Thursday, February 19, 2009

Books and Architecture


One of the reasons for FAT's flirtation (I was going to say interest, but that implies dry academicism, rather than a love that dare not speak its name) with architectural post modernism is the fact that for a number of years we only bought architecture books from the remainder book shop on Islington's Upper Street.

The shop operated on a ten year lag, selling end of print copies of once fashionable architectural theory that had fallen out of favour. At the time - the mid to late 1990's - this mainly meant Architecture Design specials on Post Modernism, Rizzoli monographs on Charles Moore and James Wines and - slightly beyond the pale even for our depraved tastes - Michael Graves. Along with a book on the wooden architecture of Russia and an anonymous collection of gothic drawings, these formed our principle influences. High on this toxic mix of the unfashionable and the unspeakable we thought we had chanced upon a little corner of architecture that we could call our own. Certainly no one else wanted it.



The Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi books stayed on our office shelves (alongside, for some reason, Jane's Fighting Ships and a book on the Hungerford massacre), their supposed radicalism appearing suddenly pallidly tasteful compared to architectural apostates like Stanley Tigerman and Ricardo Bofill We discovered something else too, which is that if you stop looking at the same stuff as everyone else, strange things happen to your architecture. Most obviously it stops looking like everyone elses' architecture.

The relationship between fashion and architecture is a thorny one. Reference to it usually involves formal analogies between cladding and clothing, or, more literally still, collaborations between architects and fashion designers. Very rarely are the fashion cycles within architecture itself considered. Architecture is generally considered to be above such things, aloof in its timelessness from ephemeral preoccupations and trivial matters of style. This aloofness is slightly absurd, only serving to draw attention to an underlying anxiety. There is nothing as troubling as the recently fashionable, nothing so unwanted or dangerous to one's self belief. Fashion works as a form of Orwellian un-think, a cultural amnesia that allows us to believe that the present is infinitely preferable to the past, always has been and always will. I wear skinny jeans. I will always wear skinny jeans. Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.



At any one time various theoretical and formal trends seem to push a number of people in the same direction at once. At architecture school for instance, there are always a small number of books that change hands feverishly, forming a closed circuit of influences until they fall out of favour. Mark Cousins gave a lecture at the Architectural Association once where he observed the impact this process had on the school library. For a while all the books by Deleuze and Guatarri would be out on loan and then, suddenly, they were all back and everyone was borrowing books on bird migration and wave formation.

In my local library there are no books by Deleuze and Guattari and only a couple on wave formation. The architecture section is bracingly random and contains nothing published within the last five years. Unlike the remainder book store it doesn't represent the fag end of a particular point in time either. It is in fact a potentially richer experience, one that could take you in any number of unexpected directions. Like only buying clothes from a slightly ageing mail order catalogue a certain idiosyncrasy of style is guaranteed.

I've been going there a lot lately, mainly to expand my Robert Wyatt collection, but the architecture and design section is a new joy to me. This is what I've read so far: a book on the early work of Philip Johnson, some Pevsner, a dictionary of architectural styles that ends at the Neue Sacklikeit, a Shell guide to ruined monastries and Terry Farrel's autobiography. Very little on parametric modelling basically. Next week I'm hoping to check out Elizabethan building techniques and the history of Playboy. Coupled with watching Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars and listening to this, the implications for architecture, as my old tutor used to say, are endless.

16 comments:

owen hatherley said...

Like this post, even though I shudder at the names of the architects in question. Charity shop architecture! Perhaps we are meeting in the middle after all.

I've picked up a few of those forlorn old AD issues from the Papadakis reign, but usually very different ones - those where Catherine Cooke gets to translate the theoretical writings of and write about Russian Constructivism, and lambast deconstructivists and Philip Johnson for their inadequate understanding of it. And despite the formal chicness of Constructivism for post-decon types, I tend to think the serious, techno-Marxist end of Constructivism that she wrote about is as neglected now as much as Michael Graves, whether Koolhaas namedrops Leonidov or not.

Charles Holland said...

Perhaps I should have called it Junk Shop Books Will Get You Nowhere....

It's getting near Sesquipedalist territory but a blog reviewing only junk shop architecture finds (like Dalston Oxfam Shop too come to think of it) would be a good thing....

Congrats on the Sunday Times prop btw. Very impressive.

Blaize said...

I snortled at the skinny jeans/1984 sentences. And at the concept in general. I have a new idea, which is to read all the books in my local library that start with the word "Against" and then write about them. A kind of self-limiting Junk Shop Books Will Get You Nowhere, engaged in on purpose.

Willie Miller said...

