NYRA’s Summer Reading List
We asked writers, friends, and well-wishers to share the books they’re diving into this summer. The selections, which range from fiction to theory, make for great beach reads and are, for the most part, appropriately sized for the task. We hope this sampling tides you over until early September, when Issue no. 31 — our redesign issue — is due out.
If It Floats
Waste Tide by Chen Quifan and translated by Ken Liu. Tor Books, 2019.
Waste Tide would be a poolside summer read if that pool were toxic swill of first-world effluence. CHEN QUIFAN’s science fiction novel was first published in China in 2013 and he’s currently futurist-in-residence at SCI-Arc. Set amid the e-waste trash heaps of Silicon Isle, a fictional polluted strip of land in a dying sea off the coast of China, the story evokes a future ravaged by climate change choking on obsolete consumer electronics. Modeled in part on the very real town of Guiyu, it’s an uncomfortably recognizable portrait of the Capitalocene and reflection of near-feudal class disparities. In this way, it resonates with novelist and socialist political activist China Miéville’s musings on utopia: “[W]e live in utopia; it just isn’t ours. So we live in apocalypse too.” The twin condition that someone else’s utopia is another’s dystopia is central to Waste Tide’s narrative, but not a foregone conclusion. From the piles of stripped circuity and heavy metal poisons of the dump emerges a worker revolution.
— Mimi Zeiger
Verify in Field: Projects and Conversations by Höweler + Yoon. Park Books, 2022.
I was afraid ERIC HÖWELER and MEEJIN YOON’s Verify in Field would be too pragmatic for inclusion on this list (a pro-prac handbook is not a poolside read), but its elaboration of how “architecture’s fine print” constitutes “our agency in the physical world” is expansive. I’m reminded of SANFORD KWINTER’s response to the conundrum of materialism: “What else would there be but matter?” Höweler and Yoon likewise show that architecture can do it all — all while being judged by criteria immanent to the field. As if this were not enough, they also posit an attitudinal shift in bookmaking, where the printed word is open and inviting in the manner of a good conversation or podcast. Hence the punchy dialogues sprinkled throughout the text, which present smart friends riffing on subjects from degrowth (DANIEL BARBER) to intention and appropriation (ANA MILJAČKI) to FRANK GEHRY’s shingle style (NADER TEHRANI). Come on in, the water’s fine.
— Matthew Allen
It’s Her Life
The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
The ideal summer book is something not-precious, a volume you can throw in a bag and read in stretches of five minutes between stops on the train or spurts of pool- or beach-side conversation. VIVIAN GORNICK’s memoir The Odd Woman and the City fulfills these criteria. And, because it’s composed almost entirely of observations Gornick makes as she walks around New York City, reading it produces a meta-experience, the feeling of reading about yourself and your city all at the same time.
The Odd Woman is at times challenging in its refusal to satisfy; its anecdotes seldom come to tied-up-in-a-bow conclusions. They are stories without endings, bound together only by the fact that they happened in one life, to one woman. In their unrelenting specificity, it is unlikely that they bear any resemblance to anyone else’s stories. But, in that way, they become eerily evocative of all our stories, especially under the summer sun and heat, where everyone seems to become a little more like themselves.
— Marianela D’Aprile
Game, Set, Match
When Eero Met His Match: Aline Louchheim Saarinen and the Making of an Architect by Eva Hagberg. Princeton University Press, 2022.
At the end of When Eero Met His Match, EVA HAGBERG recalls a 1963 review published in the Journal of the Society of Architecture Historians comparing a pair of Eero Saarinen monographs, including one edited by his widow and press handler, Aline Louchheim Saarinen. In the piece, reviewer John Jacobus lauds Louchheim’s “neutral” presentation of the architect’s work, which evidently spoke for itself. Hagberg takes up what Jacobus blithely overlooked. As she is keen to point out, Louchheim had a canny ability to foster a favorable climate in which her husband’s designs were assessed. Such is the secret work of architectural PR—something Hagberg knows a thing or two about. Memoirist interludes that punctuate the book speak to her experiences running a boutique press outfit. That she’s able to seamlessly incorporate personal reflections into a close reading of Louchheim’s epistolary archives betrays the skill and, it must be said, grace of a good publicist.
— Michael Nicholas
Landscape Summer ’22: An Itinerary
Written in the West by Wim Wenders. Te Neues Pub Group, 1985 (2000 re-release).
