Monday, July 29, 2013

Radiator Book Club: Architecture, design and criticism.

Book Club posts recommend books and approaches to consuming them for today's go-getting game developer / enthusiast.

These are books that I find useful for learning about architecture as design and theory. I've never formally studied architecture; my reading usually has to pass a "can I apply this to video games?" test that is intellectually cynical but like whatever. Fortunately, few things in architecture fail that test.

Grammar of Architecture (Emily Cole)
Every single environment artist should have a copy of this book; it's basically a 300+ page cheat sheet that talks about common decor patterns / floorplan structures of most pre-Neoclassical architectural styles around the world. Cole generally does a good job of balancing discussion of ancient Indian temple ornament with the The Alhambra's mathematical dimensions, trying to explain the history and ideas behind individual elements. It's effective because it doesn't try to be deep and is content to be a general survey, relying heavily on (numerous, small) drawings and pictures. It gives you a fast surface understanding of a style (e.g. a few pages for Gothic, and that's it) -- enough to build it and move on. These are, essentially, 150+ pre-assembled moodboards.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Matthew Frederick)
Frederick summarizes useful concepts like figure/ground relation and conceptual cohesion. It's a famous / popular text, especially among architecture students, and about 80% of it is worthwhile and works. The other 20% of it is a bit of smug bullshit / an excuse to include a silly drawing to illustrate a convenient truism, and makes me wish it sometimes had the discipline of an actual textbook. Still, 80.01 useful tips is really useful, and might help articulate something you had trouble putting into words / the google-able.

Why Architecture Matters (Paul Goldberger)
I took Goldberger's architecture criticism class at Parsons, and his feedback on my papers was usually about my tendency to anthropomorphize buildings and how I should stop doing it. I thought it was clear that I didn't actually think buildings "want" things, but Goldberger disliked it even as a metaphorical shorthand. He argued that attributing agency or sentience to a building, even in a winky-winky writerly way, was not just lazy writing, but also a poisonous approach to architecture. I still disagree with him and think that kind of writing does a lot of work in very few words, but I also see his point. That kind of "let's be reasonable" and "stay grounded" approach characterizes Goldberger's book: he always wants to acknowledge complexity over reduction.

Experiencing Architecture (Steen Eiler Rasmussen)
Rasmussen is kind of Goldberger's philosophical predecessor, though with some more flowery language / flourishes. But that's more how people wrote back then (1964?), so you kind of have to forgive him for it. He was among the first to wonder how people actually "experience" architecture -- how do you move through a space? When you walk through a palace, what do you see and where do you go and what could it mean? It is well-grounded analysis that has deeply informed my approach to games. Instead of imagining some perfect metaphysical concept of a player, how about we actually look at what we do? Unlike Goldberger, though, he's a fan of metaphors.