Building Books:  Why architects write as well as draw.

Le Corbusier - Architect, urbanist and writer

Le Corbusier - Architect, urbanist and writer

" Building a pyramid is an insignificant task to writing a book - Charles Darwin."

INSIGHT BY RICHARD VOSS

Charles Darwin wrote these words in a letter to the naturalist Dr. John Richardson. Darwin continued that, “I had no idea what a hard-working wretch an author even on the humblest scale must be." I was interested in Darwin's honesty and his vexation about the writing process. So why would an architect write a book when, in Darwin’s words, authorship is so challenging? After completing my first built project, I wondered whether I might also write a book. It never happened as I prioritised designing buildings and assisting delivery on site.

The architectural process is complex. I suggest that this complex process can be compared to the writing process. Design can be a lonely vocation at the beginning of a project when you are co-creating the initial brief. However, as the project develops a myriad of individuals become involved, from clients and consultants to contractors and specialist suppliers. The book writing process is also highly collaborative. Any decent biographical study will usually start with the ‘acknowledgements.’ If you look at the back of a Jamie Oliver cookbook you will see a vast array of friends, colleagues and supporters. These books, as with building projects, would not occur without the input of a support team.

I believe architects write for three fundamental reasons. Firstly, they write to further their own understanding of the built environment. Secondly, they write to propagate their theses on how cities and buildings should be designed. Thirdly, they write books to promote their own unique architectural approach and the thought processes involved.

“Architecture is like writing. You have to edit it over and over so it looks effortless.” - Zaha Hadid, Architect.

“Architecture is like writing. You have to edit it over and over so it looks effortless.” - Zaha Hadid, Architect.

Examples of Contextual Writing

There are many examples of architects’ books being significant in architectural history. They include Hermann Muthesius’s Das Englische Haus, Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York.

The Austrian architect Camillo Sitte explored the various urban townscapes of Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In 1889 these spatial findings were published in the City Planning According to Artistic Principles. Sitte used plan diagrams to show the fundamental principles of what I would term ‘urban enclosure.” This influence of this architect's book can be seen today in some of the most successful urban spaces of Europe. 

In more recent times, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, wrote Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. Hitherto unnoticed details are highlighted in this book, as Venturi et al analyse Las Vegas from the signage of its casinos to its parking lots. The authors evaluate the effects of the mass use of the automobile on Las Vegas. The book is enriched with contemporary photographs as well as plans, diagrams and sketches that show the unique qualities of Las Vegas.

Manifesto Texts

What about architects who seek to change the profession by the way they write? Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, which was translated awkwardly into Towards a New Architecture, was published in 1924. He furnishes the reader with a mélange of sketches, diagrams, advertisements, photographs, historical data – and very powerful words. This book is a call to arms for all forms of design to embrace a new age of industrialisation.

Le Corbusier rejects the design excesses of the previous belle epoch. Each of his carefully executed villas (‘machines for living’) is photographed with the watermark of his own Voisin automobile – a symbol of international modernity.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Le Corbusier's book is the use of industrial silos, automobiles, ocean liners and aeroplanes to illustrate his thinking on his new architecture. Le Corbusier praises the engineers who have embraced new technology to produce efficient and honest construction. He advocates that architects must re-evaluate their design approach and “define a new artistic ideal.” 

"We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves." - Jane Jacobs, Architectural Writer.

"We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves." - Jane Jacobs, Architectural Writer.

Unique Architectural Approaches

English Victorian Architect, Augustus Pugin’s first manifesto book, Contrasts, was published in 1836. It advocated urban and social reform in the context of increasing industrialisation and its effects on poverty. Pugin also wrote the influential True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture in 1841. Augustus Pugin was passionate about his architecture and its contribution to society. He was tireless in his architectural output and promulgated his views on the virtues of an Arts and Crafts approach.

Other architects embraced Pugin’s ideals. Younger architects, such as George Gilbert Scott, started to produce successful ecclesial architecture as a truer realisation of Pugin’s ideals than Pugin himself. An example of this is the church of St Giles in Camberwell, London. Books raised Pugin’s profile and the commissions rolled in. For an architect who died in 1852 his work is surprisingly global. Pugin’s wonderful Old St Stephen’s Church in Brisbane, Australia, is well worth a visit.

More recently, renowned architects such as Sir David Adjaye, Adam Caruso and Peter Zumthor have published architectural books that define their visions. Adjaye extensively researched and photographed African capital cities over ten years, which resulted in his African Metropolitan Architecture (2011). He later admitted, after completion of the book, that he was able through his research to be more explicit about his concerns and the way his studio should approach them.

Le Corbusier - Writer and Architect of "Vers Une Architectur", 1924. (Photography by Andre Villers).

Le Corbusier - Writer and Architect of "Vers Une Architectur", 1924. (Photography by Andre Villers).

Summary 

I believe that many of the most influential architects have been those who completed books as well as buildings. These literary works were an opportunity to hone their architectural theory and differentiate themselves from other practitioners.

We have seen that architects write books for three reasons. They use writing about the built environment to help formulate their own approach to architecture. They also use authorship to pontificate on how other architects should practice. Finally, architects use their own books to differentiate and explain their own architectural process.

A life in the arts, science, professions or military is often bookended with an autobiographic reflection. Conversely, the commencement of a career is frequently kick-started by a dissertation. Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas published his classic Delirious New York in 1978 not long after his studio OMA was founded. Although Charles Darwin was not an architect, he used writing to become the architect of new theories. Darwin’s letter to Richardson elucidates his frustration with the writing process. The book he was writing at the time was The Journal of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle, which launched Darwin’s trailblazing career.

The books written by architects over the years would form an impressive library. Perhaps the architects who write can reach out to all that have not yet visited their buildings?

Note:

African Metropolitan Architecture, by David Adjaye (Edited by Peter Allison), is published by Rizzoli.

Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, is published by The MIT Press.

Towards a New Architecture, by Le Corbusier, is published by Dover Architecture.