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Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books Hardcover – November 30, 2009
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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.
The ten featured architects are all presented in the same format: a general shot of their library (oddly these are all in black and white) and a nice touch, I thought, were captions about the shelving dimensions, manufacturers, materials and the number of books. Bernard Tschumi has the most at six thousand. An interview follows, which I found mildly interesting then close-up color photos of some books on the shelves so spines can be read by turning the book sideways. These shots are number keyed into the black and white overview photo. Finally the ten nominate their Top Ten Books, presented on a spread as cover thumbnails and what is the only book that pops up five times: Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, so no surprise there.
Reading the spines reveals no great surprises either, a mixture of architectural titles (several have a copy of 'S,M,L,XL') and culture. (Are the real revealing titles in another room?) Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio share a copy of 'Jocks & nerds', books on cars and highways. Bernard Tschumi has a copy of Philip Nobile's 1974 'Intellectual skywriting' and quite few movie and photo related titles and obviously copies of his own books. Stan Allen has 'Facts about Finland' and 'Mart Stam's trousers'. Peter Eisenman has 'The Sun Records collection'. Should I be pleased that I found a handful titles that I have on my shelves, well, maybe.
Overall a quirky and fun book about books. The landscape format works well as does the design which was by Pentagram. Could the next book be 'Unpacking my library: novelists and their books'?
***SEE SOME INSIDE PAGES by clicking 'customer images' under the cover.