.

  3. You have taught me more about architecture than anyone else. You write about it with such passion and detail that I find it entrancing. In fact I’ve just come back from staying in Le Corbusier’s building in Marseille largely because of a post you did about it. God, I loved it – it was so playful, so elegant but vast, so democratic – if a building can be! I can’t wait to go back. I thought of you when all we had to say to the taxi driver was ‘Le Corbusier’ and we were off!

    • I’m utterly thrilled that you not only visited the Unité but stayed there. Isn’t it fabulous! And Marseille is pretty interesting, too. I often daydream about buying a flat in the building, and love seeing people’s face when I show them a photo of ‘my ideal home in France’ when they’ve obviously been expecting an old stone cottage in a pretty village… It’s so satisfying introducing new things to people, whether it’s a piece of music, a painting, a book or a building. I sometimes feel I’m on some kind of evangelical mission to speak up for concrete and the type of buildings that people often dismiss. Sometimes that’s a bit difficult when the building in question ain’t all that good but I never have any problem with my beloved Corb…

      • I loved its legs as well. To be able to walk under it was fab. The friend we went with has the same daydream but she said she wasn’t sure how often they came up on the market and also for how much! I loved the internal corridors with the different coloured doors and the lights and the red lifts.

      • There’s just so much to enjoy there, so much you don’t really ‘get’ unless you’re there… I keep an eye on flats for sale there, they come up from time to time. Not cheap but not bad… One day.😎

  4. I like Rose Siedler House, but Blues Point Tower is an abomination. the Opera House made me fall in love with buildings. To this day, I have to touch it every time I visit. I stroke it lovingly. it is so pretty. I also love Swifts, the Sydney War memorial, the Bee Hive, and the Gherkin, and the Eiffel Tower. But, my faourite building of all time has to be Falling Water.

    • Yes, I struggle with Blues Point Tower, too, even though I can see it has some good qualities. I love your eclectic mix and can’t argue with any of them. Isn’t it great that a Gothic pile like Swifts can appeal to us as much as something so different, like Fallingwater. Like you, I have to touch buildings I admire. Architect Bruce Goff said that being drawn to a work of art completes a circuit within us, which I think is spot on…

  5. Can’t claim any specific influences. As a child growing up in Scotland I was always fascinated by grand old houses and historic buildings but I think I was more interested in who built them, who lived in them and how they lived in them, not so much the architecture per se. Anecdotally, I also exhibited what was deemed an unhealthy interest in graveyards and their headstones. My family history did include residences in India, Malaya, South Africa, Macau and the Caribbean, etc. etc. and I know I was influenced by looking at old photos and pictures of more exotic architecture on many a rainy day in the Highlands. I knew my Cape Dutch from my Jamaican Georgian at an early age. Later, I lived in Chicago and worked in the Rookery which along with many other wonderful Chicago buildings cemented my interest (no pun intended.) The rest is history – and a lot of travel. I’m sure I would have benefited by being guided by a more discerning eye but in the end it’s all visceral isn’t it?

    • Sounds like you had a pretty comprehensive education-by-default (and oh, the Rookery, how fantastic!). Interesting point about being drawn to buildings by the stories they contain (same with graveyards, of course). I remember a large and rather ugly half-timbered Victorian place at the top of our road in South Wales that everyone thought was very spooky, a bit Munsters – I used to really ponder what it would be like to live there. Seeing these buildings makes your mind tick over, and starts the process of wanting to find out more. And the broader the selection of buildings the better.

  6. My dad was a building inspector for large government buildings. From time to time he’d build something for a friend. He’d take me to work and talk about how things were built. How they looked was part and parcel of that analysis. When I was young, women weren’t really allowed into the trades, so I went to architecture school. How could I not?

    When, for a brief time, I taught history of architecture, I started with a lecture based on Leland Roth’s book, Understanding Architecture. It had to do with how to do a formal analysis of a building. The students then had to visit a building and turn in an analysis. They generally liked it. My favorite comment was from a woman who went to the funeral of a distant relative, all rather boring. She told me she got through it by looking at the buildings in town. « Never saw them in that way before. It made the trip fun. »

    We have to be taught to see. I wish more schools taught that in the early grades.

    • This totally speaks of the importance of someone in the know introducing others to look at things in a new way. How lucky you were to have such brilliant first-hand experience. It’s good to see that some recent books on building and engineering have done well with a more general audience – Roma Agrawal’s Built and Jonathan Glancey’s What’s so great about the Eiffel Tower, for instance. I think many people just don’t know where to start when appraising a building so anything that nudges them is good – that is very much the aim of my little radio pieces…

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