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What does your bookshelf say about you?

Friday 13th November, 2020
As we remain in lockdown and virtual meetings are here to stay, David Rudlin reflects on what seems to be everyone's video calling backdrop of choice, the beloved bookshelf.

This article was first published in Building Design, in August 2020.

 

The Internet is full of bookshelf angst. Now that your bookshelf has become the go to backdrop for your Zoom life, from Jon Snow on Channel 4 news (is that the Endless City with its yellow spine?) to junior ministers going for gravitas in front of antique tomes and US pundits with artful displays of their own books!  We have all become much more worried about what our bookshelf says about us.

So, having started lockdown broadcasting next to a Tintin mural that still graces the wall of our spare room from the days when it was my youngest’s bedroom, I decided my bookshelf needed sorting. Actually, there are three bookshelves, one in the office, filling a wall of our meeting room, a smaller set of shelves next to my office desk, and my bookshelf at home. The latter includes my own books alongside quite a few that have found their way home from the office and never quite found their way back. Colleagues have done the same thing as is evident from their own Zoom backdrops which explains we can never find anything!

Last week as part of our work on the National Urban Design Code we were looking for John Punter’s book on American Design Codes. Having sent a colleague to search the office I realised that it had been on my bookshelf all along. We had less luck with a book on the French Planning and ended buying it again. And, by the way, if anyone knows where our cherished and now sadly out of print Vinex Atlas is, I’ll happily pay a reward!

There seems to be etiquette for what goes where behind your Zoom persona. Its bad form to flout your own books (unless you are a US pundit). I have authored three, and once you add in the various editions and a few volumes to which I contributed chapters I can muster a whole shelf! I ended up deciding that these should be modestly hidden behind my back, any glimpse via Zoom is entirely accidental!

Then there is my collection of vintage books about future cities? I like picking up second-hand books on urbanism, the trashier the better. Volumes like Your World in 2000! - Cities, edited by Isaac Azimov which was published as a kids’ book in the early 1980s (by the year 2000 all offices will need separate computer rooms to house their mainframes). Another volume is a 6th form geography textbook from the Looking and Seeing series published in 1966. Its called The Shape of Towns and is a wonderfully optimistic mix of urban history and brutalist town planning. It provided inspiration for an exhibition I did a few years on the post war rebuilding of Coventry. I eventually decided that these books probably shouldn’t have a prominent position, people might not get the irony.

However another shelf of old urban design books has a similar retro futurist feel. What is worrying is that many of these were not found in old bookstores but date from my time at University in the 1980s. The cover of David Gosling and Barry Maitland’s 1983 book Concepts in Urban Design pairs up Nolli’s plan of Rome with a James Stirling and Michael Wilford masterplan in the shape of a robot. Barry Maitland designed the brutalist shopping structure for Irvine new town in Scotland, illustrated in the book with a beautiful series of Cullenesque serial views. Elsewhere on the shelf Edmund Bacon’s Design of Cities uses the art of Paul Klee to explain the design of Tuscan hill towns and somehow links this to the plan of Brasilia.   

What all of this brought home to me was just how much there is to be gleaned from even a modest bookshelf. We are used to Googling everything, but there is so much in these books that is just not available on the Internet. Pages and pages of ideas, narratives arcane facts and flawed wisdom that has yet to be collected by Wikipedia.

Maybe one day Google will achieve its goal of digitising every book, but it will never be the same. The Internet is great for chasing down that half-remembered fact, but hopeless at helping you find things that you didn’t realise you were looking. This is why we will always need book shelfs, and not just as a backdrop to our on-line life. 
 

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