Book Review – What Is Architecture?


There is an admirer I have in Austin. He is an architect who designs mostly single family houses in Austin neighborhoods and does a wonderful job of melding contemporary ideas into his work without being stark or cheap. You may think, really? These are your tenements? But yes, really, they are. It is quite a gift to do contemporary well, really giving a damn and making a difference, effecting greater environs outside yourself and your building. That conversation is neither here nor there. What the take away is this person I admire admires someone else and that is who I want to highlight in this post.

Paul Shepheard is another architect who has shifted his focus from designing buildings to writing and lecturing. He is based in London and naturally, because I admire this particular Austin architect, I decided to give Shepheard’s book a try this month. It was a short read, but had an unusual flow – where stream of conscious meets stories told and the relation to architecture is subtle and if you read to fast you will miss it.


Paul Shepheard from his website

What I am most interested in as an architect who writes and theorizes, is how architecture is being written about today and searching for that poignant vision that can see into the future, but write about the now, stepping laterally and looking down with a critical eye. Most of all, this takes a broad understanding of history, not just in architecture as a subject itself, but in how architecture was framed and recorded and how this framing shifts with the changing tides just like styles tend to shift to another era. It also takes someone who looks outside of how buildings look and can write about the subject from a worldly view, seeing the cultural and economic role architecture plays. How architecture is influenced by and responds to the human condition makes a truly great recording and many critics of architecture want to merely examine a building and profile the interesting architectural persona behind the design. And if there is context, it is merely about the conversations had between the owner or the relationship of the commission. There is little talk about the more important contextual details and the synthesis of how something comes to be through mechanisms that are largely out of our control (economics, societal issues, cultural shifts, etc).

Paul Shepheard has this ability to see architecture beyond what is typically a description of the process and final outcome of a building. He is looking at it from the broader contextual elements I mentioned above. So much so you might miss it if you aren’t paying attention. This is why I highly recommend his work. It was so refreshing to see architecture writing in this style that I immediately also read his other work:


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