Nine from the Speedbird bookshelf, Fall 2007

Along with everything else that I’ve been neglecting this travel-scarred year – little things like exercise, proper nutrition, my apartment, the cultural life of my city, and like that – I also haven’t had much time to tackle the towering stack of books that teeters at bedside. Not, mind you, that I’ve stopped buying them: no, they continue to accumulate. I just haven’t been able to spend any time reading them, thinking about what I’ve read, or putting what’s contained in them in the context of the other things I think I know.

Here are no fewer than nine books I’ve picked up since July, with all of which I have at best the kind of cursory acquaintance you pick up from a single rapid read-through. (I’ve spared you thoughts on the eight others.) I’m going to hit “publish” now, brew another pot of coffee, and try to spend some quality time with one or two of ’em; meantime, I thought you might be interested to see what’s furnishing my mental landscape during those moments I’m able to have one.

Deborah Curtis, Touching from a Distance
Mandatory after seeing Anton Corbijn’s luminous Control, long stretches of which are largely derived from it. It’s true that he’s not around to answer the various charges his widow Deborah lays against him, and just as true that he was clearly laboring under significant physical and psychological damage; I suppose, all Rashomon-like, that anyone not present never will know for sure just what transpired between the two of them. But the incidents related here have a certain ring of truth to them, and for anyone who grew up on Joy Division like I did, it’ll be tough coming to terms with just how much of a dick Ian Curtis turns out to be. It’s a slim volume, unforgiveably padded out with discography, lyrics and gig listings, but Touching from a Distance nevertheless strikes me as very much worth owning and reading if you’ve ever been moved by Curtis or his music.

Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism
Mike Davis is a crank. I know this and love him anyway. Here he’s curated a collection of essays from various contributors – including China Miéville (!) – on the archisocial depredations wrought by untrammeled glomocapital, perhaps best thought of as a companion volume to Keller Easterling’s Enduring Innocence. I’m hoping that this book will function as an overdue corrective to the largely uncritical embrace of the conditions it describes in many of the architectural circles I’m aware of.

This is particularly so as regards places like Las Vegas and Dubai, where a wide-open, anything-goes ethos, fused to the perceived necessity to outdo each successive spectacular project, and lubricated by seemingly bottomless reserves of cash, has given many young practices the chance of seeing even their more experimental work realized. As it happens, I know one or two things about the Faustian condition, and don’t have any room to sit smugly in judgment of those practices. Nevertheless, I’m glad that we’ve got a Davis to assemble voices like these and remind all and sundry that it’s Not necessarily OK, and that every architectural dream complex realized under such circumstances has a punishing human cost.

Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind
It seems that I re-immerse myself in the Gulag literature every year around this time, but there are only so many times you can return to Solzhenitsyn. (You know something’s wrong with you when you find yourself stumbling on familiar passages deep, deep in the second 900-page volume of The Gulag Archipelago.) The Ginzburg is something that I remember seeing cited in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread – a book I quite like, by the way – but had never stumbled across until now. A real find, and perfect for these ever-lengthening evenings. If, that is, you’re messed up in the same way I appear to be.

Holl, Pallasmaa, Pérez-Gómez, Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture
This is a new-ish and very beautiful edition of a 1994 collection of texts arguing that architects should devote more sustained attention to the sensual and experiential dimensions of their work. It amounts to a welcome “re-assertion of the human body as the locus of experience” in the face of architecture’s decade-and-a-half-long love affair with digitally-driven formal experimentation.

I have to admit that I was never a big fan of Holl until Nurri and I found ourselves completely blown away by our few hours walking around Helsinki’s Kiasma – a building which not merely epitomizes so many of the numinous qualities lauded in Questions, but demonstrates to my complete satisfaction that Holl is that rarest architectural thinker able to translate theory into coherent (and deeply rewarding) built space. There’s no question that our fondly remembered, moment-by-moment experience of that building winds up underwriting the assertions made here.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
My friend Shanthi recommended this to me over the summer. Knowing that – with the exception of a perverse and inexplicable fixation on baseball – Shanthi’s got unimpeachable taste, I’m more or less willing to follow her anywhere she goes. This and the Peace book below got packed for next week’s flight to Hong Kong. (UPDATE: Holy smoke, this isn’t the same David Mitchell that wrote Black Swan Green, is it? That was the first media property I was ever peer-Twittered into checking out – The Wire being another – and I loved it. I sure hope I wasn’t Blue Anted, but in a sense, so what if I was?)

David Peace, Tokyo Year Zero
Even though I wasn’t particularly fond of his debut Nineteen Seventy-Four – a fairly bald attempt at out-Ellroying Ellroy, without the master’s impeccable sense of proportion and timing – I’m once again willing to give Peace a chance. If for no other reason than that setting a noir amid the grotesqueries of Occupation Tokyo makes perfect sense to me – in fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t been tried before. At any rate, I find myself rather looking forward to this one.

Phaidon, Naoto Fukasawa and Tokujin Yoshioka Design
These are admittedly coffee-table books, but finding any extended consideration of my hero Fukasawa’s work in English has been impossible up until now. It’s particularly instructive to consider his oeuvre against that of his more sensual near-contemporary Yoshioka, whose work is less well-known outside of Japan.

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said I’m not that into Yoshioka, despite the delight I’ve taken from his Tofu lamp since splurging on it the very day I started to furnish my first Tokyo apartment. What the Phaidon book succeeded in doing was reminding me that I’ve actually been really stoked by a great many of his projects, from the A-POC Aoyama space to the Media Skin phone.

By contrast, Fukasawa seems to have lost his way these last few years – as awe-inspiring as I’ve always felt his work to be, I’ve been utterly unmoved by anything I’ve seen of his since about mid-2005, especially the furniture. That’s why I’m so glad that Naoto Fukasawa isn’t just a pretty picture book: there’s a detailed exploration of his gift for insight into the everyday and the thought process that made him, at the peak of his powers, the most important working designer in the world. In some ways, even, this is the book that Moggridge’s Designing Interactions should have been. Strong buy.

Reiser + Umemoto, Atlas of Novel Tectonics
I’ve been avoiding buying this book for a long time, primarily because it’s at least superficially the precise inverse of the Holl volume discussed above: Reiser + Umemoto have always struck me as devotees of the abstract diagram, architects whose work privileges the (real) intellectual pleasures of post-Deleuzian theory over anything that might make sense at the level of lived experience. Ironically or not, though, Atlas also happens to be a gorgeous instance of the bookmaker’s art – deeply pleasurable to hold, to look at, and to read – and its seductions were finally too much for me to resist.

In the end, I do think Reiser and Umemoto are probably a little too clever for their own good, although it’s undeniable that an honest appraisal of their thought awaits the experience of its manifestation in concrete form. (Or is it? Undeniable, I mean? One might equally validly make the case that the importance of a whole phylum of architectural talents, from Hugh Ferriss and Antonio Sant’Elia to Archigram straight through to Zaha Hadid, lies not nearly so much in their built work, if any, as in the images they produced.)

Can you tell that these guys leave me ambivalent, that they make me uneasy? That’s not such a bad thing. It’s salutary to not know just what you truly think and feel about a practice.

OK, that’ll do. Off now to brew, to read, and perchance to think.

3 responses to “Nine from the Speedbird bookshelf, Fall 2007”

  1. Objet says :

    Same David Mitchell as Black Swan Green. Read it next.

  2. muthacourage says :

    I’m reading a Perez-Gomez book now called Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge, it’s very good.

  3. Enrique Ramirez says :

    I’m actually reading Monk’s “An Aesthetic Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict.” I’m not too far along, so I can’t tell whether I like it or not.

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