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Penguin Random House, 1985.
My itinerary begins with WIM WENDERS’s Written in the West, a collection of photographs taken in California and Texas while on a location scout for Paris, Texas. Once you get comfy with Wenders’s saturated images of windswept, Edward Hopper– and Charles Sheeler–like landscapes taken with a medium-format Plaubel Makina 67, follow it with CORMAC MCCARTHY’s epic and seething landscape freak-out, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. This is like following a course comprising delicate morsels of Katsuo, Maguro, or Ahi with a tankard of stomach-corroding Malört. Fasten your seat belts! Then stare up at the night sky, watch lines of lumbering jets on approach to JFK or LaGuardia ride the humid summer updrafts, and you might then remember this sentence from Blood Meridian: “Tethered to the polestar they rode the Dipper round while Orion rose in the southwest like a great electric kite. The sand lay blue in the moonlight and the iron tires of the wagons rolled among the shapes of the riders in gleaming hoops that veered and wheeled woundedly and vaguely navigational like slender astrolabes and the polished shoes of the horses kept hasping up like a myriad of eyes winking across the desert floor.” Why is my head spinning? Is it Blood Meridian, or is it the Malört?
— Enrique Ramirez
Radical Pedagogies, edited by Beatriz Colomina, Ignacio G. Galán, Evangelos Kotsioris, and Anna-Maria Meister. The MIT Press, 2022
Radical Pedagogies has existed as a scholarly endeavor since 2010, encompassing symposia, lectures, exhibitions, and even a website. Adapted into a book (a doorstopper), the project’s contents are densely arrayed yet altogether engrossing. A litany of wily, frequently long-haired, and activistic “protagonists” traipse through its 400-plus pages, which burble with ideas for “garbage buildings,” inflatable structures, and lunar settlements; counterprojects and “contraplans”; workshops in the open air and sometimes in the nude; and forays into sociology, anthropology, climatology, computation. As a printed volume, Radical Pedagogies operates on two registers. It is the first compendium of its kind to gather, archive, and disseminate materials about spatially and temporally disparate pedagogical experiments. With its long train of contributors (ŁUKASZ STANEK, MARTA CALDEIRA, and ESTHER CHOI among them), the book doubles as a directory for the most compelling thinkers in architecture today. It will doubtlessly prove a powerful tool for those aspiring, and working, to transform the discipline from within.
— Christina Moushoul
Vacant Spaces NY by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample. Actar, 2021
MICHAEL MEREDITH and HILARY SAMPLE’s 600-page tome validates what we already knew: rents are prohibitively high in New York. But city-commissioned reports on vacancy are notoriously erroneous, prompting the MOS founders, in collaboration with Princeton architecture students, to correct the record. With iPhones in hand, students cataloged empty storefronts across Manhattan, divided into 28 Neighborhood Tabulation Areas, or NTAs. Vacant Spaces is the result of their first-person observations.
In my neighborhood of West Harlem (NTA #7), the most visible transformations of vacant space I’ve witnessed took the form of Covid-19 testing centers. This city-wide phenomenon showed the potential for adaptation, though crises like a global pandemic seem to be the most effective motivators for urban innovations. The urgent response to World War II incubated novel building materials we regrettably still rely on today, and the warehouses abandoned by manufacturers in the ’60s, at the advent of the new postindustrial economy, gave way to the loft-living boom. A housing crisis, however, is endemic to a market society, which makes virtues out of scarcity and obsolescence. My question for MOS would thus be: is merely cataloging vacancy enough? What radical practices, if any, can grow from this book, or will its Pantone 805-hued cover gather its own dust?
— Emily Conklin
A Proper Introduction
Welcome to the Grind by Vitruvius Grind. Self-published, 2022.
Both primer and anthology, Welcome to the Grind earnestly contends with the shared experiences of young designers. The first two sections, “Work” and “Grad School,” proffer advice for those entering a new phase of their careers, including tips for choosing a graduate program and saying “no” to an employer. The third section, “Life,” features some of the most personal and pointed essays about practicing architecture I have ever read. GALO CANIZARES, for example, writes candidly about recovering from rejection, while DAHAM MARAPANE outlines his reasons for rejecting a professional identity. LISA SAUVÉ recalls how, as a single mother set on going to grad school, she omitted her dependent from application forms, for fear of putting selection committees on edge. The confessional tone is well-suited to a publication that was released on Twitter by anonymous user, VITRUVIUS GRIND, who solicited contributions from friends and colleagues, and who assembled information about acceptance rates and competitive salaries from disparate online resources. The result oscillates between resisting and embracing “the grind” of architectural work, and though more could have been done to interrogate this heuristic, it’s nonetheless a salve. The pamphlet is about self-care and forging bonds of solidarity with one’s fellow designers that took quite a bit of care to make.
