- Text by Peter Buchanan
Despite the dire situation necessitating it, even this lockdown has upsides. For some it is a chance to catch up with reading, for architects always a challenge. Ours is the discipline that most others impinge on and these have exploded in complexity. So many new techniques and materials, so much new scholarship bringing significant new books demanding to be read.
Not so long ago, reading 10 books a year sufficed to keep up; now 10 a month seems not enough. Reading acquires a new urgency and orientation because the pandemic will likely terminate modernity that, along with countless benefits, is the root of so much that is amiss. We should have transcended long ago: its reductionist thinking; silo-ed knowledge; dismissal of the problematic as irrelevant ‘externalities’; and the hubristic complacency technological prowess has engendered. We have forgotten our dependency on and interdependency with the natural world, other people and cultures. As with the climate emergency, dealing with future pandemics must entail embracing new, more integrative and comprehensive modes of thinking. Seldom yet applied to architecture, to which they are especially apt, these have been emerging for some while. Some are covered in the last group of recommended readings.
The following suggested readings are a personal, partial and somewhat arbitrary choice. Those chosen are mainly geared to understanding the major problems we confront, to adopting novel approaches to the necessary changes and elaborating on the architecture that might result. Mostly they are overviews that don’t go into detail or deal with technical matters. Not much is about form, although some favourites cover that, nor specific buildings and criticism, although the latter is vital in aiding readers to experience and contemplate architecture.
Facing huge changes, the perspective of a historic overview is required. Many sense this, hence the runaway success of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. But for our purposes I prefer Charles Eisenstein’s The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self (2013). It charts how human culture has progressively separated itself from nature with now disastrous consequences, its ‘Story of Separation’ now widely influential. All Eisenstein’s recent books are important and inspiring and elaborate a new way of relating to the larger world, as too his latest, Climate: A New Story (2018) linking the water cycle with that of carbon emissions. Another immensely relevant ‘big picture’ overview is Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (2010) that looks at our development and future in terms of the evolution of empathy. Rifkin is a wide-ranging thinker and author of several landmark books, including The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World (2011) that is particularly germane to the design of a sustainable built environment.
The climate emergency and environmental destruction – factors in unleashing the COVID-19 virus – are major ongoing challenges of our times. They have elicited a plethora of good books. Among the best known, influential and prolific writers are Naomi Klein and George Monbiot. Selecting only a book from each as starters, they should probably be Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (2014) and Monbiot’s How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature (2016). Very different, even ‘bigger picture’ and inspiringly contemplative are Thomas Berry, an ordained Catholic scholar of world religions and ecology, and Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist, both authors of great books. Read Berry’s The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (2000) and their jointly authored The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era; A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (1994).
Another very important writer about the environment who presents people pursuing solutions as well as problems is Kenny Ausubel, cofounder of the Bioneers, famous for its conferences. His latest book is Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature (2013). Lastly, an old landmark still vital for environmental designers, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature (1969), that shows designers how to chart, analyse and synthesise environmental and ecological factors.
Modernity has also ravaged the physical, social and cultural fabric of the city. Again, many fine books on the city have appeared in recent years. Arbitrarily and invidiously selecting only one, it is Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design (2013), a book full of good sense and fresh ideas. Hugely important over several decades now are the wide-ranging books of Richard Sennett whose most recent is Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City (2016). Influenced by many of his books, that which first and most profoundly reoriented my thinking about urban interactions and the benefits of conflict is the 50-year-old The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (1970). A major failure of modern architecture and urban design is its inability to create a sense of place.
A book that baffles many architects, Jonathan Hale’s The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost its Magic and How to Get it Back (1994), argues it is partly a problem of facade composition, an inability to appreciate and create patterns that form an irreducible gestalt and so invest buildings with a presence that ‘holds’ the space before it. Read it and postpone immediate judgement while you look around with fresh eyes. Another often misunderstood book linking architecture and urbanity, now old as well as wise and perfect for dipping into over months of lockdown, is Christopher Alexander et al’s A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1978). It has faults, particularly the patterns relating to construction, but it presents a vision of a very richly articulated environment to sponsor an equally rich social and psychic life that is a usefully educative contrast to the oversimplifications of modernity.
Today as modernity wanes, a great collective challenge for architects is to participate in shaping a more sane, supportive, satisfying and sustainable culture. Among books that leap to mind to provide guidance are: Dr John J Ratey and Richard Manning’s Go Wild: Free your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization (2014); John Thackera’s How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today (2017); Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life (2017); Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions (2018); as well as Michael Moore’s provocative documentary Where to Invade Next (2016) that looks at countries America could learn from rather than disrupt.
It is urgent we transcend the limits of modern thinking that entrap us and to do so entails embracing a whole new level of thinking, which in its most useful form is Integral metatheory. Many thinkers and writers now elaborate Integral theory, which itself draws on precedents and other scholarship. But the most important, who initiated this way of thinking, is Ken Wilber, a prolific author whose tomes intimidate some. Start with a small introduction and explore further once you grasp its explanatory and synthesising power.
Those to start with might be A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality (2000) or The Integral Vision: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach to Life, God, the Universe and Everything (2007).
Integral theory is now applied to many disciplines, including architecture and urbanism, although these have been slow to embrace it widely. A hugely informative book, but not particularly user-friendly in layout and cryptic diagrams, is Mark DeKay’s Integral Sustainable Design: Transformative Perspectives (2011). If the coronavirus proves the catalyst to embracing more contemporary modes of thought it might become a central text for architects. Also applying Integral thinking to architecture and urbanism is my series of essays, The Big Rethink, published in between January 2012 and November 2014, which can be downloaded from the AR website. A set of regular publications exploring urban issues from the Integral perspective with the aid of enticing graphics is Paul van Schaik’s Urban Hub series, which can be bought printed and bound or downloaded. Two useful websites exploring Integral perspectives are the Daily Evolver and Actualized.Org.
If asked to select only three books, today’s choice might be: Go Wild – very readable, enjoyable and wise; The Empathic Civilization, a large tome that along with Integral theory will set a framework for much of your future thinking; and either of the small books by Wilber, expecting it to draw you further into a way of navigating with clarity and rigour, while bringing into useful relationship, all the vast world of knowledge now readily available.
Oh, and one last, an excellent handbook of bite-sized advice for every student to absorb over the lockdown: Huw Heywood’s 101 Rules of Thumb for Sustainable Buildings and Cities (2015).