Years ago, when I was younger and more foolish, I went off to cover the annual meeting of what was then called the MSM Regional Planning Council. Back then the MSM meeting was viewed as the pre-eminent power networking event in central New Jersey. I waltzed in with my classic “professional reporter’s notebook,” the kind that can fit in the inside pocket of your sports coat, and found myself sitting at the same table with Robert Geddes, the recently retired dean of the Princeton University architecture school.
The networking over, the meeting turned to various award presentations. One of the recipients, an earnest young man from Johnson & Johnson, came to the podium and began to pontificate on what J&J was doing to save the downtown in New Brunswick.
At our table, everyone was braced for the long lecture. I thought it was time for a little sight gag, so I pulled my reporter’s notebook out and slid it across the table to Geddes. “Here you go, Bob,” I said with a straight face. “Maybe you’ll want to take notes.”
Geddes smiled. He had probably forgotten more about architecture and urban planning than the suit from J&J knew. In addition to his role as the university’s dean, the Yale and Harvard-trained Geddes had designed the original master plan for Liberty State Park in Jersey City and would later design Bloomberg Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study, among many other projects.
In Princeton his influence can also be felt through Princeton Future, a farsighted group that calls attention to planning issues that otherwise only come into view when they reach the planning board for a yes or no vote.
Now Geddes has left another calling card on the public table: A slim book called “Fit” and subtitled “an architect’s manifesto.”
“We need a better way to evaluate architecture,” writes Geddes. “It should replace the modernists’ ‘Form follows function’ and the always fashionable ‘What does it look like?’ It should be widely debated by architects and clients, users of buildings, community leaders, and makers of public policies and plans. It should be focused, seemingly obvious but actually unlimited in its implications and connections.
“Architecture should embrace fitness — order and organization, growth and form. The ‘oath of architecture’ should be loud and clear: make it fit.”
As one who had a college roommate who studied architecture under Geddes, I suspect some architects would read the book with a “been there, done that” yawn. But for the layman, especially those community policy makers and planners, “Fit” is a succinct definition of architecture from its most elemental beginnings.
If clothing is our second skin, Geddes writes, then architecture is our third skin. “In our ‘second skin,’ clothing, we live as individuals. Clothing is not shared as a covering. But when we want to assemble in groups, to live together in society, we need outer shelters, our ‘third skin.’
“We are social animals, and we need social shelters. Buildings do that job. They become architecture when, beyond serving to protect and shelter us, they become our shared, functional, and expressive places. Architecture is an assemblage of places.”
It gets a little more complicated when architects encounter the need to fit various elements together. “Ever since classical antiquity, some sort of ‘modularity’ has been used by architects and builders to make things fit together,” Geddes writes. “To make things fit, the Classical architect’s task was ‘combinatorial.’” And, he writes, “to make things fit together, the modern architect’s task remains combinatorial.”
One of the unusual aspects of the Geddes book, released last month by the Princeton University Press, is its size. With just 100 pages of text, plus two dozen more pages of footnotes and index and illustrations, a full-size book would have been very thin indeed. But this is not a coffee table book, it’s a manifesto, and Geddes and designer Jason Alejandro created a book that is just eight by four inches.
Exactly the same size as that classic reporter’s notebook I offered to Geddes back in the 1980s.
In the book I came across a section on public spaces. I have been interested in them ever since I read William H. Whyte’s “The Last Landscape.” When our condominium association created a small plaza in our courtyard, I eagerly offered suggestions for the placement of the patio and the types of seating — two single chairs and two longer benches. After the installation was complete, I realized an error. The seating was bolted to the patio to prevent theft. But that prevented the seats from being repositioned to accommodate individual preferences and intimate conversations.
In Geddes’s book he describes how Bryant Park in New York was rebuilt according to Whyte’s ideas about the “social life of small urban spaces” and featuring “movable tables and chairs.” The word “movable” leaped off the page.
I felt as if the notebook had been slid back across the table from Geddes to me. And this time, no joke, I should be taking notes.
Robert Geddes will appear at Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, on Monday, December 10, at 6 p.m. 609-497-1600.