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Owen Hatherley's books of the year

Robert Clayton, from 'Estate'

From erotic Polaroids to Soviet bus stops, Owen Hatherley picks his favourite architecture books of 2015

Sarah Entwistle, Please Send this Book to My Mother (Sternberg Press)

The strangest and most moving architectural book published in 2015 was this collection of materials found in the attic of Clive Entwistle, a British architect and industrial designer who practised mostly in the US. Given that Entwistle’s only major constructed design was the drum of Madison Square Garden atop New York’s destroyed Penn Station, this doesn’t sound promising, but wait til you see what’s in the attic. Intense, often rather silly texts (most often letters, to women) on sexuality, architecture and para-psychology are interspersed with blueprints for ideal cities, pornographic drawings, designs – including one extraordinary, Frei Otto-like proposal for Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral – photographs of many, many young women, photographs of the spikily bearded Entwistle in a variety of caddish poses, and a Polaroid of the architect being fellated. These, alongside the many references to creditors and debts, combined with the grandiose pronouncements on architecture, cities and civilisation, build up an image of modernism and masculinity that is so unnerving and apposite that I often wondered if it wasn’t an exquisitely produced hoax, which I don’t think it is.

Sarah Entwistle, 'Please Send this Book to My Mother' (Sternberg Press)

Sarah Entwistle, ‘Please Send this Book to My Mother’ (Sternberg Press)

Sharon Rotbard, White City Black City (Pluto Press)

This book by an Israeli architect and historian focuses on the construction of Tel Aviv’s ‘Bauhaus Style’ city centre in the 1930s, for which it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. Rotbard reads these mostly speculative white-walled apartment blocks (almost never by actual Bauhaus-trained designers) as a reaction against colonial architecture which ended up being the most colonial city building project imaginable, designed to circumvent, then to consume and subjugate the adjacent Palestinian city of Jaffa. This often ugly story is told with tact, subtlety and through some particularly seductive images of this Weissenhof-on-Levant.

Michael Klein and Andreas Rumpfhuber (editors), 'Modelling Vienna – Real Fictions in Social Housing' (Turia Kant)

Michael Klein and Andreas Rumpfhuber (editors), ‘Modelling Vienna – Real Fictions in Social Housing’ (Turia Kant)

Michael Klein and Andreas Rumpfhuber (editors), Modelling Vienna – Real Fictions in Social Housing (Turia Kant)

Vienna is one of the few capital cities to have escaped the worst of neoliberalism – half of its housing is still social, and half of that is owned by Vienna City Council, most famously the Gemeindebau public housing projects of 1920s/early 30s ‘Red Vienna’, with absolutely no Right to Buy whatsoever – and as a result, the city has among the most egalitarian, and best, housing of any capital city in the world. Perhaps perversely, Klein and Rumpfhuber’s book on this legacy, written via the projects of an imaginary architecture firm, suggests not complacency, but an extension of this project both socially – into genuine universality, beyond just EU citizens – and architecturally, through schemes that range from transformation of Red Vienna’s public spaces, to participatory live/work schemes for unused bits of the old infrastructure. Some of these proposals could have been rather more concrete, but in the usually depressing, attritional field of housing activism and housing history, this book exhibits a rare and welcome combination of defence and attack.

Richard Anderson, Russia – Modern Architectures in History (Reaktion)

This volume in Reaktion’s consistently excellent series of studies on Modernisms in specific countries is a long-overdue opening out from the usual confusion at how the country that built St Petersburg and pioneered Constructivism came to be such a world centre of kitsch. It begins, unexpectedly, with the ‘Russian revival’ school of the 1860s, and goes from there through Art Nouveau, Neoclassicism, Constructivism in both its ‘paper’, utopian version and the actually constructed kind, the various and eclectic experiments of Stalinist architecture, and then through the especially obscure byways of post-Stalin modernism and Postmodernism, ending with the present day, giving a sense of continuity in a history which is usually highly fragmented. Dozens of projects that are usually ignored are restored to prominence, but my personal favourite: BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway, a Brezhnev-era series of new towns strung along a continent-wide space, where each architectural element was co-ordinated, so a visitor would feel ‘he was in the region of BAM and nowhere else’. I’ll be applying for tickets.

