I’m a hardcore bibliophile, so it follows that my favorite new title is a book about books: Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, by Jo Steffens of New York’s Urban Center Books (Yale University Press; $20).
Unpacking reprints a charming Walter Benjamin essay about the pleasures of book collecting. It also includes transcripts of what Gore Vidal calls “book chat,” between Steffens and some of the profession’s big readers: Stan Allen, Henry Cobb, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, Michael Graves, Steven Holl, Toshiko Mori, Michael Sorkin, Bernard Tschumi, and Todd Williams and Billie Tsien.
Then there’s what I consider the real, juicy meat of Unpacking: portraits of the architects in their libraries; close-up photos of individual shelves, with every spine legible; and lists of the architects’ 10 favorite books.
People’s libraries are, like their eyes, windows to the soul. Unpacking hints at the personalities and polemics of top architects, and it infers that all architects should keep their minds nimble by reading—not just by flipping through picture books, but by consuming criticism, history, and even literature.
I assume everyone probably could use a break from my usual finger wagging, so this month I’m taking a cue from Unpacking and sharing my own favorite books, along with a self-indulgent picture of me and my best friend Mortimer in my home library. (Yes, that’s a Kindle I’m holding. Don’t tell Walter Benjamin.)
L’Architecture• Claude-Nicholas Ledoux • 1847
You don’t have to be a classicist to appreciate the elegantly engraved platonic geometries of Ledoux’s maisons de plaisance and hôtels particuliers.
Architecture: Form, Space, and Order• Francis D.K. Ching • 1979
Ching’s hand-drawn and -lettered lessons awoke my 13-year-old brain to the design strategies of buildings that I loved from the gut.
A Rebours• Joris-Karl Huysmans • 1884
Revel in phantasmagoric details about the hero’s decadent home. His bedroom carpet is woven to resemble the worn tile floor of a monk’s cell.
Brideshead Revisited•Evelyn Waugh • 1945
The fictional Baroque pile named in the title (played in the BBC miniseries by John Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard) does more than frame the action—it shapes it, hauntingly.
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture•Robert Venturi • 1966
I’m still waiting for the green-design equivalent of what Venturi describes as his “gentle manifesto,” which, for better or worse, put the fun back in Modernism.
Dune• Frank Herbert • 1965
Herbert sets his sci-fi epic on a desert planet, the only source of a spice that enables space travel. The native sand-dwellers launch a guerrilla war against their off-world masters. Sound familiar?
Entwurf einer Historischen Architektur• Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach • 1771
Who doesn’t want to see Nanking or Mecca through the eyes of Austria’s pre-eminent Baroque architect?
A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals • Spiro Kostof • 1985
If Ching introduced me to the formal guidelines of architecture, Kostof opened my eyes to its cultural and social import.
Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History • S. Giedion • 1948
One chapter, “Mechanization and Death: Meat,” includes a gruesome Berenice Abbott photograph of poultry depilation. Progress doesn’t always make perfect.
Salammbô•Gustave Flaubert • 1862
In recreating the war-torn city-state of Carthage, circa 300 B.C., Flaubert’s prose is better than CGI.
I doubt the contents of my library (or my brain) will be as meaningful to architects as, say, Steven Holl’s. My collection’s hardly as impressive as Bob Stern’s; he keeps 11,000 volumes in his office as a staff resource. But just maybe you’ll enjoy reading some of my recommendations, or offer your own by posting a comment. We’ll share the most compelling in an upcoming print issue.