Exposing the Grain

A new treatment brings out the highlights of wood.

By Allen Freeman

Buildings in Wood: The History and Traditions of Architecture’s Oldest Building Material
By Will Pryce
Rizzoli, 320 pages, $75 

Buildings
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Will pryce portrays wood as the Willy Loman of building materials, the stuff that, in a world that historically favors masonry construction, hasn't gotten much attention. He contends in his preface to Buildings in Wood that "far from being an inherently inferior building material, wood is simply a different one." A British photojournalist trained as an architect, Pryce makes a pretty good case for his underdog, pointing out, for one thing, that the forgiving nature of wood-framed structures lets them ride out earthquakes better than those made of load-bearing masonry. His photographs from Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America make a strong case also for the aesthetics of wood, showing magnificent buildings that have stood solidly and weathered well for centuries.

Consider Pryce's three photographs of Maison d'Adam, a six-story city house in Angers, France, that has been preserved since the late 1400s. The building's external framework (carved in high-relief fantasies like St. George and his dragon) is exposed right up to the gable roofline. Horizontal beams express each floor plate; the infill is diamond-pattern wood latticework and stucco. We can thank Pryce for hunting down the Lilliputian ancestor of the Brobdingnagian John Hancock Center in Chicago—with its muscular frame crisscrossing up into the haze over North Michigan Avenue—and photographing it rather heroically in a glow of indirect, late-afternoon sunlight. Thanks also to his editors at Thames & Hudson in London for displaying it on a two-page spread, and to Rizzoli International for republishing the book in this country.

As revealing as the shots of Maison d'Adam are, any architectural photograph is a reduction of a three-dimensional object. Such depiction can manipulate a building's functional, cultural, and artistic expressions and enhance or exclude context—be it a crowded city or a mountain forest, an industrial district or a sea of prairie grass. Like any craftsman, an architectural photographer has motivation to lie. Two good reasons are to please an architect who wants to get his building published or, as in the case of Pryce and Buildings in Wood, to compile striking material for a book. Want to get rid of utility wires? Position the camera close to the building and use a wide-angle lens, or shoot the wires and erase them later on a computer.

Many successful architectural photographers, like Pryce, were trained as architects and intuitively make the buildings look their very best. Indeed, Pryce's photographs reproduce beautifully. Like a Hollywood cinematographer in the 1930s, he flatters, even glamorizes, his subjects, often using polarizing filters that turn skies deep blue and that exaggerate such architectural elements as clapboards and shingles, making them crackle in the sunlight. McKim, Mead and White's shingle-style Isaac Bell House in Newport, R.I., and the multidomed Cathedral of the Transfiguration on Russia's Kizhi Island glisten. So my questions are, Is Pryce too subjective? Does he express the reality of architecture or his ability to idealize it? The full-page portrait of Maison d'Adam is one of few pictures in Buildings in Wood that include people in the frame, in this photo a woman and a child, slightly blurred by motion. They subtly animate the image on this page, in contrast to practically all the book's other images, which isolate buildings as if they were still-life objects, like so many bowls of fruit on so many tablecloths.

And what of the text? Pryce chose a sweeping subject for a book, like a prep school student selecting an impossibly broad term-paper topic, and he tends to expound dryly, tossing around obscure terms like "jetty" (an upper wall cantilevered beyond a lower one) and "flying bressummer" (a horizontal timber carrying greatly projecting eaves). The glossary in the back is welcome. Still, even with pedantic writing and many static photos, Buildings in Wood presents a strong case for its subject. Lowly cellulose has rarely glowed so brightly.

Allen Freeman, advisory editor at The American Scholar, is a former Preservation senior editor.