— Charles Weak
Anime Architecture: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities by Stefan Riekeles. Thames & Hudson, 2020.
Part coffee-table book and part niche art history, Anime Architecture is just as much for architects as it is for otaku. Fans of anime will appreciate the passion with which author STEFAN RIEKELES collects the never-before-seen concept drawings and painterly artboards that went into eight seminal sci-fi anime films, including Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995). His introductory essays and robust captions take the full sweep of anime production, which, not unlike real-world design, is subject to compromise at every step. As Riekeles details, the art director (whose analogue might be the project architect) grounds the imaginative feats of the draftsman or matte painter into a cinematographic reality; entire chunks of cities may be sacrificed in the process, erasure being a recurring theme in anime. More positively, Anime Architecture may inspire those practicing designers who, feeling discontented from technically perfect but empty V-Ray renderings, wish to put a pen to paper once more.
— Anna Gibertini
House of Pain
The Doloriad: A Novel by Missouri Williams. MCD x FSG Originals, 2022.
In The Doloriad, the grisly debut novel from MISSOURI WILLIAMS, depravity and rapture play out on the fringes of a decimated, unnamed city. With a migrating point of view, this inventive text centers around siblings who live in a crumbling, ostensibly Soviet apartment block. When not at each other’s throats, this odd, inbred family enjoys watching a TV show about the Catholic saint, Thomas Aquinas. A legless schoolmaster fashions a woolen structure in his basement that points the way to salvation. Unlike so-called cli-fi, which leaves much horror up to the sublime power of The World™, here the only people to blame for the apocalypse are, well, people—and the gods they’ve invented to justify their own base urges.
— Drew Zeiba
Venets: Welcome to the Ideal by Kirill Glushchenko. Glushchenkoizdat, 2017.
Originally conceived to accompany a 2017 Venice exhibition of the same name, Venets: Welcome to the Ideal is hard to find in print, though much of the archival material it presents is available online. In whatever format, the project, developed by KIRILL GLUSCHENKO, is an exhilarating presentation of architectural history as related by non-academics, compiling overlapping testimonies and witnessing snippets of the many lives that a building touches. The book collects archival materials associated with a not-so-special hotel built in Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s hometown, to celebrate the leader’s 100th birthday in 1970. Copious photography depicting Gostnitsa Venets in all its post-Soviet neglect is juxtaposed with erstwhile missives arranging for its construction, material procurement, and opening ceremonies. (This retrospective is bolstered by worker memoirs, which contain such observations as, “They booked the first group of foreigners traveling with Intourist on floors 4–9 because there were certain structures or facilities beyond the Volga River that Poles and Germans were not supposed to see.”) Fictionalized anecdotes and micro-events fill in the archival gaps while other aspects of the story are left for the reader to interpolate from translated bureaucratic precipitate. Currently, a night at the Venets costs $39.
— A.J. Artemel
Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival by Christopher Benfey. Penguin Random House, 2012.
A couple years ago, I participated in a conference about “exactitude” and contemporary architecture. CHRISTOPHER BENFEY was one of the speakers, and I loved his presentation about the exactitude of the weather. I later learned that he was related to Anni Albers and had written a book about his search to understand his family’s origins in Germany and rural America. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is that book.
Of course, the “Black Mountain” of the title is the legendary midcentury liberal arts school that brought together artists, aesthetes, and oddballs in the North Carolina highlands. (Albers and her husband Josef were among the resident instructors, as were Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Ruth Asawa.) But Benfey also follows his interest in regional craft traditions, retracing steps taken by explorers searching for the white Cherokee clay used to make porcelain ceramics. He makes surprising connections between Southern pottery movements and Greek mythologies and elsewhere links Albers’s weaving to the work of American botanist William Bartram. Drawing on strands of literature, history, travel, and memoir, Benfey demonstrates a different way to present history. It’s a winding set of stories, woven together by a master storyteller.
— Eric Höweler
Child Is the Father of the Man
Raising Raffi: The First Five Years by Keith Gessen. Penguin Random House, 2022.
