Utopian dreams and reality

2016 was not exactly a year filled with inspiration and it says something that many of us are greeting 2017 with fingers crossed. Thank goodness for the refuge of books. When the news is bleak, a good novel is bliss, inviting you into new worlds and different lives. Non-fiction books do the same. They’re inspiring, thoughtful and make you look around with new eyes. They can help you believe in a better world. So I thought I’d share some of the books on architecture that I have found particularly nourishing and which, despite having read them, I find myself picking up and glancing through again and again.

Le Corbusier Le Grand (Phaidon).

Well, I had to start with Le Corbusier, didn’t I? I was first loaned a copy of this gigantic tome by a friend and I really, really wanted to own it, even though it was the size and weight of furniture. Thankfully Phaidon decided to release a slightly smaller version that would actually fit on your bookshelf. Set out like a glorious scrapbook, filled with a cornucopia of photographs, drawings and letters from Le Corbusier’s life and just enough commentary to satisfy. It’s a book to lose yourself in, especially in the detail in photographs seldom seen.

rooftop, Unite d'habitation, Marseille

The Iconic House, by Dominic Bradbury (Thames & Hudson).

Another large book to flick through whenever the urge takes hold, this showcases the greatest and most influential house designs since 1900. Glossy photos, potted history and informed comment. Can’t fail.

The Perfect House, by Witold Rybczynski (Scribner)

Basically anything by Rybczynski is a winner, he writes so beautifully. This book is an account of his journey around Palladio’s villas and you feel you’re there. His more recent book about the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a building I know very well – The Biography of a Building (Thames & Hudson) – is an insightful study of how the Foster-designed building came into being. His early books about creating his own home and understanding the built environment are all stand-outs in architectural writing. (And he’s obviously a generous man because he responded immediately with lovely comments when I sent him my own novel on Le Corbusier.)

Villa Maser

Touch This Earth Lightly by Glenn Murcutt & Philip Drew (Duffy & Snellgrove)

A book collated from interviews and filled with drawings and photos of the work of one of Australia’s most important architects. When he says there is no such thing as Australian architecture then you know you’re in for a good ride. We’re told of Murcutt’s early love for the buildings of the Greek islands and he elaborates on the all-important sense of place. A book that still makes you look at domestic architecture in a new way, which is pretty good for a book first published in 1999.

A Place of my Own by Michael Pollan (Penguin)

You might know Pollan from his books about the ethics of food and food production, but this is a little beauty from a writer with a roving mind. Describing his journey to build a writing retreat on his land in Connecticut, it draws on ideas of Vitruvius, Thoreau and Frank Lloyd Wright, mixes in a bit of feng shui, and adds in his own, very human fixations, such as trying to design a window that does not leak.

House by Tracy Kidder (Mariner Books)

An oldie (1985) but a goodie still, as the author recounts in meticulous detail the journey of building a house, including the occasional creative conflicts between clashing personalities. The outcome: a beautiful house, although the book might put you off trying it for yourself.

023The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton(Vintage)

Something of a classic already and a pleasing journey through what makes architecture work, designs that make us feel good, and why that matters, all written in De Botton’s accessible style.

Breaking Ground by Daniel Libeskind (John Murray)

Libeskind has a reputation as a showman but what architect isn’t? This book starts with his plan for the Ground Zero site and zips about a bit, from his childhood in Poland and his early career, to the process of building stunners such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd (Text)

I’ve mentioned my love for this book in previous posts and it grows with every reading. This book may well be about buildings but it’s a superb and often damning critique of Australia that is still relevant despite being written in 1960. A book every Australian should read.

Lasduns UEA campus

Raw Concrete by Barnabas Calder (William Heinemann)

This recent publication by self-confessed Brutalist nut and academic takes the reader through several Brutalist buildings in Britain and helps you understand just why these often-reviled buildings are important.

House as a mirror of self by Clare Cooper Marcus (Conari Press)

I loved this book the moment I started it, having always believed the Jungian notion that our inner life is always reflected in our surroundings. This author takes that idea and others on an enlightened journey that might make you look at your own home in a different light.

B is for Bauhaus by Deyan Sudjic

A collection of essays dealing with everything from authenticity to zips. I never read one without it provoking new thoughts. A real trove of ideas and a great book to dip into (although I couldn’t put it down).

But there are also novels about architecture:

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (Random House)

Imagine my alarm, dear reader, when I discovered the existence of a novel that not only had a similar title to mine but was also about the wife of a famous architect. This novelisation of the infamous scandal caused when architect Frank Lloyd Wright ran away with his client and her subsequent murder is well written and a totally compelling story.

Arthur Heurtley house, Oak Park

Arthur Heurtley house, Oak Park

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Little Brown)

Another novel based in fact, this time about the family who commissioned Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendat house in Brno. I didn’t totally love it but the ‘character’ of the house is well done

Loving Le Corbusier by Colin Bisset (Bookbaby)

You thought I wouldn’t mention it? For anyone interested in France, French history, and Le Corbusier. Or just in the mood for a compelling portrait of a relationship.

Are there any books on architecture or involving buildings that have inspired you?

Categories: Architecture, Design, Other, WritingTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What a great reading list for anyone with an interest in the stories behind the architecture. I am never without a book on my night table, Colin, and yours is on my reading list for 2017. By the way, I am currently reading a memoir (my latest obsession) by Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon. It has a bit more of a literary and academic bent than I would normally choose, but I am a sucker for reading about close encounters in my adopted land. Wishing you a new year filled with good books and inspiring architecture!

    • They say successful marketing is about being seen three times before one acts, and I think that’s the third time I’ve heard Adam Gopnik’s name so I’m onto it. I love reading about French encounters, too, and can recommend an excellent blog 😉 Thrilled to be on your list and thanks for your wishes. Wishing you a happy and tranquil year ahead, if that’s in any way possible with the election…

  2. Some great recommendations there thank you and your book is absolutely on my list of must reads this year. Also think I recognise my daughter’s current home in one of your photos! (Is it Norfolk Terrace at UEA?)

    • Great to hear, Siobhan. And yes, it’s Norfolk Terrace, which was also my home many moons ago. Hope she’s enjoying it as much as I did!Looking forward to more of your lovely posts in 2017.

      • I thought you were there too! She loves it, and I was fascinated to be able to visit inside, I don’t think it’s changed much since the 1970’s (did you have bright purple doors?!) It’s such a fantastic space to live and study in, I’m not doing too well with the blogging at the moment, a bit tied up renovating our 1970’s house, but must get back to it. Thank you for your encouragement!

      • Not sure about he purple doors – thinking dark brown (end of 70s)…So why not blog about your reno? Just a thought. 🙂

  3. I’ve read the Glass Room and enjoyed it. A house that sticks in my mind was one in a children’s book called The House on the Brink by John Gordon. He was also the author of The Giant under the Snow. The house was positioned near The Wash and was a horror/ghost story involving a wooden stump that raised itself up from the mud flats (I think) and began dragging itself towards this house. Probably not an example of being inspired but more completely terrified!

  4. What a wonderful array of architectural delicacies!

    And what wonderful titles – Touch This Earth Lightly, The Architecture of Happiness. Makes you want to read them whether you are an architecture nut or not.

    There are not many places you would find Vitruvius, Palladio, Brutalism, Australian ugliness and UEA all together.

    I’m very pleased to say that your novel Loving Le Corbusier is not on my reading list for 2017 as I read it as soon as it came out. And I loved it! So it might be on my re-reading list for 2017 …

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