Monday, December 07, 2009

Book Review: Unpacking My Library

Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books edited by Jo Steffens
Yale University Press, 2009
Hardcover, 192 pages

The photographs of twelve famous architects' bookshelves collected here remind me of visits to apartments and offices when my eyes would linger over the books arranged on shelves, distracted from the task at hand, be it socializing or work. Finding myself with my head cocked 90-degrees to read the bindings would snap me out of my perpetual gaze. This book makes me realize I'm not alone. Of course it is much more than photos of bookshelves for bibliophiles to run their fingers over the books of other bibliophiles. It is a testament to the importance of books in many ways: in communicating ideas, in influencing the work of architects, in expressing an individual's thoughts and experiences. The book and the exhibition it is based around -- Unpacking My Library, at Urban Center Books in New York City -- also mark a time when the future of books is uncertain, when digital means of sharing information have taken hold with the rise of handheld devices and electronic paper.
The title of each comes from an essay by Walter Benjamin, in which he talks about the act of book collecting, from browsing and purchasing to unpacking and arranging. This word, collecting, stays with the reader moving from one architect to another; each features photos of parts of their bookshelves, as well as statistics on the bookcases (dimensions, manufacturer, quantity) an interview, and a list of ten favorite books. Certainly the interviews give some insight into the role of books in each architect's practice, but it is the photos and the stats that say the most. So what do they say? The statistics tell us that most architects build custom shelves, some mirroring the designer's tastes (the double-column supports in Michael Graves' library) but most slight variations on standard designs. I particularly liked the horizontal slots in Peter Eisenman's wall of books, which allowed for certain titles to lay flat. (Unfortunately a close-up photo did not illuminate what titles receive such a distinction.) The photographs tell us not only what each architect reads but also how they arrange them. Many are thematic but not strictly ordered otherwise, though Steven Holl's office library is strictly alphabetized and the books in the office of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien feature various colors and shapes of stickers on the bindings for organization, as well as an organizational chart that would make any OCD bibliophile jealous. These snapshots reveal habits that have accrued over time, becoming an organic reflection of the individual or couple and therefore more illuminating than the top ten lists provided.
Nevertheless the twelve architects' top ten books reveal something about how the various architects relate to each other. For example, a number of books appear repeatedly, such as Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, something by or about Le Corbusier, and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. These similarities say something about age, but they also hint at the fact that most architects don't read architecture books, at least exclusively. The last book I read before I cracked this one was a mystery book, and it made me want to read more of them. Influence comes from many places, from children's books to philosophy, as is documented here. I'm glad for the sharing in this book, be it recommended books or brief glimpses at large collections. They all have the opportunity to influence those flipping through this book on books.

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