Thanks for this but oh dear - I have all these journals and more. I have the Moore, the Stern and the Gehry from Rizzoli. The spines have now faded to the point where they can't be easily read by the casual visitor so the true horror is concealed.

Most of these have proved to be really useful to me as an urban designer/urbanist or whatever over the past years. Perhaps urbanism as practised in the UK is now completely postmodern - which is why it will never catch on. Another trip to Poundbury anyone?

Rob said...

Oof. I'm gonna have to get a copy of that Moore monograph.

Great post.

Jennifer said...

Blaize, that sounds fun you should do it. I was thinking of reviewing all the novels with round the wrong way titles. You know, like To A Lover, Kindly or, The Moon It Glows.

Willie, I think you're right. Urban design, or at least urban planning, tends to use a vanilla version of post modernism dressed up as statutory law. All the terms that are accepted as fact like context, appropriateness, sensitive massing etc. are derived from architectural theory from 25 years ago (or more). The fact that these terms are now used to stop architects designing what they want is no small irony. So, po-mo is only really apostatism within architecture. Elsewhere its da law!

Rob, Yeah it's damn good. Charles Moore shouldn't be considered in the same post as Bofil really. He was far too good.

Charles Holland said...

Oh dear, once again I appear to have logged in as my wife! (see comment above). Anyone would think that it's her computer.

Willie Miller said...

yeah I think po-mo was a major gift for planners and around about that time, it seemed to offer a completely different way of putting together towns and cities which was incredibly exciting - most of the early stars of po-mo seemed to do as many urban projects as individual buildings so it seemed that some kind of bridge was being built.

Then it was all fucked over within a few years by the magic wand of Thatcherism among other things. Now we laugh at it. Um.

owen hatherley said...

I had assumed that 'Jennifer' was a Rrose Selavy-style female alter ego. Which considering the Reyner Banham jibe about pomo being 'architecture in drag' would have been appropriate.

Am confused as to which is the superior of Bofill or Moore. It's all pediments to me mate, etc (scampers away)

Charles Holland said...

Yes Jennifer sometimes 'appears' to scold itinerant readers in the manner of Norman Bates' mother!

Banham's quote is revealing in all sorts of ways. It only serves to make post mod sound more interesting than it actually is. It also, of course, assumes some natural, unadorned, right and proper kind of architecture underneath, like a pair of sensible trousers that no one could mistake for displaying unorthodox sexuality.

There aren't so many pediments in Moore. Lots of fragmented plans, layered spaces and camp colour schemes though. Come back here!

owen hatherley said...

It is indeed a revealing quote, from a man so beardy that nobody would doubt his masculinity. I suppose the question is whether it's drag a la Candy Darling or as in Lily Savage...

Charles Holland said...

Yes, or Bernard Breslaw.

Markasaurus said...

I went to school at UC Berkeley well after Charles Moore had left, but he designed the adjacent business school complex which made a big impression on me. The idea of getting architectural inspiration from out of date books reminds me of driving through many neighborhoods in Los Angeles where (due to the non-weather) the signage and commercial storefronts haven't changed since many of them were installed in the 1960s. It's like being in a moving display about popular culture over the past 40-50 years.

Murphy said...

Tell you what: the architecture that is really beyond the pale is the mid to late '80s early computer stuff. Tschumi did a bit of it, among others, back when all computers could give you was a wireframe, usually an axonometric one. Some of the AD's I've come across from this period have the most hideous graphical style, the architecture is just horrid, and most of the magazine seems to be taken up with reports from interminable conferences, with the usual suspects all pretending that they've read something. (shudders).

Charles Holland said...

heh, heh. Deconstruction 1 and 2 i remember having a lot of that sort of thing, along with some dreadfully pretentious guff from Daniel Liebeskind. And yes, the AD conferences! I remember one with Kevin Rhowbotham failing to get his point across to a clearly befuddled Richard Rogers. Very painful.

Mind you, I found a lot of the late '90's computer driven stuff quite horrid too. Stuff like Marcus Novak which managed to be extraordinarily tasteless in an uninteresting way.

Murphy said...

Confession - I sought out and was very excited by the Deconstruction books in the uni-library, back in first year. It explains a lot about me, I suppose.

I remember reading about one particular conference where Danny Libeskind and Eric Owen Moss were rattling on about Aristotle, and all that the chair (who might actually have been Frederic Jameson) could do was beg them to start talking about architecture again...

It's weird, architects generally don't have great taste in the aesthetic, and combining that with computers is bad news; I mean, look at what UCL's fine art department produce, and then compare it to the 'arty' work produced by the architecture students. There's definitely a point being missed somewhere, but this is a whole other story entirely...