Architecture Worthy of Life

At the end of my last post I mentioned I would cover another favorite book on  how architecture lost its magic, and how that magic can be recaptured.   This book contains a bibliography at its end listing ten pages of excellent books, most of which are related to the design of harmonious, living architecture.  The list would be a great starting point for anyone interested in starting a book collection on this subject.

The photo below is of the trade paperback edition.  It is available in hardcover; a first edition in a dust jacket in collectible condition generally lists for around $60-$70 (The Old Way of Seeing, Jonathan Hale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

The Old Way of Seeing, by Jonathan Hale

“There was a time in our past when one could walk down any street and be surrounded by harmonious buildings.  Such a street wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t necessarily even pretty, but it was alive.  The old buildings smiled, while our new buildings are faceless.  The old buildings sang, while the buildings of our age have no music in them.”

Hale uses Newburyport, Massachusetts (1860’s view)  as an example of an old streetscape that is alive.  The town’s commercial center burned to the ground in 1811, and was rebuilt all at one time.  The buildings use the same proportioning system and materials, yet each one is different.

Newburyport, Massachusetts


Through contrast, imperfection, light and shadow, the old way of seeing imparts a bit of mystery to a town or village, enticing one to explore what might be around the next corner or beyond a doorway.

The difference between our age and the past is in our way of seeing.  Everywhere in the buildings of the past is relationship among parts: contrast, tension, balance.  Compare the buildings of today we see no such patterns.  We see fragmentation, mismatched systems, uncertainty.  This disintegration tends to produce not ugliness so much as dullness, and an impression of unreality.”

Bank (circa 1850) in Aurora, New York

Bank building in Aurora, NY (circa 1850)

Post Office in Aurora, NY (circa 1975)

If a building makes us light up, it is not because we see order, any row of file cabinets is ordered.  What we recognize and love is the same kind of pattern we see in every face, the pattern of our life form.  The same principles apply to buildings that apply to mollusks, birds, or trees.  Architecture is the play of patterns derived from nature and ourselves.”

A colonial home that smiles…

Nathan Winslow House, Brewster, MA (1738)

And a few neo-colonial versions minus the happy look…

Hale discusses the importance of regulating lines, pattern, light and shade, and the shapes and patterns of nature which hold a visceral appeal for us as human beings.

A portion of the book discusses the “Golden Section,”  the proportions of which are commonly contained in nature, and are underlying in many ancient buildings and monuments.

The logarithmic spiral of the Golden Section. Each dimension is 1.618 times the next smaller dimension.

The author discusses the work of some modern architects who were on the right track, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work subordinated intellect to intuition, and used pattern, natural forms and continuity.

All man-made things are worthy of life.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

Interior of the Zimmerman House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

We live in dull, denatured places because we have accepted them.  We have ceased using our intuition about what we like, what makes us happy, in architecture and design.

Add this book to your library if you are interested in regaining the subtle mystery and beauty of “the old way of seeing” which is latent in all of us.


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