There is more appetite for focused architectural writing than UK publishers understand, says Ellis Woodman
This country’s small community of editors and designers who specialise in the publication of architectural books has suffered a gruelling time of late. First, in December of last year, the Architectural Association slashed its publications department from eight staff members to two in a panicked cost-cutting exercise. Then a month later the publishing house Black Dog went into liquidation, taking down Artifice Books, its specialist architecture, urbanism and design division, with it.
Both AA Publications and Artifice maintained strong reputations for supporting projects that larger publishers would never consider. Their misfortunes will ensure not only that fewer architecture books are published in this country, but that their variety diminishes too.
Some years ago, I met with a major art and architecture publisher who had expressed an interest in me writing a general interest book for them. I excitedly pitched half a dozen ideas but it soon became apparent that none remotely fitted the bill. In fact, it turned out that my would-be patrons could only really conceive of publishing books that accorded with one of two tried and tested formats.
The first was an all-text production, in the manner of Deyan Sudjic’s The Edifice Complex, Rowan Moore’s Slow Burn City or Tom Dyckhoff’s The Age of Spectacle. These are all good books but their focus is broad – their concern lies with the social context of architectural production, rather than with the discipline itself.
The other scenario on offer was even less alluring: a high-concept picture book. Ceding the honour of writing the captions for The World’s Best Dog Kennels to one of my more pecuniarily challenged colleagues, I made my excuses and left.
The experience made me wonder whether the books that had first introduced me to architecture as a teenager would still find a publisher today. John Summerson’s Language of Classical Architecture, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Charles Jencks’s The Language of Postmodern Architecture are all books that have enjoyed numerous reprints, but the kind of measured relationship between text and image that makes these publications so pleasurable and informative is clearly now deemed a commercial non-starter.
Yet, if this is the received wisdom, it is surely one that deserves challenging. I am currently working on a book based on lectures from the Architecture Foundation’s recent programme, which we plan to release ourselves. It is an experiment which I am conscious may fail, but I am lent confidence by the response to the recent publication of Richard Murphy’s excellent Carlo Scarpa and Castelvecchio Revisited.
The trajectory of architectural history has been influenced by the written word to an incalculable extent
Having had his book rejected by every publisher that he approached, Richard decided to risk printing and distributing it himself. Reluctant to accept the high cut that the digital portal takes on sales, he has even steered clear of placing it on Amazon. He reports that, with the aid of strong reviews and an advertising campaign conducted on Instagram, he is now receiving orders at the rate of one per hour. He printed 3,000 copies in December and, if he maintains the current level of interest, should shift the lot by September.
The trajectory of architectural history has been influenced by the written word to an incalculable extent – notably more so than has been the case with the other visual, or for that matter, performing arts. In the last century alone, books by Loos, Le Corbusier, Rossi, Venturi and Koolhaas proved absolutely instrumental in defining its path. It is a contribution to architectural discourse that needs defending and nurturing, now more than ever.
I am convinced that there is a much larger audience for serious architecture books than the current British publishing culture recognises. We need to prove it but, with the new methods of digital marketing and distribution at our disposal, we have the tools to do so.
This article appears in the Small Projects issue