Nobody reads about architecture anymore. The great literature on architecture, both past and present, mostly goes unread now, if it ever was. The extensive rise of glossy publishing, and more recently social media, has put paid to the long read, or even the short one.
This is a huge loss in two ways; it marginalises ideas, emphasising only the visual, and worse, almost all those glossy images are externals. The key element in this loss is the denial of space, and creating space is at the heart of architecture.
An understanding of space is almost totally reliant on ideas conveyed in text and drawings, particularly sections, ideas that can never be carried in photos alone. Text is crucial in explaining how architects think about and design spaces, and this discussion is at the very centre of the architectural literature canon (e.g. S Giedion, Space Time and Architecture 1941, B Zevi, Architecture as Space 1957, G Bachelard The Poetics of Space 1964)
Images rarely reference spaces; it is far easier to photograph the external form of a building than the internals, photos only capture the edges and boundaries, and rarely the spatial quality. That’s why more than 90 percent of images on social media are externals. Brutalism is one popular meme without a single interior.
This emphasis on the container at the expense of the contained is central to understanding how glib architectural theory has become. Some, like Klaus Herdeg in his ground-breaking book The Decorated Diagram, believe that the rot set in at the beginning of post-war modernism. But the malaise accelerated with rise of the mass printed and widely circulated books devoted to architectural imagery in the 1980’s.
These thoughts on the demise of reading are prompted by the recent passing of Charles Jencks, a great architectural writer and theorist who nevertheless contributed more than any other to the rise of the hugely entertaining ‘picture-book’ where the captions carried more than the text. Every architect knows The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, released in 1977 and running to seven editions, as well some of the 20 topically themed books with titles including Adhocism, Bizarre architecture, Symbolic architecture, Hetero-Architecture, Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture, Late-Modern architecture and not least The Architecture of the Jumping Universe.
Jencks, American-born and English-based, did much to popularize the literary theory ideas of post-modernism applied to architecture, and to espouse the ever-expanding forms that the late 20th century had brought forth, but it was almost exclusively as external imagery, often reduced to graphics or 2D symbols. The books were often lightweight, concerned with the pictorial, the novel, the cartoonish, the unusual and the downright strange. One book written 20 ways.
But Jencks had earlier published in 1973 a far more significant book called Modern Movements in Architecture. Jencks argued that there was no singular modernism, but rather a series of different strands interwoven with complex and sometimes separate ideas on what a modern building could be. The book was an outstanding piece of scholarship and for me stands as one of the great books on architecture, a serious study of the diversity of modernist space.
This book was based on his doctorate at University College London under Reyner Banham, the leading architectural writer from whom Jencks drew two things: the rigor of architectural discourse, to be expounded in clear and entertaining writing. This was a period of great urbanist ideas, found in turgid writing from the likes of Aldo Rossi, the Krier brothers and particularly Demetri Porphyrios. Unreadable, they turned many students away. Jencks was the antidote, and before him Banham.
Banham could write elegantly and engagingly about ideas and make them easily accessible. He wrote three seminal books which every architect and student should read, not just look at. The first is Theory and Design in The First Machine Age, examining the various ideas that were in the earliest part of modernism, which Jencks' expanded. The second is The Architecture of The Well-Tempered Environment, a history of the technologies that influenced the form and design of modern interiors, from lifts to telephones to electricity, to air conditioning and lighting. The third is Los Angeles: City of The Four Ecologies, applying emerging ideas of ecological systems to an urban environment. LA was reviled as suburban sprawl, but Banham could see patterns emerging of how cities of the future would be developed.
Each of these three books are fundamental to understanding architecture as space. The first looks at modernism, with wit and considerable elegance, as a logical development of exterior form following the inherent functionality of the interior. This second analyses how the design of interiors was shaped by emerging technologies in the 19th and 20th Century, essential reading to understand current sustainable design in buildings. And the third, ostensibly about urban design, is actually about the experience of late modern spaces that many ignored, such as cloverleaf freeways and streets under giant signage, applying ecological thinking to these spaces.
There is a continuity here: Banham studied under Sigfried Giedion and Nicholas Pevsner, great early 20th C writers, and passed that tradition on to Jencks, who adapted it for the commodified late 20th C. For all the faults of the illustrated compendiums, his writing about his own landscape architecture, and particularly the Maggie’s Centres that he initiated for cancer care, designed by the world’s starchitects, saw a return to form in his writing, a wrongful pun as they are primarily about space.
If you have a hankering to read good architectural writing, even if in short pieces, the best place to find it is on Rachael Bernstone’s The Drilldown, a weekly gathering of the best writing from around the world, by one of Australia’s best writers and observers of architecture.
Finally, in spite of all these great books, and a lifetime reading, when people ask if I've read all the books in my modest library, I reply, only half-jokingly, "I'm an architect, so I just look at the pictures”.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D.