Michael Cadwell, AIA, took an unsettling architectural experience in Venice, Italy, and turned it into this intriguing book. Over the course of many visits to Carlo Scarpa's gallery at the Querini Stampalia Foundation there, he found it hard to reach a satisfactory understanding of the building. "I couldn't make the connections that I had anticipated between a conventional phenomenology and Scarpa's heralded mastery of materials," he writes in his introduction to Strange Details (The MIT Press, $20.95).
While reading the poem "Making Strange" by Seamus Heaney, Cadwell, a professor at The Ohio State University's Knowlton School of Architecture, had a breakthrough. "I realized that Heaney's poem evoked what was at play in Scarpa's work," he writes. "Scarpa does not anchor us with construction conventions, no matter how elaborately construed. Nor, for that matter, does he reaffirm terra firma as we habitually assume it (or question it with the tropes of modernism). Instead, construction liquefies at the Querini Stampalia, and we are cast adrift, into a kind of liquid ambience."
In a series of four in-depth essays, Cadwell dives into the strange and sometimes counterintuitive nature of details at this and three other buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright's Jacobs House, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, and Louis Kahn's Yale Center for British Art. In the end, he told me in an interview, he discovered that "the way we look at the world affects the way in which we configure the raw materials of the world. [In these four architects] you really do see people who've come to a new understanding of the world." His magnifying-glass approach both challenges and exhilarates the reader.