Building books, for the design enthusiast in your life

From Dublin to Moscow, this selection of books about architecture and the built environment will delight both professionals and general readers

From left: Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley; Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro by Philipp Meuser and Anna Martovitskaya; Lost England 1870-1930 with text by Phillip Davies.

From left: Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley; Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro by Philipp Meuser and Anna Martovitskaya; Lost England 1870-1930 with text by Phillip Davies.

 

James Joyce once famously declared of Ulysses: “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”

It’s unlikely Ellen Rowley had the same lofty aspirations when editing More than concrete blocks: Dublin City’s twentieth-century buildings and their stories 1900-1940 (Dublin City Council). But she has done a fine job with the subject at hand all the same, in this first book of a three-volume series. It’s aimed at the general reader and hits the target with its clean, brisk style; you will find no leaden prose loaded with architectural jargon here, thankfully. Rowley and her team have mined the archives astutely and there is rich new photography from Paul Tierney on Dublin’s landmark buildings. Accessible can be a grubby word when used in any field of the arts, but this is a book for both the academic and architecture aficionado. The essays and case studies within present an erudite and enlightening path on the development of Dublin city in the years leading up to the establishment of the Free State and beyond. An ideal gift for the Dublin flâneur.

Travelling across the Irish Sea to our neighbours in Lost England 1870-1930 (Atlantic Publishing), this hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1,200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, with an accompanying text written by Phillip Davies providing plenty of sociological insight. Striking photographs show the extraordinary change experienced by England in such a short period of time, covering the regions of the north-west, the midlands, east England etc. It takes in the huge Irish influence on the country’s demographic too – in the first five months of 1849, more than 300,000 Irish arrived in Liverpool, then a town of 250,000 people; parts of London and Manchester were known as ‘Little Ireland’ or ‘Little Dublin’. Many of the buildings of the Victorian and Edwardian age were beautiful and perusing this tome will make you question why we let so much of it slip through our hands; or indeed tumbled it with the very same hands. A worthy follow-on to Lost London, this book is a poignant and elegiac publication that will have you wondering if we have learnt any lessons of such philistinism in terms of what we build and bulldoze nowadays.

If you like to holiday in Italy, but also enjoy getting off the well-beaten tourist track, then picking up Italo Modern 1 and 2: Architecture in Northern Italy 1946-1976 (Park Books) would be a wise investment. Detailing many hidden jewels of post-war Italian Modernism, the books are beautifully designed in presenting the explorations of the Feiersinger brothers, Martin and Werner (one an architect, the other a sculptor) through contemporary photographs and plans and text on all kinds of buildings sprinkled across Italian cities and countryside. Volume 2 is the more comprehensive of the two books and both are considerately marked for individual architects and well mapped, from Milano to the tip of Trieste, where (that man again) Joyce, of course, spent a large part of his life.

Moving further east is Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro (DOM publishers). Muscovites are justifiably proud of their Metro network and this coffee-table book compiled by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Anna Martovitskaya gives an understanding of its social history and radical heritage. Photographs by Alexander Popov shows the Metro’s unforgettable beauty, and the book includes a rich seam of design plans, typography, and maps. The text could offer more on contentious issues surrounding the Metro’s history, such as the forced labour used to build it or the shameless religiosity of the Stalin-era architecture.

However, a useful companion volume on these issues can be found in Landscapes of Communism – A History Through Buildings (Penguin) which has been published in paperback this year. Owen Hatherley has been writing with verve and knowledge of Soviet and Balkan built environments long before these subjects became fetishised by a flock of whimsical Instagrammers and tweeters. Here he takes on a weighty subject, a selective history of 20th-century Communist Europe told through its buildings and designs, and despite limited finances tramps widely: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, and what was once Yugoslavia and East Germany, to list some of the destinations. It is a strangely compelling book, and oddly relaxing to read due to Hatherley’s unfaltering approach – it’s as though you can hear the sound of your lonely footsteps echoing through the corridors of history. As the author says himself, “this is history read through buildings” – unlike some other books, it is much more than a cursory snapshot of a fascinating era in the 20th-century and Landscapes of Communism will delight anyone with an interest in this complex part of the world.

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