Architects and Their Books

Architects and Their Books

In November Yale University Press will publish “Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books,” a co-publication with Urban Center Books that features the personal libraries of Stan Allen, Henry N. Cobb, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Steven Holl, Toshiko Mori, Michael Sorkin, Bernard Tschumi, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The book was first conceived as an exhibit, which is currently on view at the Municipal Art Society of New York until February 2010. The following essay is the story of how the author and her colleagues conceived of the project, found their architects, and then spent the rest of the time trying to track them down. unpackingmylibrary.org

It was a simple idea, one that people immediately got. As the proprietors of an architectural bookstore in Manhattan, we were thinking of ways to promote our field. We discussed architects who publish books and architects who curate book collections, and someone recalled an informal talk one particular architect gave about moving to New York with her books. And then it occurred to us: We should photograph architect’s libraries. Not Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library or Carrère & Hastings’s New York Public Library, but the personal book collections of architects.

It’s a comfort and a pleasure to live among books, and it’s endlessly fascinating to find out what other people are reading. We wanted only to photograph the books on the architects’ bookshelves, and we were thrilled at the thought of asking well-known figures, not to mention customers and former teachers, to open up their collections to us. And with a designer and photographer already on the staff of the bookstore, we could easily keep the project in-house.

From the outset, everyone was as excited as we were about the idea, including the architects. Many knew us and were probably inclined to be amenable, but some also felt it was a worthy undertaking they could later share with students. We started by thinking of architects we knew or admired, or who we thought probably had interesting book collections. Looking back at an early list of candidates, there isn’t much rhyme or reason to the selections. Once we instituted a little more order into the process, we came up with a good cross-section of the discipline, people whose own work had been published and who were active as scholars, writers, and educators.

Architects and Their Books

Once we had our A-list of architects, and their commitment to participate, it all became a little less simple. The architects had to be present when the photographer came to click away and climb on furniture to view high shelves, but architects are busy people. Once the scheduling came together, some gave personal tours of their libraries; others wandered in and out meeting with students; and still others offered free reign to roam about their studios and homes. One architect had an office in a small room with a cushy orange sofa, a green astro-turf floor, and a very long table where he sat at the head, as though presiding over the Last Supper. Many had impossibly exquisite arrangements of artifacts, books, furniture—everything perfect down to the last detail.

When the photography was complete and while we were figuring out how to display a huge number of digital images of book spines, Yale University Press got wind of the project and decided to release it as a book. This lent a more serious dimension to what we were doing. We needed to come up with ideas for additional content (i.e. writing), and we soon discovered just how independent-minded architects really are. First came our request for a recommended reading list of ten books, but some strongly resisted keeping the number firmly at ten. Then we asked each of them to write a short piece about book collecting; however, these elicited such a wide range of responses that we finally decided to conduct interviews-and our scheduling woes began once again.

They were busy collecting awards, finishing high-profile competitions, teaching, cutting ribbons, and presiding over the opening of major new buildings. But we suspected that maybe they were just out partying and celebrating while ignoring our pleas for lists and essays. In truth, they all went to great lengths to help us with this project, often polishing off some writing on an overnight flight or in the middle of a vacation. The final piece for the book arrived by email from the Caribbean the day before the manuscript was due to the publisher.

Top: Peter Eisenman sitting in his home library. Bottom: Michael Graves’s Home Library.

Jo Steffens is director of Urban Center Books and editor of Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York City. ...read more

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