Environmental & Architectural
Reviewed by David Seamon
This book is written by the Norwegian architect Thomas Thiis-Evensen, whose 1987 Archetypes in Architecture is a major contribution to the phenomenology of architecture and architectural experience [see EAP, 1, 2/3]. Partly drawing on principles of his earlier study, Thiis-Evensen attempts to establish a conceptual foundation for understanding the visual form of the city and, thereby, for providing the urban designer with a means to "increase visual clarity" of the city (p. 69).
The core of urban visual form, Thiis-Evensen argues, is the relative degree of directionality that the urban fabric provides through its streets, open spaces, and neighborhoods. He writes:
In presenting his theory of urban-form-as-visually-experienced, Thiis-Evensen divides his book into three parts. In the first section, he lays out the need for a better understanding of environmental-form-as-experienced and, in the second section--much the longest part of the book--lays out a theory, partly based on the centrality of floor, wall, and roof as earlier explored in Archetypes of Architecture . In the last part of the book, he uses Oslo's urban core as an applied context in which to demonstrate how his theory might have practical application for particular urban design problems.
The book provides several revelatory moments but does not offer the overarching power of Archetypes of Architecture, in which a simple conceptual structure held the various conceptual parts in elegant conceptual relationship. Unfortunately, this conceptual clarity is largely lacking in Thiis-Evensen's new book. The conceptual structure that is presented too often seems arbitrary or beside the point rather than a set of experiential elements that readily interpenetrate and fold back on each other.
Very early on in part two, for example, Thiis-Evensen argues that, at all environment scales, urban forms and spaces involve five qualities: contour, volume, surface, structure, and incision. The reader is given no indication of where this particular set of elements arises or how exactly it has application to form-as-experienced. Later, Thiis-Evensen defines the cityscape in terms of buildings, streets, open spaces, and neighborhoods and then proceeds to found his visual analysis of the built-up city on these four levels. Again, no evidence or justification for this manner of levels is provided. Rather, the reader is asked to accept this outline as the best way for revealing the existential dynamics of the city-as-built-form.
Perhaps the most stimulating and usable part of the book is the section on the street as its overall form, walls, and floors are described to identify ways in which pathway experience can be given a sense of continuity and direction through design elements like cornices, corners, and paving pattern. Also stimulating are many of the drawings created by Thiis-Evensen's colleague Kolbjørn Nybø.
Overall, however, the book's conceptual framework lacks clarity and coherence. Unfortunately, the applied analyses of Oslo in the last part of the book are too general to crystallize the approach as it might be applied in one real-world context. The book is most useful in bits and pieces, particularly as it provides inroads for thinking about the phenomenology of urban built form. In this sense, the book is most closely related to Kevin Lynch's Image of the City, and it would be a useful exercise to think through similarities and differences in the two authors' approaches to urban visual legibility.
Because of the emphasis on urban form, a much more worrisome problem with Thiis-Evensen's book is its lack of consideration of the city as a dynamic field of movement. Here, one thinks of Bill Hillier's remarkable picture of the city as a network of potential interactions very much shaped by spatial qualities of the pathway network over which those interactions take place [see EAP, 4,2]. Like Lynch's work, Thiis-Evensen's presentation of the city is formal, visual, aesthetic--static. Such presentation is important to a phenomenology of citiness but must be complemented by the process-grounded fabric of movement-in-space which only so far Hillier has been able to unearth.
1. Thiis-Evensen argued in that book that architecture is the making of an inside in the midst of an outside. The specific way in which a building evokes a sense of openness or closure (relative degrees of the inside-outside relationship) can be clarified through a examination of floor, wall, and roof (the most basic architectural elements) as they express motion, weight, and substance. Thiis-Evensen's simple but effective structure allows one to look at a particular building and better understand, through its formal qualities, why it generates one style of architectural experience rather than another.