Anna Bronovitskaya, Olga Kazakova and Liya Pavlova, Leonid Pavlov (Electa)

Selim Khan-Magomedov, Georgy Krutikov – the Flying City and Beyond (Tenov)

These two monographs are useful reading alongside Anderson. One is the first translation of the late veteran Soviet scholar Khan-Magomedov’s study of the designer of the notorious ‘flying city’, a seriously argued 1928 proposal for an airborne form of settlement as a solution to the housing crisis bequeathed by the bourgeois city. It gives weight both to this justly famous scheme and to Krutikov’s later career designing elegant, but comparatively earthbound stations for the Moscow Metro. Meanwhile, the monograph on Leonid Pavlov centres on a figure previously only known in the former USSR itself. Pavlov had a Zelig-like career spanning Constructivism, Stalinist baroque, Modernism and Soviet Pomo, but it’s those last two where he found his metier. These later buildings – office blocks for the computers of Gosplan and hallowed museums to the Lenin cult, respectively - are the exact opposite of the Totally Awesome Ruined Soviet Architecture genre – laconic, rational, imposing, with a hint of the eternal to them, and they’re beautifully presented in this fittingly slab-like volume.

Kateryna Mishchenko (editor), The Book of Kyiv (Medusa)

The School of Kyiv, ie this year’s Kyiv Biennale, was for me the most interesting architectural event of the year, a series of exhibitions and debates in a not particularly arty selection of buildings spread across the Ukrainian capital. These ranged from a disused Soviet shopping mall to a bizarre oligarchical art gallery in a district of fake belle epoque tenements, via Stalinist historical museums, factory canteens, a Palace of Young Pioneers and a former film processing complex. Whereas most English-language engagements with architecture in this part of the world focus on gazing wanly at beautiful ruins, the accompanying book is all about politics, money, context, specificity and dialectic. Accordingly, The Book of Kyiv works after the event as an exceptionally intelligent guide to a city whose revolutionary process is far from over.

Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (Verso)

According to Kristin Ross, the libertarian communist revolution that took over the city of Paris in 1871 is an event that still hasn’t been properly understood by historians. This short book tries to redress this by tracking its ideas about labour and urbanism from small radical circles in the working class quarters of Paris, and follows them after 1871 to Russia, Iceland and England, suggesting that its participants developed the idea of a kind of luxuriousness in craft and labour that could only be enjoyed on a collective basis, something which she argues has a certain contemporary relevance in the wake of Occupy, et al, and perhaps the internet craze for ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’.

Christopher Herwig, 'Soviet Bus Stops' (Fuel)

Christopher Herwig, ‘Soviet Bus Stops’ (Fuel)

Christopher Herwig, Soviet Bus Stops (Fuel)

Robert Clayton, Estate (Stay Free)

There has been a craze in the last couple of years for coffee table Brutalism porn, and its close sibling Soviet Architecture porn. It is compulsively enjoyable and shamefully exploitative in equal measure. The best of 2015’s batch was Christopher Herwig’s tribute to the bus stops of the USSR, through its obsessive focus and the sheer variety of its subject matter. Robert Clayton’s album Estate shares with Soviet Bus Stops nothing but a lot of concrete and an introduction by Jonathan Meades – in every other respect it’s an antidote to the ‘I Heart Brutalism’ genre, in its deliberately unspectacular documentation of the Lion Farm Estate in the West Midlands, shot in the early 1990s. In its downbeat way it pans from the deeply local to the panoramic, a picture of municipal modernism as an ordinary everyday rather than as utopia.

Main image from Robert Clayton, Estate.