I’ve been reading KEITH GESSEN’s Raising Raffi, a memoir of raising Gessen and his wife EMILY GOULD’s eldest son. Superficially, the book is about Raffi’s personality and how Gessen and Gould work with it; beneath the surface, I found that so much of the book is about home — the search for the right apartment; the realization that education and real estate are, at least in New York City, deeply intertwined; Gessen’s ambivalence about his Russian origins; and the constant navigation that’s required when first two, then three, then four humans decide to live together.
— Eva Hagberg
Scenes from a Marriage
Organic Music Society, edited by Lawrence Kumpf with Naima Karlsson and Magnus Nygren. Blank Forms, 2021.
In Organic Music Society, a sweeping collection of texts and images aims to create a view of jazz musician Don Cherry (1936–95) and artist Moki Cherry’s (1943–2009) radical experiment in art-as-living. Their commitment to their work and each other was mutually reinforcing. For instance, Moki developed costumes (“environments of the self”), tapestries, paintings, and sets for Don’s performances, all of it geared to their peripatetic lifestyle. With Don, she also designed spaces for an artists’ community in Tågarp, Sweden, part of a broader collaborative project to exist outside the commercial structures of music and art as well as the mores of bourgeois life. Perhaps the couple’s 1971 project for the Moderna Museet’s Utopias and Visions exhibition best showcases their totalizing marital mentality: the Cherrys, with their children, slept at a decommissioned prison next door to the museum, spending their days in a geodesic dome. Moki repainted its interiors and filled it with her artwork and Don with his music, even inviting guests and museum visitors to join in on the fun. As she later wrote, “When you are on stage it’s home, and when you are home you are on stage.”
Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson. Harvard University Press, 1999.
Over the past couple of years, the profession of architecture has shown a more sustained and sincere interest in the intersections of race and the built environment. In hopes of continuing and deepening this engagement, I would urge architectural designers to turn to WALTER JOHNSON’s foundational Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. While not a recent text, Johnson’s analysis offers great value for thinking about the history of architecture and its relationship to early and ongoing racial capitalism. His spatial dissection of slave markets is unmatched, forensic in its detail. Readings of other spaces of American slavery — pens, showrooms, ships, rivers — are less architecturally minded yet are key to Johnson’s aim of decoupling the common narrative of slavery from the paternalistic environs of the plantation. By alighting on the physical and financial infrastructures that sustained the slave trade, he helps us to better understand racial oppression in all its guises.
— Malcolm Rio
Wealth and Waste
Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom by Kathryn Olivarius.
Harvard University Press, 2022.
In the early nineteenth century, New Orleans was one of the wealthiest cities in the US and by far its deadliest. This concurrence of capital and disease was not by chance, argues historian KATHRYN OLIVARIUS in Necropolis. Recounting a history eerily correlated to the present, she ties the Crescent City’s rise as the hub of the American slave and cotton trades to the cultural normalization of yellow fever epidemics that constantly menaced the populace. Olivarius draws on vast research to define the contours of what she calls “immunocapitalism.” In the highly leveraged cotton economy, by a simple calculation of risk, bodily immunity to yellow fever had material value. This concept infected public thinking. Immunity, or “acclimation,” was a coveted form of capital that came to be performed as a virtue by a select few, i.e., white men of good standing. Those same elites promoted sham epidemiology to justify racist and classist hierarchies like slavery and a doomed underclass of unacclimated recent immigrants. Meanwhile, their apathy toward yellow fever led to the dereliction of public health, as streets became hazards of mosquito- and sewage-filled puddles and bloated corpses bobbed in soggy potter’s fields. With scenes like these, Olivarius paints a grisly picture of antebellum inequality.
— Luke Studebaker
Secrets of the Quad
Lessons from the Lawn: The Word Made Flesh: Dialogues Between Citizens and Strangers by Peter Waldman. ORO Editions, 2019.
