Edwin Heathcote



Books are, like bricks, a basic element of architecture.  I wasn’t quite aware of this myself until I viewed a couple of properties recently and was struck, and appalled, by the lack of books inside.  No books.  Not one.  The interiors, otherwise impeccably over-designed, seemed painfully incomplete. Bereft. 

At the exact moment that the book would seem to be in the greatest danger in its history, threatened by e-books and a proliferation of the disposable technical gadgets complete with built-in obsolescence, the book’s very old technology seems at its most attractive – and its most physical.  E-readers may be able to convey content but they leave no physical trace, once the machine is turned off or fails - the knowledge disappears.  They are resolutely not a part of the architecture but rather of the increasingly messy landscape of stuff.  Libraries and bookstacks have always been a physical and aesthetic manifestation of knowledge, of the world informed by reading and, consequently a way of reading the inhabitant.  There is more information to be gleaned about the occupant of a house from what is on the shelves than from the furniture or the food.  Books – or the lack of them – form an almost perfect mirror of concerns and character. 

As well as being a means of expression – whether conscious or unconscious – books serve another representational purpose.  From the Renaissance and on through the Enlightenment and into a world in which books went from being precious, handmade treasures to affordable commodities, the library or the study lined with books was a cipher for an ordered reality, a defence against a real world outside which could be frighteningly unpredictable.  Within their pages lay the answers, the knowledge to fend off an apparent lack of meaning in the universe.  Yet, paradoxically, in their disorder, in the random systems we impose (or fail to impose) upon them, they can equally represent the impossibility of knowing.  The German thinker Walter Benjamin, in his beautiful essay ‘Unpacking my Library’, managed to reconcile these ideas whilst contemplating his books as yet unpacked but in a new apartment: ‘the chance, the fate that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.  For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?’ Georges Perec makes a similar point in considering his shelves: ‘We would like to think’ he writes ‘that order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.’  The library can also denote the end of time.  To find someone’s library in a second hand bookshop is an extraordinarily moving thing, a document of a life abruptly ended at the moment acquisition stops.  But it can be voluntary.  There was Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo who built a private library in his submarine, 12,000 uniformly bound volumes submerged with him, the sum of all knowledge up to point at which, for him, it all stopped, there would be nothing new.  

A wall covered in spines, shelved from floor to ceiling, recognises the correspondence between bricks and books.  It is the point at which knowledge becomes embedded in structure and the appearance is of books holding up the ceiling.  The implication is that enlightenment, the journey towards the sky or the sublime is available within these pages.  It is a metaphor made clearer by the special pieces of furniture, the chairs and stools which ingeniously convert to become ladders or in the sliding steps which glide along the floor scanning the shelves.  And just as bricks humanise the scale of even a vast wall by introducing an element of human scale – a solid unit designed to fit perfectly into the hand, so books define the space and give scale to even the largest the wall.  They are endlessly reproduced and faked in a game of trompe l’oeil in which their symbolic role alone is invoked.  There are bookish wallpapers, there are rows of fake books spines, there are hidden jib doors hidden amongst the bookshelves which open, just as do books themselves to reveal another world and there are dealers who specialise in slightly-worn, leather-spined books by the yard, not for reading but for recreating a country house effect, the impression of history and wisdom.    Already in the 1st Century AD Seneca swore by a small library, for knowledge rather than vanity, not ‘endless bookshelves for the ignorant to decorate their dining rooms.’

Just as bricks can be laid in a panoply of bonds, so books can be built into aesthetic systems.  I am always a little annoyed when I see books ordered by the colour of the spine, but it is inevitable we order them by size according to the heights of the shelves – a system which can do terrible things to the logic of what goes where – but also produce delightful serendipities; my oversize shelf sees Will Eisner next to The Cold War, Graphics for Signage between The Wonder Book of Inventions and Fairground Art.  There are alphabetical and chronological possibilities, ordering by language and theme or, for the ambitious, the Dewey Decimal.  Samuel Pepys abhorred irregularity and had little platform soles made of wood to place beneath shorter volumes so the whole row would reach the same height.  But that order gives the reader the chance to become an architect, to build a personal world in which, almost certainly, only the user has the key to understanding the order, to travelling through the words. 

And then, there is the possibility that order breaks down completely. From an architectural point of view, this is paradoxically the moment of chaos when books become not a representation of structure but the structure itself - piled up on the floor, on shelves, above shelves, on tables and chairs, blocking out windows until the room disappears.  The ultimate architecture of books was built by Patrice Moore, a Bronx resident who was found, barely alive, in his single small room under an avalanche of books and papers into which he had carved a tiny corner in which to sleep.  Moore recalls the urban legend that was Homer and Langley Collyer, similarly consumed within their own papers in a Harlem brownstone, their extraordinary lives commemorated and fictionalised in E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Homer & Langley’.  To these New Yorkers a world constructed of books and paper had become both heaven and hell, a self-constructed world both escape and confinement.  Homer became blind, inhabiting the trenches within the house like a mole.  Jorge Luis Borges too, went blind but saw a world of books as heaven.  ‘I have always imagined’ he wrote ‘that paradise will be a kind of library’ and, indeed, he opens his haunting story ‘The Library of Babel’ with the words ‘The Universe (which others call the Library)’. 

But it is Benjamin again, unpacking his books, ‘not yet touched by the mild boredom of order’, who writes most eloquently about the edifice constructed by the reader from words and how they will ultimately, and pleasurably consume him. It is ‘Not that they [the books] come alive in him’ he writes ‘it is he who comes alive in them.  So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.’ 



Originally published in The Meaning of Home (London: Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2012)




THE IDEAL BOOK by William Morris