Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Unpacking Myself

(Photo of Peter Eisenman at home, taken from Unpacking My Library).
I recently wrote a review of Unpacking My Library, a book about books, specifically the ones that architects read. It features ten contemporary architects selecting their ten favourites and it's very revealing about their tastes and preoccupations. Perhaps more revealing than the choices though are the close-up photographs of each architect's library. Not only because this allows you to see which books they didn't choose but because of the design of the library itself.

In each case the featured architect has designed their own shelving system. Fair enough, you might say, they're designers after all. But they specifically draw attention to their shelves, eager not just to show them off but to prove that they somehow represent the apex of bookshelf design. Each one has a slight affectation, a design quirk that reveals a unique but final answer to the 'problem' of shelving in general.

Peter Eiseneman's, for example, has a little shelf above the main books stacks on which to put flat manuscripts and catalogues. Michael Graves' incorporate upright sections of plastic tubing, painted in a faux-marble texture to mimic in miniature the distressed cartoon classicism of his buildings. Billy Tsien and Todd Williams have even provided a drawing of theirs as an abstracted indexical system of organisation.

So far, so architectural, you might say. But as we are dealing with books, and words, it's worth looking at how architects use both. Spend any time in an architecture school and you will notice the predominance of certain words. 'Programme', for instance, is used in preference to function. Another favourite is 'condition', which describes an existing situation that is in some way problematic, itself another favourite term. 'Conditions' need to be 'problematised' before they can be solved by the architect. An example might be, for instance, the humble door. As in: "I've been looking at the condition of doorway". This will be a prelude to an observation that doors are in themselves problematic and need the architect to invent a new way of moving between rooms.

This is how architects tend to work, starting out from the point of view that everything's wrong and striving towards some imagined optimum future. It's evident in their clothing too which is remarkably unchanging and impervious to fashion. Apart from the obvious cliches (bow ties, round glasses, a lot of black etc) architects tend to be both highly particular and stubbornly inflexible about how they dress, alighting on a particular look which represents some final typological solution to the problem of clothing.

Almost every existing photograph of Charles Voysey, for instance, shows him in a trademark lapel less jacket, a look he pioneered which is still popular with minimalist architects and James Bond villains everywhere. Talking of which, I recall seeing two pictures of Erno Goldfinger, taken some thirty years or so apart, in which he was wearing exactly the same lumberjack shirt and quilted bodywarmer, clearly his answer to the problem of the leisure-wear condition. I can't find a copy of the picture unfortunately (which I think is in a catalogue about his Willow Road house) but here's another one of him looking suitably splendid anyway:

To that list one could add Frank Loyd Wright and his cape, James Stirling and his Hush Puppys and Richard Rogers and his lime green collarless shirts (what is it with collars and architects?). Not forgetting Zaha and her crinkly tin Issey Miyake and Danny Liebeskind with his cowboy boots. And then there's the really cranky ones, like Rogers' partner Mike Davies who always, and only, wears red for which their can surely be no functional justification.

I didn't think it would be fair to write about all this without a little self-reflection. Clothing wise I remain a slave to fashion, following every whimsical trend despite my advancing years, so that doesn't quite work. But what about my bookshelves?

I designed the ones in the flat where my family live. They're made of plywood, have different sized shelves and are painted in camp pastel shades on the inside faces. Slightly pointlessly they sit on curved classical feet in a way which problematises the issue of structural loading. That is to say, they sag.


My bookshelf baring has resulted in an interesting show and tell over on twitter. Here's never before seen footage of the living spaces of: Owen Hatherley, Will Wiles and Robert Morrison.


kippers said...

I think the red-clad architect is Mike Davies, current director at RSHP.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks, you are absolutely right. And not to be confused with Mike 'City of Quartz' Davies, which might have been what confused me. I really need to get a fact checker though. Anyway, I've added a picture of him above because he looks so fabulous.

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N_O_R_T_O_N said...

Charles: wonderful post as always. You piqued my interest in mentioning the curved classical feet which your bookshelf rests on. I've joined in on the fun over at Mockitecture. By the way, do Mike Davies toy action figures exist in the UK?

Charles Holland said...

Brett, I think you may find that people don't GAF about your online marketing thesis.

NORTON, thanks. I should add the picture of the feet. I was a bit coy with the shots although I didn't move any books into or out of view deliberately. Hence the visibility of a book by Sebastian Faulks.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me what I'm missing about the blogosphere. I'll have to post a piccie of my Ikea shelves boasting priceless vintage archi-porn, then the plywood ones I made sagging under the weight of serious "theory".
Must get back to blogging one day soon.

Charles Holland said...

Steve, Where have you been? Your blogging is much missed, I hope you find the time to do some on line writing soon..also, keen to add your shelves to my collection!

New Car Deals said...

It is good sign that still your effort is continuing in a such a age.

owen hatherley said...

Having been lucky enough to see Steve's shelves, I can attest that they are thoroughly worth seeing.