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A boon for book fetishists and architecture buffs
on December 13, 2009
If you are one of those people who stears clear from the small talk at dinner parties and instead heads straight for your hosts' library to nose your way up and down the shelves, then this book is for you. Jo Steffens had the opportunity to peek into ten famous, largely New York-based architects' libraries - ranging from 750 to over 6000 volumes - and filled a book with snapshots from some of their shelves, short conversations about the meaning of books in their practice, and a top ten list of each.
The experience is predictably labyrinthine. No surprise that we often bump into the likes of Corbu, Mies, Loos and Kahn. A strong showing, also, of key (proto-)postmodernist thinkers (as opposed to builders): Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Bataille, Deleuze. Rem Koolhaas' S M L XL is probably one of the few books to show up in all libraries, although it never makes it to the top 10 (his Delirious New York does, once). Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction is another fixture of the postmodern architectural scene. There is not an awful lot that refers back to older, pre-modern architectural practices (Michael Graves' library is an exception). And surprisingly little in terms of monographs on contemporary European colleagues (I don't think I saw anything referring to work by Rodgers, Piano, Herzog & De Meuron, ...). There is, on the other hand, quite a bit of fiction on those shelves - a lot of which reminds us of the fractured, the layered, the tectonic: Finnegan's Wake, Gravity's Rainbow, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities all figure in top 10 lists. Then again very few poetry books. Only one - Celan's Last Poems - show up, in Steven Holl's final selection.
The overlaps fascinate, but so do the differences. Stan Allen betrays himself as a systems thinker, Michael Sorkin as a political activist. Tschumi's kinetic, cinematographically oriented aestheticism contrasts with Holl's more quiet, contemplative disposition. Eisenman, as an arch-postmodernist, provides a counterweight to Michael Graves' penchant for solidity and monumentality. And then there is the way in which these architects arrange their books, the types of shelves they choose, the kinds of ordering they impose. I love Henry Cobb's classic, meticulously designed embedded bookcases. But I am also mesmerised by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's home library, where books, in no particular order, are surrounded by mysterious objects.
The conversations are very short and serious and point to graver questions about the nature of the architectural practice in a world that is dominated by the computer, the virtual. Graves: "I want to know where we've come from. And I see students now being excited by the way they can make an object turn in space, inside out and upside down, using the machine. That in itself has become the moment of discovery. But it doesn't engage human concerns, or the myths and rituals of the origins of architecture. I don't see the interest in books and literature, not necessarily books, but the literature of architecture, as I once did."
Inevitably, one cannot escape the temptation to peruse this book as a kind of catalogue, disclosing significant tracts of unknown bibliographic repertoire. But this requires patience. There is no index of all the books shown, nor is there the ease of automated search as Amazonians are used to. The only accommodation is that his little book can be easily turned to 90 degrees so as to facilitate the navigation of this fascinating and comforting landscape.