Building: 3,000 Years of Design, Engineering and Construction By Bill Addis.Phaidon, 2007.640pp. £45.00
There are certain books on my shelves whose presence alone I find oddly reassuring. Some I may not have read for years, and others I may only have dipped into for reference, but they all impart a degree of scholarly confidence simply by being there. Typically these are books that contain such breadth, depth or sheer weight of knowledge that you cannot but be humbled by the fact that someone was able to write them. And although such books only really reveal their true stature over a period of years, Bill Addis' Building: 3,000 Years of Design, Engineering and Construction promises to be one.
To even attempt to write a book covering 3,000 years of anything is a fabulously ambitious undertaking. In nine chronologically arranged sections, Addis provides an all-embracing catalogue of the history of building design and construction which seems almost Victorian in its scope and detail. It is beautifully augmented by 750 illustrations, with many of the rarer drawings being objects of fascination in their own right.
This is not a book that you are likely to devour cover to cover, but each section provides a pleasantly readable account of a few centuries. Given the subject area, a degree of simplification and summary is obviously inevitable, but the book does not feel overly abridged at any point.
On the contrary, in several areas it revels in the sort of meticulous, engaging and somewhat obscure storytelling detail which would not seem out of place in a Stephen Fry delivery on QI.
Perhaps I have become conditioned by today's typical publishing, where even the seemingly sturdiest of tomes proves to be long on illustration and short on gravitas. Maybe it's the insidious influence of the never-ending cycle of researchassessment exercises, which means that many new books are content-lite or even partially recycled. Many seem to be loosely themed collections of essays, or segue into a niche topic, seeking to gain a little more financial security by appealing somehow to the new style-conscious devotees of Grand Designs.
In contrast, this is a truly heavyweight publication which every student of engineering and architecture should have highlighted on their first-year reading list. It should also help to solve the birthday-present dilemma for any spouse of a building designer (apparently we're notoriously difficult to buy for). The fact that such a worthy book is inexplicably wrapped in the least prepossessing brown paper bag of a jacket you could ever see, is conclusive proof of the old adage about books and covers.
So, in deciding whether to invest your £45 in this excellent compendium, please don't be put off by its appearance, or the fact that the sequel will be a while in coming.
Alex Wright is an architect in Bath