Tagged: riba bookshop

10 Novels About Architecture

Architecture in Fiction

…or a respite from that JCT

Quite often an architect will approach the bookshop till with an armful of books about contractual procedures and CDM regulations and a look of resignation.  Placing the books on the counter with a heavy thud and a nostalgic smile, we’ll hear the now familiar phrase “I’m only buying boring books today, I’m afraid”.

Beyond the maze of planning applications, endless varieties of contract administration forms and keeping up with the latest change in Building Regulation Part L, exists a world of architecture fiction that explores ideas, philosophies, dreams and fears that lurk behind the facades of buildings.  These are some of the books that spur our imaginations, and set us free to explore the often ignored psychological depths of the empty space between four walls, the symbolic meaning of a glass façade, or the power struggles inside an imposing concrete structure.

We’ve put together a fiction list of books written by architects, about architects, or where the architecture becomes a central character of the story, that we hope will persuade you to treat yourself to a “non-boring” book next time you find yourself browsing through our building contract shelf.

lesabendioLesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel is an intergalactic utopian fable that takes place in Pallas, an asteroid where its worm-like shaped inhabitants enjoy a quiet, orderly life, dedicating their time to artistic pursuits and redesigning the asteroid’s interiors into extraordinary architectural patterns, infused with music and lighting.  The sensory contemplative existence of the Palladian creatures gets interrupted when visionary engineer Lesabéndio hatches a plan to build a 44 mile high tower to join the two sides of the double asteroid.

Paul Scheerbart was a writer and visionary proponent of glass architecture, whose architectural fables were admired by architects Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius, and Hans Scharoun, as well as by influential thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Gerschom Scholem.  After the now out of print The Grey Cloth: A Novel on Glass Architecture, Lesabéndio is Scheerbart’s most widely acclaimed work.

 The Care of Wooden floorsNumber two on our list is The Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles.  It tells the story of a friendship between Oskar, a minimalist music composer best known for his “Variations on Train Timetables”, and an old university friend, whose name we never get to find out.  When Oskar has to travel to America to finalise his divorce proceedings, he leaves the care of his flat and his two cats in the hands of his trusted friend. Although Oskar remains absent from the story throughout the book, we get to know him intimately through descriptions of his apartment, and the carefully composed notes with care instructions left around his home. As we read his friend’s narration over the next eight days, we gradually start to learn about Oskar’s neurotic obsession with perfection and neatness.  As the days pass, a series of comic domestic accidents snowball into a chain of catastrophes that threaten to dismantle Oskar’s friendship, while the rest of his life falls apart elsewhere.


The City and the CityThe City and the City by China Miéville is a classic detective noir thriller that takes place in a familiar and simultaneously surreal setting.  Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad police unit of Beszel is called to investigate the murder of a woman.  The city’s most unusual characteristic is that it  shares the same topographical space as the city of UI Qoma.  Although the citizens of both cities converge every day routinely, it is against the law to acknowledge each other’s existence.  If a citizen accidentally makes contact with someone from the other city, he has to learn to “unsee” them to avoid punishment.  As Inspector Borlú delves deeper into his police investigation, he’ll find himself having to cross the perilous physical and psychic boundaries of these two cultures separated by a shared space.

High RiseJ.G. Ballard’s classic High Rise takes us into the belly of a respectable city tower block where minor disputes amongst the residents start escalating until they reach disproportionate heights.  Civility and social order gradually degenerate into savagery when neighbours start organising themselves into several rival camps, and life in the tower block regresses into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ type of society.  One of the central characters of the story is the building’s architect Anthony Royal who, believing in the power of architecture to organise and shape societies, tries unsuccessfully to rule the tower block from his penthouse apartment.  This is one of Ballard’s most chilling and uncomfortable dystopias that uses architecture as a metaphor of how we construct societies, and how fragile those social structures are.

Dreams in the Witch HouseFrom the hand of the master of metaphysical horror, number five on our list is H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. In this short story we meet mathematics student Walter Gilman.  When he moves into an attic room of unusual and nearly physically impossible geometrical characteristics, Gilman becomes increasingly bewitched by the possibility of travelling to other dimensions with the help of structures of particular spatial proportions.

The Dreams in the Witch House is one of the finest examples of the use of architectural spaces to create unearthly worlds and disturbing psychological perceptions of unreality.

Next Friday we’ll publish the five remaining titles on our architecture in fiction list. Since we  know that most of you have come across it countless times already, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead won’t be on it.  If you’d like to find out how our selection ends, keep an eye on our blog.  In the meantime, if we’ve succeeded in stirring your curiosity, you can find all of today’s list in our shop at 66 Portland Place and also on our website.

Architecture of Change

Ethics in Architecture 6

Thank you to all that came to the RIBA Bookshop and took part in the discussion about Ethics and the business of architecture.

Architect and author Sumita Sinha invited Nabeel Hamdi and Anthony Powis to engage with the public in a conversation about the ethical dilemmas that architects face today.

In the light of recent reports about the death of over 1000 migrant workers involved in construction projects for the Qatar World Cup, questions such as who is responsible for addressing such issues are currently under scrutiny.  Can architects influence the construction process of their designs and ensure that all individuals involved in the project are protected and fairly treated? How much should architects compromise when facing a client with opposing ethical values? How can architects challenge cultural conventions that are dangerous to our health and/or the environment? Is it true that ethics gets in the way of good business?  These are some of the open ended topics of the evening that, far from giving any definitive answers, served to raise awareness and open a discussion about responsibility and the power to affect change.

If you’d like to keep informed of any future events in the RIBA Bookshop, you can write me an e-mail here.

