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Are Books a Kind of Architecture?

The Bookworm (German: Der Bücherwurm), an 1850 oil-on canvas painting by the German painter and poet Carl Spitzweg

It might have been because of my having recently overheard a man say to another man (who was selling books to the owner of Unnameable Books): “It look [sic] like a library up in here,” making me wonder about his sense of wonder, wonder why he found it unusual to see so many books outside of the context of lending libraries, making me wonder if he would marvel at my shelves and say that they, too, looked like what made up a library, making me think about how much space books take, especially when you collect them, making me wonder whether the desire that some people have, and the pressure some people feel exerted upon them, to save space has something to do with why those same people would rather store most if not all of their texts, texts that presently appear through the technology of books, into some digital device, all of which made me think of myriad other things, like thinking about how one of the first things I like to do when visiting someone’s house is to glance over the spines in their library, scrutinizing them as intensely as any chiropractor would a series of articulated vertebrae; or perhaps it was because I had been recently thinking about Peter Eisenman’s House Six; or maybe it was because of my recent re-viewing of Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect—a film teeming with intertextual references—that I ended up, yesterday, perusing through my local library’s architecture stacks, ending up plucking Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books from the shelves. The book has a simple premise: interview renowned architects about their library; about how their readings intersect with, inform, alter, or otherwise influence their sense of design, their aesthetics; each interview followed by photos of particularly interesting shelves within the interviewee’s library; each interviewee finally offering a list of ten of their favorite books.

Following editor Jo Steffens’s preface is Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” which I’d read many years ago, but which still resonated for me, especially with regards to the particular and peculiar ways that books evoke and invoke feelings, memories, and myriad other associations. Benjamin also briefly explains why writers write: “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.” And he offers this encomium to the book collector:

O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg’s “Bookworm.” For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

The idea that books are a kind of architecture is a recurring theme in Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books. Speaking of John Hejduk, Toshiko Mori says: “He even taught that books are architecture in their own right, and he produced books as if they were architecture. Reading books is an architectural experience, and I still feel that way. It is an imaginary way of participating in spatial structures.” Peter Eisenman claims that books supersede buildings:

Without The Four Books on Architecture of Palladio no one would have cared about Palladio. A book lasts longer than a building; books are more important in the world than buildings. Without Venturi’s Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture there would be no Bob Venturi. Without Rem Koohaas’s Delirious New York there would be no Koolhaus. Without Le Corbusier’s Toward an Architecture, etcetera…Without those books, they wouldn’t exist for us. So for me, architects live beyond their time through the book.”

He later goes on to say:

I read enough, so I know I love when people create with the word, turning into something more than a mere sentence, more than just a simple idea—that it resonates in some way beyond its mere existence as a word. And I believe that’s what architecture does. There are ideas, there are functions, there are words, but when you hit something extraordinary, it’s like reading a beautiful book.

The interviewer asks Steven Holl: “Given the ability of books to do what is not yet possible, or even to present the impossible, and given your own books and experimental (unbuilt) projects, could you say that the book is in fact capable of more than the world could ever allow? And could this experimental aspect not also be the merit of architecture?”

Holl answers:

I’ve felt that a book is like a building, and a building is like a book. Instilling either with intensity is an exciting challenge, which continues in the printed work. I once attempted to make a building out of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, a book that can be read straight through or according to formula, skipping several chapters, reading it another way with a different meaning. Unfortunately, my attempt failed.

Asked “What role does the written word, and specifically the book, play as a medium for the production of space today?” Michael Sorkin answers:

Space is a social production, the outcome of ideas and relationships. Books are arguments—even propaganda—for the forms, qualities, possibilities, and rights that constitute “space.” Books, of course, are not the only way of “writing” space—living in it is even more primary—but, given the contested character of space today, writing is a crucial mode of both invention and resistance.

A quibble: While I certainly enjoyed the photos of lines of bookshelves, I could easily have traded the photographs for more comments from the architects about the books they’d chosen, about how forays into literature, history, and art impacted their architecture.

Here’s a composite list of all of the recommended books (A few books appeared repeatedly in the lists, namely, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture):

