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Editorial: reading around it before reading inside it

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The AR considers the reciprocal and multifarious relationships between books and buildings 

Seventeen times in his lifetime and always during the winter, the Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky returned to Venice. Consumed by the city’s unique atmosphere of ‘damp oxygen, coffee and prayers’, he captured its enigmatic magnificence in Watermark, written in 1989. This concise but perfectly formed and utterly architectural essay on transience and beauty is both a lesson on how to observe, and an invitation to meander in the cold, narrow streets of a city where we are condemned to only ever turn sideways.

Through fragments, aromas and images, Brodsky’s evocative portrait exposes a new Venice. It changed my perception of a city I had only ever visited in early summer, in the hectic days of Biennale openings. Standing ankle-deep in pitch-black water, often disappearing in thick fog, Brodsky’s Venice has a different character altogether. As sentences unfold, colour and texture dissipate, supplanted by drapery, mirrors and dust. Books have the power to alter our perceptions of the places we think we know. 

‘Architects have reimagined themselves as authors to communicate their ideas, elevate their status to that of intellectuals rather than builders’

It is through ‘intense and fragile’ discoveries that we get to know a place, believes Roland Barthes, ‘by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience’. But the boundaries between paper and reality blur. Transported to a world both familiar and estranged, the reader experiences dislocation when absorbed in the texts of Barthes or Brodsky. Beyond physical space, journeys also occur on the surface of the page, between the lines and in a book’s thickness. The space of text, Hannah Gregory argues, offers temporary enclosure away from the outside world. 

In the pages of the AR, buildings old and new are chosen as departure points from which to elaborate arguments and broader narratives that echo wider social, political and ecological frames of reference. If it can be done with buildings, it can be done with books. Architectural storytelling involves commentary, criticism and culture. Creative writing even makes an appearance – in the same way that unbuilt and speculative projects broaden the scope of what is imaginable, fiction opens the door to new interpretations.

Through the ages, books have shaped architectural discourse and culture at least as much as buildings have. From manifestos to monographs to memoirs, architects have reimagined themselves as authors to communicate their ideas, elevate their status to that of intellectuals rather than builders, and promote their work to the world. Taking us back to the beginning with Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture, André Tavares retraces a chronology of books made by architects (and some oversized egos) for other architects, patrons and the public.

The untranslatable Japanese concept of tsundoku describes the act of buying books and letting them pile up without reading them. Books, with all the ideas they contain, have a powerful ability to conjure a sense of intimacy and comfort, with their promise of engaging yet imaginary conversations with a cast of invented characters and erudite interlocutors. Swiss publisher Lars Müller wouldn’t approve. Interviewing him for this issue, he told me the acquisition of a book requires a dual investment: the first, immediate one, is the financial purchase of the physical object, but the second, more demanding one, is the investment in time – the promise that the book will indeed be read. 

The act of reading involves rituals, both solitary and collective. In the keynote, Maarten Delbeke and Emma Letizia Jones argue that libraries are ‘temples of ignorance’ rather than ‘temples of knowledge’, constantly reminding us of all that we don’t know. Today’s intensely accelerated digital age is powered by relentless news releases, spewing out an overwhelming tide of material and information. Delving into atlases and archives, Davide Tommaso Ferrando assesses the new-found relevance of forgotten images, while Irma Boom asserts that the book is more relevant than ever as it provides context and connects the otherwise ‘loose bits’ we store on our phones and computers. 

With the proliferation of constantly manipulated material and alternative facts, a rigorous editorial approach is needed now more than ever – to select projects, filter information, collaborate with writers, distil ideas and disseminate architectural narratives. Interrogating the state of architecture is always an editorial project and nowhere is this better expressed than in a bound, finite, physical object designed to suggest rhythm and structure while ensuring safe passage through the worlds within.

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today