This efflorescence of postmodernist allegory interprets the famed quad at the University of Virginia (known simply as the Lawn) as a stand-in for the entire American project, from its political basis in the Enlightenment and its upholding of slavery to its seeming dénouement, via the 2017 Unite the Right rally that brought the small city of Charlottesville to national attention. The book amasses the contents of a course its author, PETER WALDMAN, has taught for generations to UVA architecture undergrads, while also incorporating some of his other projects and pedagogies. A one-time colleague of Robert Venturi, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves, Waldman is given over to archetypes, and a new set of characters — the Citizen and the Stranger — has joined the original trio — the Surveyor, the Nomad, and the Lunatic — that peopled his syncretic yarn. Striking a magical-realist tenor, the Lawn of Lessons resides in an alternate realm evocative of Calvino or Borges. The ostentatious tone may be off-putting to some. But as an antidote to architecture’s self-seriousness and also as a reminder of those aspects of our practice that are truly serious indeed, it’s worth taking the plunge.
Under the Radar
Medium Design by Keller Easterling. Verso, 2021.
What if you can’t stop the proliferation of McMansions and shantytowns by designing better homes, and you can’t overcome political lies with rational evidence? Modern society is stuck in the thralls of cultural “superbugs,” KELLER EASTERLING argues, and the “closed loop” of techno-capitalist solutions is mirrored in the echo chambers of leftist critics and populist demagogues who offer all-encompassing solutions. Easterling wants designers to think like cooks or chemists, operating on a matrix of contingencies, less concerned with static material outcomes than potentials for setting transformative processes in motion. Without waiting for a revolution or a client commission, she argues, design can disrupt cultural habits and enable “stealthy or environmental forms of activism.” Medium Design is something of a grand theory that rejects grand theories. Less than 150 pages long, it includes fresh takes on Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 “playbook” for garden-city development, the polykatoikies of postwar Athens, and a new pilot program from UN-Habitat.
— Gideon Fink Shapiro
Rules of Thumb
Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories by Charlie
Jane Anders. Tor Books, 2021.
Never Say You Can’t Survive is a veritable how-to manual for speculative fiction. With a generous grace, CHARLIE JANE ANDERS leads readers through the nuts and bolts of worldbuilding and storytelling. But, damn, it’s so much more. Therapy for shell-shocked authors in our political moment. A guide to building community. And a primer in representation without appropriation. Although written (presumably) for a sci-fi audience, Never Say also lends itself as a balm to our messed-up world of architecture criticism, where clickbait barbs and snarky subtweets ensnare discourse in a self-referential trap. Anders champions writing that is fierce, empathetic, and true. In 225 pages, she offers just two points about the writerly existence that might constitute rules: “I get to work with people I like and admire, on projects that I am excited about. I get to keep writing and having people read my stuff.” These are rules to live by.
Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in Architecture by Andrew Atwood. Applied Research & Design, 2018.
ANDREW ATWOOD begins Not Interesting where you might expect him to, i.e., by clarifying the definition of “interesting.” Evidently, something that is said to be interesting is easy to understand and stands out, so by appending the adverb “not,” Atwood tells the reader what his book is trying to better understand — specifically, those objects tending to fall under the labels of “boring,” “confusing,” and “comforting.” He writes at great length about the aesthetic parameters of each of these categories, only to conclude by calling into the question the arbitrary nature of the categorical frame itself.
I find myself returning to Not Interesting again and again — not for a full reread, but to skim select chapters, or categories. You might say this is a willful misreading. Perhaps this route leads one to oversimplify complicated subjective relationships, as Atwood claims. But I find there’s value in understanding why particular environments or objects bore or confuse us. These rubrics are jumping-off points for appreciating the less-examined qualities of the everyday stuff that fills our retinas and spaces.
Things Left Unsaid
Stories from Architecture, Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter by Philippa Lewis. The MIT Press, 2021.
In her new book, writer Philippa Lewis uses architectural drawings as the starting point for twenty-five short narratives that boldly cross over into fiction. She carefully parses the details of a drawing and conjures up the protagonists that surround them: the draftsman, the client, the subjects depicted. For instance, reflecting on a Neutra residential plan, she imagines an unsure apprentice telephoning the architect for the measurements of the Rolls Royce specified in an annotation. Then there’s the sketch of a tenement house, which, Lewis writes, was prepared by a policeman called to the site of a murder. A wonderfully imaginative work, Lewis elaborates on the circumstances behind the drawings and highlights the vastness of the unrepresented, the unwritten, and the unspoken in architectural media. As Adrian Forty notes in his introduction, the work is certainly of its moment, when “there is a growing awareness among historians that ‘fact’ is a more fragile certainty than has previously been acknowledged, and that fiction is not necessarily untrue, merely hypothetical.”
Special thanks to Laura Szyman for her illustrations. She got the vibe exactly right.
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