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Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

2001
Author:

Lance LaVine

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

An exploration of technology’s role in architecture and humanity’s understanding of nature.

In Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture, Lance LaVine shows that in architecture, as practiced and taught today, the technological aspect of the profession-how weight is distributed, how heat flow is regulated, and how light is permitted to enter-has been ceded to engineers and other technical specialists. With this book, Lance LaVine encourages architects to understand what makes their use of technology unique and essential, and to reclaim the natural world for meaningful interpretation in their design of buildings.

In Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture, Lance LaVine shows that in architecture, as practiced and taught today, the technological aspect of the profession has been ceded to engineers and other technical specialists. And in doing so, he argues, architects have lost sight of one of architecture’s most important purposes, that of providing a literal and figurative window on the world. At the center of this book are case studies of four very different houses. Through his imaginative readings of structures, LaVine highlights how the architects involved have used the oldest and most fundamental architectural technologies-walls, floors, ceilings, columns, beams, and window

in ways that offer creative responses to the natural world and humanity’s place in it.” tech directions

In Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture, Lance LaVine shows that in architecture, as practiced and taught today, the technological aspect of the profession—how weight is distributed, how heat flow is regulated, and how light is permitted to enter—has been ceded to engineers and other technical specialists. And in doing so, he argues, architects have lost sight of one of architecture’s most important purposes, that of providing a literal and figurative window onto the world.

As a technology of habitation, architecture should give people both a practical and a metaphorical understanding of their relationship with nature. For LaVine, this knowledge emanates from a sensual understanding of the natural world as a “felt force.” At its most basic level, architecture demands an understanding of and response to the natural forces of gravity, climate, and sunlight. At the center of Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture are case studies of four very different houses: a Finnish log farmhouse from the nineteenth century; Charles Moore’s house in Orinda, California; Tadao Ando’s Wall House in Japan; and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye near Paris. Through his imaginative readings of structures, LaVine highlights how the architects involved have used the oldest and most fundamental architectural technologies-walls, floors, ceilings, columns, beams, and windows-in ways that offer creative responses to the natural world and humanity’s place in it.

Clearly, architects are comfortable with the practical and aesthetic components of their profession. With this book, Lance LaVine encourages them also to understand what makes their use of technology unique and essential, and to reclaim the natural world for meaningful interpretation in their design of buildings.

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

Lance LaVine is professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota.

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

In Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture, Lance LaVine shows that in architecture, as practiced and taught today, the technological aspect of the profession has been ceded to engineers and other technical specialists. And in doing so, he argues, architects have lost sight of one of architecture’s most important purposes, that of providing a literal and figurative window on the world. At the center of this book are case studies of four very different houses. Through his imaginative readings of structures, LaVine highlights how the architects involved have used the oldest and most fundamental architectural technologies-walls, floors, ceilings, columns, beams, and window

in ways that offer creative responses to the natural world and humanity’s place in it.” tech directions

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

Contents
Preface xi
Introduction: The General Problem xv
Representations of architectural technology; architecture and
engineering as different understandings of technology; the more
general cultural divide inherent in representations of technology;
four houses as the subject of study; the general trajectory of the
argument; a working definition of architectural technology.
Part I The Reconciliation of Mechanics and Meaning in
Architectural Thought
1 A Technology of Habitation 3
My winter morning window as a technology of habitation; definitions
of mechanics and meaning; the primary technologies of architecture;
understanding architectural technologies through their use; the purposes
of architectural technology; conditions for an architectural technology of
habitation; the problem of the reconciliation of mechanics and meaning.
2 Architecture's Loss of a Distinct Technological Voice 17
The rise of engineering in the building professions; architectural
incorporation of engineering constructs; a case in point; critique of
strategies to incorporate technical information in design; differences
between engineering and architectural definitions of technology as
a function of views of space, use of symbols, methods, and desired
outcomes; the problems of an architectural attitude toward technology.
3 Mending the Rift: Twentieth-Century Attempts to Reconcile
Mechanics and Meaning 40
Definitions of possible relationships between mechanics and meaning
put forth by R. B. Fuller, Herbert Read, Amos Rapoport, and Susanne
Langer; analysis of these four positions in terms of the problem of
the use of technology in architecture; requirements for a broadened
definition of the role of technology in architectural design.
4 The Map and the Territory 63
Why it is important to rethink the definitions of natural force; a
Bachelardian map of natural force; felt force as an architectural
definition of natural force; constructing scientific, engineering,
and architectural maps of gravity, sunlight, and climate; the frame as
the rooted order of the earth; the window as that which gathers all
things into the human domain; the envelope as the boundary of touch.
Part II Mechanics and Meaning in Four Houses
5 Finnish Log Farmhouse 89
Background as vernacular architecture; description of the building and
its context; the mechanics of the frame, envelope, and openings of the
farmhouse; analysis of the technological meaning of the farmhouse
as the legacy of the notched log, gravity, and hierarchical order; the
residual ridge beam, the raised floor, the thick wall, the cupped ceiling,
the hearth at the center, the hearth as human caring; the precious
window, and the window and the hearth; technological form as
metaphors as "tangible transactions."
6 Charles Moore House at Orinda 114
Background as revolt against modern movement tenets; building
description and context; the mechanics of the frame, envelope, and
openings; analysis of the technological forms of the house as historic
construct, square plan, ridge beam bisecting the square, roof and
sky, ridge beam in the light, columns as territorial markers, canopies
and light, column, wall, and corner, corner as territory, corners and
space, the phenomenal floor, and temporal and transcendent light;
technological metaphors as "sensually reveled belief."
7 Wall House 135
Background as the difference between Eastern and Western concepts of
nature; description of the house and its context; the mechanics of the
frame, envelope, and opening; analysis of the technological meaning
of the house as the wall as separation, the frame as rational order; the
wall and the column in the light, reciprocal openings in the wall, the
courtyard as the essence of the natural world, capturing nature at
the center of the house, the floor and the earth, and the vault and
the sky; technological metaphors as "embedded origins."
8 Villa Savoye 155
Background as discoveries in nineteenth- and twentieth-century
physics; description of the house and its context; the mechanics
of the frame, envelope, and opening; analysis of the technological
meaning of the house as the slab, the earth and the sky, the column
and geometric order, rational and empirical form, two-way columns
and one-way beams, the conditional column, rational and conditional
columns as the center, column and wall as front, back, and side, the
column versus the column as entry, the bottom and the top as the
boundaries of the in-between, boundary as horizon, light court versus
light court, climate as definition of inside and outside, and natural light
in the middle of the domain; technological metaphors as "discursive
distinctions."
Conclusion: Metaphorical Technology 178
Nature, technology, and metaphoric thought; a formal comparison
of the four houses as floors, walls, roofs, frames, and openings; the
importance of a formal critique in understanding the purpose of
architectural technology; a comparison of the technological metaphors
that emanate from the formal analysis of the houses; the general
characteristics of architecture's technological voice as proceeding from
a sensible understanding of natural force; the asymmetry of mechanics
and meaning, the importance of instrumental origins, and the need of
people to understand nature in order to belong within it; residence in
nature as a perennial architectural problem.
Select Bibliography 197
Index 201