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The Old Way of Seeing.

By Jonathan Hale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. London: Cassell. 1994. 15.99 [pounds] ($24.94)

`There was a time in our past when one could walk down any street and be surrounded by harmonious buildings.' This is either a bold statement or a foolish one, but it opens Hale's book and sets the tone for the first 60 or so pages. The year 1800 is set as the watershed between all that is good and all that is bad in architecture. His history is not particularly strong: Neo-classicism begins in Philadelphia, Gropius invents the International Style -- yet one senses that accuracy is of less importance to Hut than history's general significance. He resents commercialism and fashion and the worship of architectural icons. For him the history of architecture -- which in this book is American architecture -- is a catalogue of the errors made after the rules for good building had been abandoned.

The opening chapters are all familiar enough, and disappointing, too, in a book that promises in its title a history of seeing rather than a disdainful account of modern misdeeds. But persevere. Towards the middle of the book he stops clearing the phlegm from his throat and starts to sing wonderful things about proportion and spirit, talking about the possibilities for architecture to become not representation, metaphor, commentary and the rest, but primary experience. Hale says that we must stop looking at architecture with the left, calculating, side of our brain. The old way of seeing, we finally understand, is a 'right side' experience, a function of shape and shadow rather than calculation, the direct experience of external reality, unmediated by literature.

There may be some ironic value to having this sort of thing dished up between the covers of a book, but then, fewer and fewer people are reading. We are told that the literacy levels in the States are failing by the year, and who knows, the fear this prospect inevitably causes among the educated classes may be mitigated by a renaissance in the Old Way of Seeing and the creation of an architectural paradise. We can only hope.
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McIntyre, Anthony
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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