Robert Hull Discusses a new Non-Fiction Classic being published this month
Page 41 of Philip Isaacson’s gorgeous and important book has a photograph of the fish-like behaviour of a wall a brick facade that ‘wiggles its way along one side of Boston’s famous Louisburg square’. Discovering the photograph we see that the writer’s whimsical image is right and realise that its use in the title tells us something crucial about his intentions.
For Isaacson, a book about ‘buildings’ is a book about particular experiences of them. It’s about being in the Great Mosque in Cordoba and seeing ‘the colours switch so quickly that the arches seem to roll’. It’s about looking at Wells Cathedral in the rain, and finding ‘the golden cathedral… turns blue and green.’ It’s about awareness and discrimination, standing at doorways that invite us in and peering through fences that suggest we should stay out.
The experiences he describes are the ones we all have, adults as well as children. But here they are offered to children. How marvellously right in a children’s book to have chapters called ‘Thick Walls and Thin Walls’, ‘Light and Colour’, ‘Indoor Skies’, ‘Looking Up’, and so on. After all, looking up at roofs and domes, responding to walls, is what we – and children – do, long before we spot our first triglyph. Children will see what he means about the effects of light, or how walls come to look thin or thick.
Consider one example, from ‘Pathways’, the chapter on windows. We’re asked to look at ‘moving light’ in a contemporary house: ‘Here is a house that is more glass than wood. Because its windows open whole walls to the out-of-doors, more than light moves through these rooms. The sky and snow storms, birds and the floating moon, come indoors, too.’ Then we look at moving light from the windows in the Alhambra: ‘Most windows add movement to a room. These add drama. In this chamber, a great performance is given every sunny day.’ We see each moment clearly in the light of the other.
One reason the book is alive from start to finish is that the links in the story are sharp insights like these. It makes for a clear, even dramatic story. You can, literally, ‘see what he means’ in the pictorial narrative; the moods, feelings and contrasts the text refers to are there too. The basic strength of the book, in fact, is that image and word work perfectly together. The text is as clear and splendid as the photographs. Here are a few sentences from the opening paragraph, about the Taj Mahal, opposite a fine photograph:
‘It is a valentine from a great emperor to a wife who died when she was very young. It is made of marble the colour of cream. Each afternoon the sun changes the colour of the Taj Mahal. First it turns it pink, then yellow, then the colour of apricots. In the evening it becomes brown, and when the moon shines on it, it is blue and grey. In the moonlight it becomes the old emperor, asleep and dreaming.’
I find this kind of awareness compelling, and wish I knew of equally knowledgeable and sensitive companions to talk children round some of their other intellectual worlds. Like the best teachers, Isaacson has a fine sense of the intellectual respect children can and ought to be offered.
He assumes, for instance, that children will understand him when he says, about the 1787 Meeting House in Vermont, that ‘there is nothing natural or easy about it; it looks strong enough to argue with the rocky hills of New England.’ He assumes that children will follow him when he says that buildings have ‘personality’ and walls ‘faces’, when he remarks that a church is muscular’, or describes windows as pathways to the spirit of the building’, or suggests that light can be like music.
He’s surely right. Children know walls have faces, and they’ll see that churches may be muscular. The text is necessarily – and very successfully – poetic in this way, simply because it is about the way the writer sees his personal world. The world has an emotional centre in geographical space, so that we have the feeling of starting from an intense affection with New England buildings and travelling out in wider and wider circles from there, to all the places Isaacson has responded with such sensitivity to and taken his photographs at – Tibet, York, Granada, Bath and so on.
I fear, though, that there may be teachers who’d prefer to read words like ‘feeling’ less often, who might not entirely like Isaacson’s readily metaphoric way of seeing and talking about the ‘personality’ of buildings. It might even sound to them ‘difficult’ for children; it could ‘confuse them’.
Nonsense, I think. The confusion would be in the teachers’ minds, a confusion between the (unnecessary) difficulties of bad text, which children can’t surmount, and the (necessary) demandingness of ideas that children have a right to get to grips with. The ‘harmony’ of buildings is the kind of ostensibly ‘difficult’ idea that Isaacson thinks children have a right to. Good for him.
Any book is worth having which kicks the stool from under the superstition that non-fiction is packages of facts. But the importance of this book is that it makes ludicrous the notion that anyone can now write for children an ‘objective’ or merely ‘historical’ treatment of buildings which is not also a kind of personal statement.
In short, a marvellous book for introducing readers aged 8-80 to architecture.
And it’s written by a lawyer.
Round Buildings, Square Buildings & Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish by Philip Isaacson will be published by Julia MacRae on 26th July. Hardback (0 86203 447 7, S14.95) and paperback (0 86203 468 X, £7.95) will be published simultaneously. The cover of the book is featured on this month’s cover of BfK.
Robert Hull taught for 25 years in state schools and is now a freelance writer and lecturer. He is the author of The Language Gap (0 416 39400 0, £7.95) and Behind the Poem (0415 00701 1, £10.95) both published by Routledge.