RIBA President Simon Allford shares his love of browsing bookshops and his recommended reading list
Have you ever had the pleasure of visiting the RIBA bookshop in person?
As happy as I am to browse websites for my online purchases, with books, as with clothes, one needs to touch, smell and ‘wear’ a book. Too many books are, of course, too heavy to be worn by anything but a coffee table! For this reason, I still harbour a fondness for pocket books that I can dip into – and bookshops that stock them.
On my most recent visit to the RIBA bookshop, I enjoyed a great conversation with the manager, met two old friends and reacquainted myself with some favourite books – some of which I hadn’t held in my hands for quite some time. These kind of felicitous chance encounters are what makes a physical bookshop so much more special.
Below are some of my best-loved architecture books, each of which I admire for different reasons.
There is no order to the list beyond the sequence in which I found them. Most of them are available from the RIBA Bookshop online or in store.
1. Andrea Palladio, The Four Books on Architecture
The master architect and builder in his own words – creating a classical vernacular of poetry addressing practicality.
2. Detlef Mertins, Mies
Like Palladio, Mies also introduced a whole new architectural vocabulary. Recently I have been reading Mies’ own words also – but he was a man of so few. This tome proves Ludwig Mies van de Rohe’s enduring legacy and relevance. For me he was the inventor of 20th-century vernacular. His work stands the test of time.
(Out of print at the time of writing, for information on current availability email: email@example.com)
3. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan
This text entertains. It is, however, the fantastical drawings by the supremely talented, personable and engaging Madelon Vriesendorp that makes the book.
4. Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History
I recently discovered, through a flurry of emails with the author, Corringham in Craven Hill Gardens. The block of flats in Bayswater by the young Frampton inspired me to re-read this excellent history.
5. El Croquis monograph series
Whether they are a much loved architect or a practice as yet undiscovered by you, either way, the representation of other professionals and their architectural work – in interviews, studies of process, models and architectural photography – is always a delight. This leading Spanish publication, which captures that joy of discovery, is published six times a year.
6. Peter Sulzer, Jean Prouvé – Complete Works
A hero of mine for many years, Prouvé was a maker-architect: economical, elegant and committed to improving the human condition.
7. Le Corbusier, A Little House
A pocket book from Corb that is manifesto light. It is a tale of a mother and son and a house with a view.
8. Le Corbusier, The Modulor and Modulor 2
I love Le Corbusier’s use of the six-foot-tall English detective as the ideal by which to define an anthropomorphic system of proportion. I have never actually believed in it . . . but the books are so beautiful.
9. Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson, The World of Charles and Ray Eames
The work of these two geniuses across all forms of design brings a West Coast sensibility to what can at times seem to be a somewhat pompous European world.
10. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, Freedom of Use
Another pocket book, in this case a write up of a 2015 Harvard lecture, by another husband and wife team, Lacaton and Vassal.
I had the pleasure of introducing Anne Lacaton’s keynote lecture at the RIBA Smart Practice Conference: Stepping up to the Climate Challenge in September 2021.
Lacaton’s story of their work was a poignant reminder that architecture as a social art can – and must – address the carbon challenge, and the challenge of constructing a delightful new model of domestic life.
11. Pinakothek der Moderne, Lina Bo Bardi 100: Brazil’s Alternative Path to Modernism
An architect of style, wit and humanity, whose works are a brilliant illustration of economy and delight. This publication was issued alongside an exhibition at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne in 2014 to mark the centenary of Lina Bo Bardi’s birth.
12. Pitiot et al, Eileen Gray, Designer and Architect
I discovered modern architecture for myself when leaving school; I worked as a waiter in the south of France. It was there that I stumbled upon Gray’s E. 1027 House (of which I knew nothing) – in a state of magnificent decay – but the vision and the weather ensured it made lasting impression upon me.
Environmental Design Essentials
For my favourite speculations on the design philosophy behind the imperative that is environmental design, I revert to Buckminster Fuller’s and Stewart Brand’s classic books. But now we need numbers, to set targets, to learn from exemplars in use and understand construction, so I have recommended two further more current books that provide guides for action.
13. Buckminster Fuller, An Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth
The brilliant title says it all. Thereafter it is simultaneously opaque and transparent – just like the man himself.
(For information on current availability, email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
14. Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built
Looks at how buildings operate through the dimension of time as well as space, as they are adapted to meet the needs of their occupants. Urges architects to engage with the temporal as well as the spatial.
(For information on current availability, email: email@example.com)
15. Simon Sturgis, Targeting Zero: Embodied and Whole Life Carbon Explained
Explains the concepts of embodied and whole life carbon to give architects the tools to take the lead in redefining how buildings are designed to achieve a low carbon future.
16. Judit Kimpian, Hattie Hartman and Sofie Pelsmakers, Energy/People/ Buildings: Making Sustainable Buildings Work
A book for everyone who wants to better understand how energy is used in building and how to drive down operational energy use.
Special mentions …
A few final recommendations, which may now only be available second hand, include:
- Osbert Lancaster’s Pillar to Post: the Pocket Lamp of Architecture: Another brilliant pocket sized masterpiece and one of many that he wrote and illustrated.
- AJ Liebling’s Chicago, the Second City with illustrations by Saul Steinberg: Steinberg was another master draughtsman and had considerable wit. There are too many books of his to choose from, but I will go for this one, not written by, but illustrated by him.
- Salvatore Licitra et al, Gio Ponti: While I’m not keen on oversized books, rules are there to be broken . . . This volume, published by Taschen, is huge, but Ponti was a prolific genius and every page is a joy.
A Closing Quirky Read
17. Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual
These Tales of life in a Parisian apartment block always evoke for me a world where filmmaker Jacques Tati coincides with Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline books, in a stage-set not dissimilar to that wonderful apartment block Auguste Perret designed at 25 bis rue Benjamin Franklin.
On another day all these books could be replaced by other favourites – but that is the pleasure of making a current list!
If you want to buy any of the books featured here, you can shop the collection on the RIBA Books site.