We Are What We Build
"The culture of building," Davis writes, "is the coordinated system of knowledge, rules, procedures, and habits that surrounds the building process in a given place or time."
To explain how such building cultures work, Davis takes us on a tour of four cultures: the medieval city, Renaissance Florence, 1760s London, and New York in the 1890s. He also shows how the ways of design and building carry over from culture to culture, through centuries, and how they mutate.
One way he does this is to focus on the roles of the trades, such as architects, carpenters, developers, masons, and surveyors (to name a few), and how they work with each other. This begins to reveal our own situation in the early 21st Century — our building culture.
The book is structured in three parts. The first, "Buildings as Cultural Products," explores how our buildings grow from the culture that produces them, and how they express the values of the larger culture.
The second part, "Rules and Knowledge About Buildings," is a broad discussion, filled with lots of examples and detail, about how the building culture operates. And the third, "Transforming Modern Building Cultures," is Davis's critique of our own building culture, its shortcomings, and how we might change it for the better.
The middle section is the meat of the book. Anyone interested in the day-to-day world of how our buildings are designed, constructed, regulated, paid for, and inhabited will find it fascinating.
Davis looks at the exchange between the building culture and the culture at large; the institutions that we create; how knowledge is shared (or not); the flow of money in the building culture; how contracts shape the building culture; the influence of codes and standards; and the role of craft in the culture and how it is either promoted or frustrated.
In explaining building culture, Davis's motive is to show how our own building culture falls short, how it thwarts the meaningful creation of place, and how design and building professionals become disconnected from the people who ultimately inhabit their creations.
In the last section, Davis gives us concrete examples of our building culture's seeds of change—architects, builders, developers, and teachers who are showing a new way to what Davis describes as a healthier building culture.
I think the most important lesson of The Culture of Building is that the built world we design and construct is the product of human choice. It is not the inevitable outcome of some large machine that we have no control over. As architects, designers, builders, and clients, we have the ability to change the built world and how it operates.
Of course, the larger culture must support such change—but that, too, is a product of people. Howard Davis reminds us, the next time we look around at our built world and are not happy with what we see, that we can change it. His book gives us an idea of how to do that.
Michael J. Crosbie is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek and an associate at Steven Winter Associates, Inc. in Norwalk, Connecticut.
The last beam, at the conclusion of steel framing of a building to house a university law school, 1998.
Photo: Howard Davis
The actual contemporary client-architect-contractor relationship, which prevents people who are directly involved with the building from communicating with each other.
Image: John Paull
Architecture studio at the University of Oregon, the first American school to reject the Beaux Arts system, around 1920.
Photo: Special collections, UO Library
Forming roof vaults in Mexicali project, 1976.
Photo: Howard Davis
The central square of the Eishin School looking back toward the main entrance gate.
Photo: Hajo Neis
Classroom at the Eishin School (Christopher Alexander, architect, with Hajo Neis, Ingrid King, Gary Black, Artemis Anninou, Eleni Coromuli, and others).
Photo: Hajo Neis
Click on thumbnail images
to view full-size pictures.