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Architecture as Poetry

September 1, 1998

Mary Ann Travis

Handwriting draws the attention of readers, like bay windows invite people into a comforting home. That's why Geoffrey Baker, who has holds the Richard Koch Chair in Architecture, presented the text in his book, Design Strategies in Architecture: An Approach to the Analysis of Form, in a handwritten format with many drawings.

"What I was trying to do is to engage my audience," Baker says. Design Strategies is in its second American edition (1996) and has also been translated and published in Japan and Spain. Baker has also written extensively about the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, most recently in Le Corbusier: The Creative Search (1996).

Baker says he looks at architecture--whether in his research or teaching--"as to what it should do for us in the world, how it should enhance our lives in the deepest sense." For architecture to be truly great, says Baker, it must satisfy deep human needs to connect with nature and each other. A well-established British architectural researcher before he came to Tulane in 1988, Baker has found fertile ground here for a deeper exploration of "how it is through building that we dwell on earth."

He met philosophy professor Michael Zimmerman and a "cross fertilization" occurred. Zimmerman's work on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger had a profound affect on Baker.

Influenced by Heidegger's notion of living poetically on earth, Baker did "a Heideggerian take" in his latest book (1997), a monograph on Antoine Predock, the internationally celebrated, Albu-querquebased architect. Our dwelling on earth can only be understood in relation to "the primal oneness of earth and sky, divinities and mortals," Baker quotes Heidegger while probing Predock's work for its involvement with these elements. The same synergy that Baker develops with his research subjects, is achieved through his interactions with students.

"I now find that I need my teaching desperately to inform me as to where to go in my writing," he says. "I love sparking off all the design conversations." Baker teaches design and theory, and his latest writing project, for which he is taking a sabbatical this fall, is about a British architectural team. The work is entitled "James Stirling Michael Wilford and the New Tradition in Architecture."

Baker believes in the value of tradition and its "wonderful appropriateness." Continuity and tradition--whether from a thatched roof or a hallway--give psychological support, says Baker. "This is what people respond to," he says. "They can feel comfortable."

A populist at heart, Baker seeks out what makes buildings comfortable, what appeals to people. In the 1970s he wrote and appeared in six BBC architecture programs for Great Britain's Open University. That's where he says he learned the importance of communicating well. Baker continues to use video and slides to show architecture to students, saying it's the best one can do if one can't physically enter the buildings.

"But," Baker says, "you can never actually understand buildings until you see them." Seeing what Tulane's students do in their building design projects delights Baker. "The students we have really are special," he says. "When does a design happen? It's just unfolding from nothing. It begins with nothing. Then it appears, and you get all sorts of magic."

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