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The riba bookshop hadn't heard of it last week, but that hasn't stopped John Harris's new book, No Voice From the Hall, from making the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was at number 10 the week after it came out, and climbing. Harris is philosophical. Although as curator he turned the riba drawings collection into the wonderful and astronomically valuable thing it is today, his relationship with the riba has always been an uncertain one.
On the face of it you wonder why. Harris is an Honfriba. He has been architectural and artistic adviser to some of the richest people in the world. He is co-founder and honorary life president of icam, the international Confederation of Architectural Museums. He's former non-executive chairman of the dealer Colnaghi; was a founding member of the Thirties Society: has been curator of international exhibitions on Palladio, Inigo Jones, and Sir William Chambers (he is the Chambers authority). Long ago he was co-curator of that seminal exhibition at the v&a, 'The Destruction of the Country House', which started off the whole save thing. He's currently working on a Leverhulme-sponsored book, Rooms in Transit, about historic rooms which have been moved to new locations. And he's working on the next volume of his memoirs.
That all makes him sound like a worthy stiff. The reality is that Harris is the wild man of British architectural history. Wonderfully indiscreet, wild-haired and, on the wrong side of 60, still a considerable charmer. He's passionate about architecture in a way that architects could probably never understand. He's been bugged by MI5 because of his friendship with Sir Anthony Blunt, whose flat at the Courtauld was on the other side of the riba Drawings Collection party wall in Portman Square. He was not sacked from the riba. But when he left in 1986 it was clearly as a protest at the way it treated him and his beloved collection. He's watched in unbelieving despair at the decade-long comedy routine which has passed for rationalising the Drawings Collection. Bizarrely, the riba now appears to have come round to the proposal he made nearly ten years ago.
Harris is hardly fazed by the riba bookshop's ignorance of his text. He's not entirely sure why it's become a bestseller. 'I don't think it's the Young Fogeys. Maybe it's because the 1940s and 50s are really a lost period. There for ten years after the war were all these empty houses lurking, waiting their fate . . . Another reason for the success may well be that people want to see if they're in it.' In fact not all that many are. Wait for volume two.