Courtesy Stephen Phillips Architects (SPARCHS) and Lars Müller Publishers

“Who needs architecture books?” asked UCLA professor Sylvia Lavin at a discussion this week at L.A.’s Architecture and Design Museum. The event marked the publication of L.A. Ten, a volume filled with transcriptions of interviews that California Polytechnic State University associate professor Stephen Phillips and his students conducted with 10 architects who made names for themselves in the city from the 1970s through the 1990s. Ostensibly, her question was a simple one: Given the possibilities to broadcast audio materials (including the interviews), why confine media to the straightjacket of a book? As the discussion progressed, however, Lavin raised another point: Are books at all relevant for the way we show, think about, and discuss architecture?

However hard it is for me to admit—as the author of a dozen books, and the collector of over 6,000 volumes on art and architecture (a humblebrag, maybe, but I know because the insurance company asked)—Professor Lavin has a point. These days, when I am looking for an image or data on just about any project or artwork, it is easier to find it on the screen than to reach out to one of those books. My collection has become more of a cocoon than a useful resource.

An interesting conclusion from our discussion, which included Lars Müller, owner of the Lars Müller publishing house that produced L.A. Ten, was that books have always been less of an important tool for L.A.–based architects than they have been for architects elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that those designers aren’t intellectual, but that they are wary of the construction of elaborate theories that serve as justifications or excuses for built work. They are more interested in being—like the title of the ongoing lecture series at the L.A. Forum for Architecture and Urban Design—“out there doing it.”

Professor Sylvia Lavin
Courtesy Architecture and Design Museum Professor Sylvia Lavin

That seems to be the case around the world now. What we are seeing, in other words, is not so much the death of a particular medium (the published book) as of particular ways of laying out such thought and imagery in monographs, surveys, historical analyses, and theoretical constructs of some length and heft. Instead, we are collaging together thoughts and images into more ephemeral—and shorter and lighter—media.

Books are not dead yet—at least I hope they aren’t, as I'd like to keep writing and reading them. It is, however, becoming more and more specialized, while at the same time dissolving into different media. Long-form is trending right now, and perhaps we can expect the same thing to happen in the worlds of art and architecture.

What remains for book publishing is a niche market for those who like the look and feel of the printed volume, and for those architects or critics who like to memorialize their work in that format. I suggested during the discussion that perhaps architecture books will soon look more like beautifully crafted pocketbooks filled with aperçus: objects that will respond to the fetishism of the thing in an age of evanescence. Many of the architect subjects in L.A. Ten made the kinds of drawings that would be perfect for this medium. I, for one, would spend way too much money on beautiful reprints and drawings by Thom Mayne, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, or Neil Denari. Let’s hope that will be Lars Müller’s next project.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.