Charles Holland’s How to Enjoy Architecture rethinks how a building can be good architecture

How to Enjoy Architecture: A Guide for Everyone by Charles Holland | Yale University Press | $25

Sometimes a friend or family member will send me a picture they have taken of a building. “You’ll like this!” they might say, or “One for you!” It’s nice to be thought of. And nice, too, that I have inspired them to appreciate the built environment a little bit more than they might have done so before.

But why might I enjoy that building more so than they? What is it about it that apparently appeals to me more than it does to them? While writing this article, I quizzed my friends on this very matter, with the general consensus being that the buildings were either “unusual,” “weird,” or had “lots of concrete.”

How to Enjoy Architecture book cover
How to Enjoy Architecture (Courtesy Yale University Press)

Maybe this says more about me than it does them, but it did bring to light two things: that the enjoyment of architecture is seemingly gatekept and that much architecture—the good, the weird, and the unusual—goes sadly unenjoyed.

Unpicking the reasoning behind this can be a tricky business. But on hand to help is How to Enjoy Architecture: A Guide for Everyone from British architect Charles Holland. As its title suggests, this isn’t a book solely for those already deeply entrenched in the annals of architectural history. This is a book for those who are aware that architecture exists and is all around us and who might want to appreciate it a bit more.

Holland gives the reader a personal, nonexhaustive guided tour through the history of architecture and sheds welcome light on the facets that are sometimes hidden from view. “It is about the ideas that lead to buildings and the ideas that they generate. In opening our experience of buildings, we might enjoy those ideas, too,” he wrote.

Sao Paulo Museum of Art
São Paulo Museum of Art, Brazil, designed by Lina Bo Bardi (Eduardo Ortega/MASP Research Center)

Holland’s perspective is filtered through the lenses of style, composition, space, materials, structure, and use—all of which have their own dedicated chapters. Naturally these overlap, but that’s a good thing. Throughout the book we learn that things are often not as they seem. The composition of a building can lead us to think spaces are arranged in certain, sometimes deliberately misleading, ways. Materials can be deliberately deceptive, too: Mathematical tiles, most famously used in southeast England, were employed to mimic bricks in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Fire Station Number 4, Columbus
Fire Station Number 4, Columbus, 1966, designed by the firm that would become Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates (David Hirsch/Courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates)

But Holland argues that it’s all OK. How to Enjoy Architecture rebukes architectural dogmas and instead opens up all the ways a building can result in good architecture.

What might be missing here, though, is the means to appreciate sustainable ways of building. The logic behind material selection isn’t ignored, but sustainability goes beyond materials, and it could be addressed with the same fervor Holland applies elsewhere. That said, he takes time to introduce architecture to the reader, always first at a fundamental level (e.g., describing how a loadbearing wall and timber floor structure work).

The best aspect of the book is that it has given Holland license to write freely about the architecture he loves. There’s no better recipe for good prose. All of which, however, makes the reader yearn for a photo of what is being described. Don’t worry, there are images, and even an axo (of Loos’s House Müller), but it would be nice if there were more to save the reader reaching for their phone every now and then.

Aerial view of Milton Keynes by Helmut Jacoby
Aerial view of Milton Keynes by Helmut Jacoby (John Donat/Image courtesy Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre/© Helmut Jacoby Estate)

While reading it, I also recalled the idea of the purist and tourist, put forward by the late Virgil Abloh. For the purist, in this context, visiting architecture in real life is the final checkbox in their experience of it. The tourist, however, experiences architecture when they stumble across it for the first time. How to Enjoy Architecture caters to both: If you haven’t been to the buildings mentioned, you’ll no doubt want to enjoy them now. And if you have, you’ll be able to spot and enjoy even more.

While sometimes the first book a budding architect may read these days is 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, perhaps How to Enjoy Architecture is a better option. For if you can’t enjoy it, what’s the point?

Jason Sayer is a writer and teacher based in London.

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