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Will Jones: 'How to Read Modern Buildings'

Modern architecture can be seen as a huge book that describes the state of society, its concerns, wealth and technology. Author Will Jones explains how to read between the lines of an extremely complex set of concepts.

“Anyone can come up with a crazily shaped building. But getting it to stand up is a different matter.” And while Will Jones admits that there are many considerations equally as important as structural integrity, the author of ‘How to Read Modern Buildings’ is keen to stress that he thinks engineering and technology go hand-in-hand with the development of new architecture.

“While the art of architecture is important, the science and engineering is critical to making it happen. As such, today, as much as in the past, engineering breakthroughs push forward architectural development as often as the creative musings of visionaries such as Zaha Hadid.” He gives as an example of such a breakthrough the transition from mortar and stone to riveted steel joints.T

he biggest problem facing the novice attempting to decode modern architecture is that of the bewildering array of genre terms. If you can’t tell Art Deco from Bauhaus, Avant-Garde from Beaux Arts, or even Art Nouveau from Post Modernism, you’ll soon find yourself up a certain creek without an instrument of propulsion. This terminology is really what Jones has set out to disentangle, despite being aware that attempting to separate architectural movements and styles is something of a foolhardy enterprise.

“While each style has its own particular ideals and icons, most meld in some way with one another, just as different aspects of art, poetry and sciences feed off of, and grow out of, their predecessors.” And yet, he goes on to say, when writing a book with a title such as his, there is a certain obligation to make differentiations. This Jones did by choosing buildings that are “a good example of a particular style, while selecting prominent features and standout elements that characterise a style”.

One of the key messages of Jones’s book is that there is simply so much to be learned from modern buildings. “Architecture is an indicator of its time, and as such we can gauge societal, technological and financial trends from when a building was built. However, architecture is also often an aspirational ideal, and while all around there may be trouble and strife, in the eye of the designer there is a brave new world.”

He cites as a perfect example New York’s Empire State Building, which was erected at a time of great financial depression in the USA. “With this in mind, architecture is a difficult discipline to pin down. Buildings can be thoroughly indicative of their time - social housing projects - or can be divorced from reality like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This is why it is such an interesting and exciting aspect of our lives.”

According to Jones, the best architects are “the ones who fully understand the engineering challenges behind the designs”. But the relationship between architecture and engineering has changed with time. Historically, the master builder was both architect and engineer on all major structures such as medieval cathedrals. But as we move into the modern era, “the disciplines of architecture and engineering seem to have drifted apart. This phenomenon has seen architects rise to star status while engineers have been sidelined. If the truth were to be told, most iconic structures in modern times require ever more groundbreaking engineering in order to make the architects’ ideas possible”.

A good example of the engineer bringing the concept to reality is the Flat Iron Building in New York, which the author thinks of as one as the most recognisable and transitional buildings in his book. “Externally, its design is classical. The decorative facades are designed in three sections to mirror the base, shaft and capital of a Greek or Roman column. However, internally, the building is supported on the steel frame; in fact, it was one of the first buildings in New York to be designed in such a modern manner.”

Jones, who is a carpenter by trade, grew up in a family that has always been associated with the construction industry. He took this interest with him to university where he graduated with a degree in construction management. But finding few opportunities in his industry, he switched to writing about buildings and is the author of several books, including ‘Modern Architecture in New York’, ‘Unbuilt Masterworks of the 21st Century’ and ‘Architects’ Sketchbooks’.

His fascination with architecture has given him “the chance to visit amazing buildings and talk with the visionaries who design and build them”. One of his key conclusions is that modern architecture is not, as many suppose, a genre restricted to white-walled concrete houses and glass-clad offices reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s.

“This is perhaps the most important thing that the reader will take away from my book. Modern architecture spans over a century of design, material technology and engineering endeavour. It moves sinuously through multiple styles, often combining them, to fill our towns and cities with a plethora of interesting and often unique structures. Don’t be fooled into thinking that modern architecture means Modernist architecture because it encompasses a whole lot more besides.”

Even the most inexperienced of readers of architecture can’t fail to notice that great cities such as London, New York and Barcelona have radically different architectural personalities. Jones thinks that there are many reasons that can contribute to such differentiation, but he thinks probably the most important one is history. “While older cities such as London and Paris have grown almost organically - hence their winding roads and easily identifiable viable hearts - new urban conurbations, such as New York’s Manhattan Island and the grid patterning of Barcelona’s Eixample district, were planned as a whole and built in a more methodical manner. With regards to the architecture itself: history, art, geography and stylistic trends all influence the buildings within cities. While the English have always tended towards more restrained design, the Spanish enjoy flamboyancy, and the Americans... well, if it ain’t big then it ain’t important.”

The bottom line for Jones is that architecture is the product of architects. “While there are many who follow trends, there are always a few who look to push boundaries and take the next step.” We may not build cathedrals out of stone anymore, or industrial monoliths such as the Battersea Power Station out of brick, but that doesn’t mean we’ve run out of big ideas.

“Today we see architects and engineers again pushing the boundaries of what they can achieve with steel, concrete and glass. Pioneers are already looking at composite materials, self-perpetuating construction techniques and other 22nd century ideas.”

How to Read Modern Buildings’ by Will Jones is published by Bloomsbury, £9.99

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