Second Nature Urban Agriculture

Bookshop Talk, Tuesday 2nd December 6:30 – 8:30, RIBA Bookshop, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD

The roof kitchen garden at Riba's headquarters in Portland Place produces herbs and vegetables for the restaurant on the first floor.

The roof kitchen garden at Riba’s headquarters in Portland Place produces herbs and vegetables for the restaurant on the first floor.

Ten years on from the Continuous Productive Urban Landscape (CPUL City) concept, Andre Viljoen and Katrin Bohn continue their urban agriculture research with their recent publication Second Nature Urban Agriculture. The book updates the authors’ concept for introducing productive urban landscapes, including urban agriculture, into cities as essential elements of sustainable urban infrastructure.  Ever since it was first introduced, the concept has had a profound effect on thinking about urban design and the nature of the contemporary city.  Driven by the imperatives of climate change mitigation, changing economics, demographics and resource supply, the ideas embodied within the CPUL concept have entered international urban design discourse.  This new book reviews recent research and projects on the subject and presents a toolkit of actions aimed at making urban agriculture happen.

Why did Second Nature Urban Agriculture need to be written?

People have a desire for open, green and convivial spaces. And they have a desire for good and healthy food as well as a beautiful, functioning and equitable environment. We believe that in order to answer these desires for space and food, cities and we as citizens need to address the way we occupy space. And if the relationship of our cities to their foods is changing, we believe, that this change can be designed for.

For example, increasing rates of urbanisation, combined with population growth and rising living standards are placing an ever greater pressure on global resources. These conditions necessitate a rethinking of the city and of urban design. Business as usual is an untenable strategy, especially if society is not to become increasingly inequitable. Food and food systems play a major role in maintaining the viability of cities and within this urban agriculture has a significant role to play when developing more sustainable and desirable urban landscapes. (A. Viljoen & K. Bohn)

Andre Viljoen; Cany Ash from Ash Sakula Architects; Ben Reynolds, network co-ordinator at Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming) will engage in a table top discussion about urban food production, presented by former RIBA president Angela Brady and moderated by Luc Sanciaume who is currently completing his Part 1 in Architecture at Westminster University.  Members of the audience are welcome to participate in the debate.

This event is open to all, but due to limited space availability prior booking is advised.  If you’d like to attend please rsvp to: eva.sandoval@ribabookshops.com

The Book is available from our website at £34.99

Morley von Stenberg: Stairs

Stairs is the theme of our latest exhibition at the RIBA Bookshop, which on this occasion presents the work of architectural photographer Morley von Stenberg. Initially trained as an architect, Morley established himself as one of UK’s leading architectural photographers through his contributions to architectural publications, such as the highly acclaimed monograph Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress by John Allan and The Modern Movement in Britain by Alan Powers, which traces the history and development of modern architecture in the UK.  As well as being commissioned to work on a vast array of landmark buildings, such us the Terminal 5, the Stirling Prize winning Maggie Centre for Richard Rogers, and the Islamic Museum in Doha for I.M. Pei,  he is also the official portrait photographer for RIBA’s annual Gold Medal Award winners.

The strength of the photographer’s images lies in his ability to show us unconventional and often surprising views of well known architectural interiors.  He is able to draw out the flat geometrical pattern compositions, which tend to remain unseen when standing in one of these familiar spaces.  Morley seems to experiment with different kinds of optical effects, and changes his approach towards the architecture, depending on the quality he wants to extract from it.  The way he has captured the staircases inside Lubetkin’s Six Pillars and ShedKm’s Matchworks reminds me of the work of James Turrell in the way in which he fuses light, shadow, colour and geometry.  Another unexpected turn in the photographer’s choice of imagery is the  combination of such opposing architectural styles as AB Rogers’ ultramodern design for Emperor Moth’s Fashion House, and the traditional and exquisitely ornamented grandeur of George Gilbert Scott’s staircase at the St Pancras Hotel.  In both instances we are challenged to surrender to a feeling of disorientation so that our eyes can travel freely through these Escher like landscapes.

For me, one of the most revelatory moments while hanging this exhibition, was to witness a conversation between Morley and one of the architects involved in the refurbishment of Reginald Blomfield’s Café Royal in Piccadilly.  It was hearing the architect express her surprise at seeing the staircase she knew so intimately, after working on the refurbishment project for over a year, portrayed so differently to how she understood it, that made me rethink the relationship between the architect’s and the photographer’s vision.  Shame we couldn’t ask Blomfield or Lubetkin about their opinion.

The exhibition will continue until the end of December, and can be visited during the bookshop’s opening hours.  For more information about commissions or purchasing prints, please contact Morley directly by following the links to his website.

ISOKON: Spies, Writers and Artists

lawn road flatsHave you ever wondered what Soviet secret agents Arnold Deutsch and Melita Norwood, Bauhaus exiles Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and a number of artists, and writers such as Henry Moore, Nicholas Monsarrat and Aghata Christie have got in common? Neither have I. Read on if you’d like to find out.
This week, our latest book recommendation comes from one of our most faithful supporters, Katherine Pelton. This avid reader has a passion for urban planning, and visits the bookshop nearly every week searching for new titles to add to her extensive library. Her latest find is a quirky and unusual biography of one of London’s most important modernist buildings:
“The Lawn Road Flats or Isokon building, a celebrated structure of the Modern Movement by architect Wells Coates, is often included in writings about the architect, architectural theory or buildings of the period. ‘The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists’ by David Burke (£25) is a rare glimpse into the life of the building. From the first inhabitants through to the aftermath of the Second World War, this book describes everything from complaints about the quality of flats, through to the intrigue and glamour that surrounded them. It provides a snap shot into what it was like to live there and is a reminder that we cannot always be sure of who our neighbours really are! K.P.”