Pop goes the cathedral

Laura Miller celebrates a terrific new pop-up book for adults, "The Architecture Pack," that reveals the architectural triumphs of monuments around the world.

Published December 17, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Some people travel to meet new people, others travel for the food and still others (though no one I know, fortunately) seem to travel in order to shop. For me, buildings have always inspired the strongest wanderlust. After all, I can find terrific French food and well-dressed, persnickety French people in my own town, and I can certainly pay just as much for a Chanel bag here as I can in Paris, but there's only one Eiffel Tower, and it's not coming to California anytime soon.

Some of my most sublime travel moments have been architecturally induced: the sensation of feeling the universe and human thought unite in flawless harmony after stepping into Michelangelo's Piazza Campidoglio in Rome, the uncanny impression of seeing a Baroque cantata presciently transformed into wood and stone in the Gothic Henry II chapel in Westminster Abbey. Still, I've always been a bit of a dunce architecturally, never able to keep transepts and apses straight no matter how many cathedrals I've soldiered through in search of a Cimabue crucifix or a Caravaggio oil painting. I'm usually sure I'm missing out on something, and before I fulfill my dreams of visiting places like Greece and Egypt, I tell myself, I've got to learn more about what makes a beautiful building stand up.

Enter Ron van der Meer and Deyan Sudjic's "Architecture Pack," a sort of architectural pop-up book for adults, and something of a trip all by itself. This ingenious and fascinating contraption in the shape of a book includes three-dimensional paper models of a teepee, a basic timber frame house, a Palladian villa, Chartres Cathedral, the Sydney Opera House, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Chicago's John Hancock Center and many other smaller doodads. It shows you how to assemble the (paper) pieces of a Gothic vault and how bracing a tiny paper-and-string frame with diagonal tension can turn a flimsy structure into something surprisingly sturdy. Looking through a lens of plastic film that's half blue and half red, you can examine drawings of buildings, switching back and forth from exterior view to structural diagram -- from the skin to the bones, so to speak -- for a sense of how the practical needs of an architect are reflected in the aesthetic results of his work.

"The Architecture Pack" comes with all sorts of auxiliary treats, from a time line of architectural history to a glossary to an audio "tour" of the book, narrated by Sudjic in just about the plummiest British accent any PBS listener could hope for. The text by itself probably would fill no more than a decent-sized booklet, but surely this is one case in which pictures are worth piles of words. And I was delighted to learn various tidbits from the writing as well: for instance, that Imhotep, who designed the funerary district for King Zoser at Saqqbra, was the first star of the profession, an architect so revered that he inspired a religious cult.

Things never have risen to quite that height since, but not for lack of trying on the part of architects and their admirers everywhere. My one quibble with "The Architecture Pack" is the uncritical triumphalism with which it depicts the rise of modernism, a development far more inspiring to megalomaniacal architects than it has been to most of the people who live in their buildings. Grandiose plans, especially when it comes to designing cities, usually have mixed results. In one of this book's exhibits, little clear plastic overlays trace the development of Paris, including Baron Haussman's bulldozing of swathes of the city to install "the grand boulevards that now give the city its character." When you think, as I do, that Haussman's boulevards give Paris a cold, institutional character that, blessedly, its smaller streets and neighborhoods counteract, you begin to sense the uneasy schism that's grown between architects and the public in the modern era. Next to those overlays there's a drawing of Le Corbusier's chilling (and unrealized) plan for the city, an inorganic, rationalized grid of towers and freeways that looks like nothing so much as an American public housing development. Ironically, the only people likely to live in a Le Corbusier dream city are those so poor and powerless that they have no other choice.

The resentment, mistrust and other high feelings inspired by modern architecture -- and the unsettling aesthetic and political issues its controversies raise -- get scant mention in "The Architecture Pack." While van der Meer and Sudjic give me the information I need to appreciate the impressive engineering achievement represented by the John Hancock Center, they don't succeed in changing my deeper feeling -- which is that it's something of an eyesore. Even modern buildings I consider beautiful, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, seem to embody a problematic disengagement from (if not contempt for) their residents. Like most of Wright's buildings, this has a "dark and cavelike" interior, the authors note, which creates a peculiar paradox: From the outside it looks like the home of an angel, but live in it and you'll feel like a mole.

Although van der Meer and Sudjic can't acknowledge that their history has anything but a happy ending, in this case, as with most travel tales, the journey, not the destination, is the point. Having built (so to speak) a Renaissance dome and studied the workings of a contemporary elevator in motion, I expect that my future encounters with such devices -- grand or mundane -- will be that much richer. At the very least, on my next trip I'm taking with me the little pocket glossary that comes with "The Architecture Pack." I'll never confuse a transept and an apse again.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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