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Book Review: Diving into Architecture from Every New Angle: Reading Guillevic's "Geometries"

Why an obscure book of French poetry in a flashy translation goes to the heart of every architectural practice.

By Norman Weinstein
June 3, 2011


There’s something provocative in Tadao Ando’s remark that “architecture is in dialogue with geometry” – an emphatic seconding of his constant interest in maintaining a dialogue with architecture’s past. But while maintaining a dialogue with architecture’s past sounds like a straightforward objective you learned in your professional training by studying architectural history, there’s something rather abstract in “maintaining a dialogue with geometry.” Have you discussed design issues with a right-angle lately while your colleagues chatted about erratic cash flow? This initially sounds like Louis Kahn’s mystical, poetically lyrical way of suggesting that architects dialogue with an arch and the bricks composing it. Meaning: impractical. And in the era of computerized design, isn’t the very notion of directly conversing with geometry quaint if not bizarre?

 

In 1967 the French poet known as Guillevic (Eugene Guillevic – but he eliminated his first name in manuscripts) published Euclidiennes, an invented word that might be translated into “Euclidianisms.” It was translated into English by Teo Savory and then published in a tiny press run by the translator herself in 1975. It has been absurdly hard to find a copy in 30 years. So now Ugly Duckling Presse, a small press in New York with robust national distribution, has issued a sparkling new translation of Guillevic’s masterpiece by Richard Sieburth under the title of Geometries. And it should be required reading for every architect in the business, and those entering the profession.

 

Suppose you could experience 50 geometric figures, each having its own distinctive identity and presence, as you interacted with them throughout your design process? Each of Guillevic’s poems begins with the poet’s geometric drawing at the top of the page and a poem following. So a simply sketched ellipse is followed by:

 

                        Listen, I know how hard it is

                        To achieve this kind of balance,

 

With everything pressing in

                        On each of your outer points.

 

                        An unshapely condition,

 

                        Lacking a place to lean on

                        Within yourself &hellip

 

Meditating on a square, Guillevic quips:

 

                        What are its preferences?

                        The sides that touch

Or the sides that face?

 

Some geometric figures speak themselves into a nearly-human form. A plane asks: “What would happen if I threw myself open?” A scalene triangle complains: “I know no rest, / Torn as I am / Between sides and angles.” There’s humor and serious substance, as the geometry you know on a purely technical level becomes de-familiarized into a plaything elasticizing your imagination. As AutoCAD and BIM regularize and tame geometries (Euclidian and non-Euclidian) into predictably conventional forms to work with, these poems do the exact opposite, introducing an element of unpredictably imaginative risk as designs materialize.

 

Additionally, if you can contact geometric forms in your constructions as living, breathing, witty, and querulous presences interacting with you throughout your design process, it likely will introduce novel slants into your dialogues with clients. As Guillevic cleverly says on behalf of a circle: “Friend, we are meant / For each other... Let’s cohabit, / Mindful of all we share.”

 

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at nweinstein@q.com.

 

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