"The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read", Mark Twain (maybe, but if he didn't say it, he should have.)
One the most lucid descriptions of architectural form is found in The Decorated Diagram, by Klaus Herdeg, who also wrote folios on the formal structure in Indian and Islamic architecture. This book is a critique of Harvard's teaching program under Gropius, which produce a generation of notable architects. His basic thesis is that the teaching program propagated a design approach that arranged the program functionally (the diagram), then cast it with a stylistic architectural treatment (the decoration). What is lost in the approach, as argued in the book, is an understanding and therefore experience of the form being stylistically used in the architecture. The result is a poverty of associations and use in the architecture, reflecting a formal illiteracy of the architect.
The premise can be debated, but to establish it, Herdeg offers amongst other things, a comparison of Le Corbusier's Errazuris house project with a house design by Marcel Breuer for an exhibition at MOMA. This comparison, in particular, has always been helpful in talking about form to students. Both houses share a butterfly roof section and a modernist open plan, but Herdeg's analysis argues for Breuer's seemingly lack of engagement of the form's attributes. Corbusier's organizes the stair under the point of compression and in the direction of the roof, which he opens to light at the shed ends, integrating the spatial attributes of the form into the architecture's experience. Breuer's places a wall under the inflected point in the roof, rendering the experience of the 'butterfly' mute. The shed end's of the section are closed to light, denying the opening quality of the section and the stair is wedged perpendicular to the roof, further disassociating the experience of moving in the section from its form. The comparison illustrating that problems in reading a form produce a corresponding weakness in its writing.
The allusion to language in discussing form is problematic, because form is not a semantic system (but that is material for a future post). Nevertheless, the metaphor helps in demonstrating the relationship between observing and making, between reading and writing. Strangely, formal analysis is often diminished as a practice and source of knowledge, at least that has been our experience. The reasons are unclear, perhaps it has to do with a 'cult of originality' in creative practices, or a fear of the banality that comes from the merely derived, or even an insecurity when faced with the authority of literacy. Perhaps, it just that in the exchange between form and meaning, it is simpler and easier to address intent and leave the consequences of the form, which can be messy, aside.
Whatever the reason, it is foolish. In our office, we are able to collaborate because we see in each other’s design 'moves' implications for the next move. Without the confidence that comes from understanding the form we are working with, it would be hard to share in this development. We also never design alone, because we have friends and allies in the form of places and architectures that are part of our practice - because we have taken the opportunity and time to understand them. Why focus design curiosity on one’s own creations alone? When reading is inculcated into a creative practice, the world becomes material for advancing design knowledge.