Unpacking My Library 21.12.09

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Architects' Rem-infested bookshelves make Charles Holland long for Jilly Cooper.

"Books are more important than buildings," says Peter Eisenman revealingly in Unpacking My Library. "Without The Four Books of Architecture no one would have cared about Palladio", he adds.

Eisenman's point is that architecture as a cultural activity is constructed through criticism; that is, through its dissemination in books and texts. The premise of this little book is an interesting and potentially revealing one, then. Ten well-known architects choose their ten favourite books. How has their architecture been constructed through reading?

The reality is that the similarity of the contributors – they are all New York-based architects of an intellectual bent – gives the choices an air of predictability. They are all on their best behaviour, picking books with well-established credentials. No one confesses to a love of Jilly Cooper. Instead, Merleau-Ponty, Henri Lefebvre, Gilles Deleuze and Gaston Bachelard figure prominently. But there are subtler differences, and some surprises. Unexpectedly, the most popular book – with five votes – is Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which proves that his writing has retained an intellectual respectability even if his buildings haven't. The second most popular is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. These choices disturbed me slightly as both of them would probably appear on my own list. Clearly I have more predictable architectural taste than I hoped.

Very few of the contributors pick books by fellow architects and when they do – in the case of Venturi and Rem Koolhaas – it is in their guise as critics rather than designers. Eisenman's claim seems to be borne out here, as theory dominates over practice. Architecture is not only created through critical discourse, it seems to seek validation from it too.

However, the most interesting way to "read" this book is to study the photographs of the contributors' bookshelves. Almost everyone seems to own a copy of S,M,L,XL, for instance. Billie Tsien's extensive literature collection suggests a life spent reading something other than architectural texts, which has to be a good thing. Meanwhile, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio have by far the most eclectic collection, one that includes books on fashion, food and, most incongruously of all, the Benetton Formula 1 team.

As I scan across the bookshelves in my own office I wonder how their contents might fit in. There are some overlaps for sure: Robin Evans, Rosalind Krauss, that infernal S,M,L,XL. Then again, none of the contributors have such an extensive collection of books on 1980s postmodernism (not even Michael Graves), or a copy of Mötley Crüe's The Dirt soiling their (self-designed) shelves.

Does what you read as an architect overtly influence what you design? It's difficult, ultimately, to separate the two, as they exist in a mutually reinforcing taste culture. The supposed pluralism of contemporary architecture actually masks an amazing consistency of interest, one that extends to what architects read as much as what they design.

Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, edited by Jo Steffens, Yale, £16

 

Words

Charles Holland

quotes story

They are all on their best behaviour, picking books with well-established credentials. No one confesses to a love of Jilly Cooper

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