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space
Ryner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age
Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye
Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind
Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas
Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity
Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths
Christine Boyer’s Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity
Manuel Castells’s The Rise of the Network Society
Paul Celan’s Last Poems
Adolfo Bioy Cesares’s The Invention of Morel
Joseph Connors’s Boromini and the Roman Oratory: Style and Society
Ulrich Conrad’s Programs and Manifestoes on Twentieth-Century Architecture
Le Corbusier’s Une petite maison
Le Corbusier’s Toward an Architecture
Le Corbusier’s Creation Is a Patient Search
Le Corbusier’s Complete Works, Volume 1, 1910-1929
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Mike Davis’s City of Quartz
Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image
Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology
Denis Diderot’s Diderot Encyclopedia: The Complete Illustrations, 1762-1777
Denis Diderot’s A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking
Annie Dillard’s The Living
J.N.L. Durand’s Recueil et parallèle des édifices de tout genre, anciens et modernes
Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense
Lotten Eisner’s The Haunted Screen
Robin Evans’s Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays
William Faulkner’s Light in August
Paul Griffiths’s Modern Music: The Avant-Garde Since 1945
Ross Feld’s Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston
M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth
Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences
Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History
E.H. Gombrich’s Meditations on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art
Hardie Gramatky’s Creeper’s Jeep
Jacques Gubler’s Jean Tschumi: Architecture at Full Scale
Knut Hamsun’s Hunger
David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City
John Hejduk’s Soundings and Victims
Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy
Michael Hough’s Cities and Natural Process: A Basis for Sustainability
Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs
Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics
Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Jason Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time
Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake
Franz Kafka’s The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913
Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918
Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York
Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution
Paul Letarouilly’s Édifices de Rome moderne
R.D. Martienssen’s The Idea of Space in Greek Architecture
Seicho Matsumoto’s Ten to sen [Points and Lines] Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy
Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization
Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities
Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory
Kenzaburō Ōe’s The Silent Cry
Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture
Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible Followed by Working Notes
Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
Peter Mark Roget’s Roget’s Thesaurus
Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City
Colin Rowe’s The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays
Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom
Philippe Soller’s Writing and the Experience of Limits
Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash
John Summerson’s Georgian London
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters
Mark Treib’s Space Calculated in Seconds
D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form
Paul Valéry’s Degas, Manet, Morisot
Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture
Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition
The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day; Robert Payne, ed.

Other books mentioned:
Arata Isozaki’s Japan-ness in Architecture
Jay Fellows’s The Falling Distance: The Autobiographical Impulse in John Ruskin

12 thoughts on “Are Books a Kind of Architecture?

  1. Some years ago, when my wife and I were selling our previous house, we discovered that the estate agent was reassuring potential purchasers that yes, we would indeed be taking all the books away with us.

    There is still something that boggles me in what that says about the perception of books in a home.

    I don’t know if books are architecture per se, but they are certainly part of the architecture of my life. I cannot imagine living or working in a room without books.

    1. Yes, books in homes, especially lots and lots of them, seem more “lived in” to me. I have a dream that I will someday inherit some mad bibliophile’s library, along with a home to house them in.

      1. I have that same dream, John. I want a separate library, and I also want to be surrounded, surrounded by books in every room in my house.

        It’s kind of funny–my family and most of our friends (who all read) often comment on how cluttered our place looks, and how come we don’t sell some of our books, and how can we stand to have so many stacks and stacks of books all over the place? It’s true, it’s not for most people, but I couldn’t imagine living any other way. If I can’t sit down and reach for a book from wherever I am, it’s not a home for me.

  2. I’d love to add Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture to that list. I read excerpts for a seminar at The New School and decided to use it as the basis for my mfa thesis. Really fascinating book that’s a mixture of essay/poem/manifesto and takes cues from a number of books on that above list. Part of her project was to create virtual spaces, mimicking the way most architecture firms write proposals but never actually build anything more than theoretical space.

    1. The descriptions I’ve read of this book sounds interesting, particularly the celebration of Robertson’s sentences, her “rococo prose.” I haven’t found an excerpt, yet, but I’ll keep trying.

      I love reading about invented spaces. There are so many “paper architects,” like Aleksandr Brodsky, Ilya Utkin, and Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose work I admire, not to mention all those writers of fiction and poetry who create wonderful spaces.

  3. I’ve moved my nearly 1000 books 15 times over the past 20 years, and the time has finally come for me to part with the majority of them. I get to keep 100, or the amount that will fit into two boxes. I haven’t started making decisions yet, but I think about it every day with a strange combination of relief and dread. Books have been the architecture of my space and my life since I was a child, in large part they’re what makes each new space feel like mine.

    But I am not a woman of leisure, as Benjamin says, blissful with the time and resources to move these objects anymore. And it is not the need to save space that has finally brought me to this point, but the ugly expense of cross-country moves. I’ll have to find another way of writing my space in the future…and that sort of excites me.

    1. Sounds like you’re in an intense time of transition. Good luck with figuring out what books you’re keeping. And feel free to drop a line about the choices you’ve made, and why you’ve made them

      It’s amazing how books, and the shelves that contain them, immediately make a house a home, well, at least for me.

    1. Oh, that does look good. Funny enough, Steven Holl, who was one of the architects interviewed for Unpacking My Library, wrote the preface to The Eyes of the Skin.

      Thanks, Lily!

  4. Greg, thanks for this, and especially for that long and wonderful list of recommended reading. I’ve always thought of many of my favorite authors, like Calvino and Borges, as architects, and their books like great structures to navigate. At the same time, books themselves make a home for me (as I commented above) and if I were building my own home, I’d include bookshelves in every room as part of the main structure–designed to be seen. I love to be reminded of what I love, just like anyone in a home, and a temple of books is the best home for me.

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