The Many Shapes of Shelter

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Many Shapes of Shelter


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


Shelter: Human Habitats From Around the World Written by Charles Knevitt Published in Britain by Polymath Publishing168 pp., 19.95

`All architecture is shelter," according to the American architect Philip Johnson, who is quoted (along with many others) in a book by Charles Knevitt, a British architecture-journalist.

The two pictures shown here are from this book, called "Shelter: Human Habitats From Around the World."

Johnson continued: "All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts or stimulates the persons in that space."

The book, like Johnson's statement, expands the concept of shelter beyond the basic notion of a roof over one's head. Seventy-five color photographs of architecture, each with commentaries, add up to what is rather more than the attractive bedside volume this book first appears to be.

It is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking celebration of the extraordinary diversity of the human imagination as it has -- since the dawn of civilization -- been applied to the concept of home; an imagination as actively inventive in "poor" cultures as in "rich." In the terms of this book, shelter can mean the Palace of Versailles outside Paris no less than the cave houses in Guadix, Spain; Frank Lloyd Wright's "Fallingwater" no less than squatter camps in Rio de Janeiro.

While Knevitt is evenhanded for the most part in his informative descriptions of anything from timber shacks in the East Caribbean to Piazza Houses in South Carolina, the author is still quietly promoting some theories.

Knevitt does it without too much tub-thumping, largely letting us form our own opinions based on the evidence he selectively presents. Only the French architect Le Corbusier and his followers receive overt disapproval: "Le Corbusier's rational, radical vision was ultimately stultifying when applied ad infinitum, ad nauseam by lesser mortals."

To Knevitt, even the Walled City at Kowloon in Hong Kong, an appalling megastructure on six acres that "houses" an estimated 33,000 people of refugee status, seems more exciting than Le Corbusier. He calls its effect "exhilarating" as well as a shocking "inferno of crime and squalor."

It may be that this inferno, for all its anarchy, comes closer to the self-determining idea of "community architecture" (a term Knevitt himself coined). He is by no means alone in preferring community architecture to the arrogant imposition on a passive public of a modernist architect's Utopian dream.

His preface touches on "changes" that he believes "are manifestly needed ... to restore the balance between the basic requirements of shelter, psychological as well as physical, and its provision. …

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