Daily Features

The Book as Architecture

From Anthropologie stores to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, books are becoming an architectural element in modern designs

By Anne Quito, Superscript September 12, 2013

Emile Brontë is stuck. And so is John Steinbeck it seems. Franklin Pierce is attached to The Clique of Gold, and Goldwyn by Scott Berg is glued to Rebel Radio: Story of El Salvador's Radio Venceremos.

These were among the over 1,000 books that formed a literary curtain wall of sorts that served as Anthropologie’s store display last December. The hardbound books were not in shelves or stacks, but were permanently affixed together to form a pixelated ikat pattern. With the books repurposed to serve a larger decorative vision, it was a clear case of content surrendering to form—or perhaps the author wilting to the will of the designer armed with a hot glue gun. Running one’s hands along the volumes petrified in this hipster altar, one could not help but feel a tinge of despair.

Anthropologie's book wall. Photo courtesy of Jen Bowles.

But the use of books as building material is not Anthropologie’s invention.

In 2011, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., installed a 34-foot-tall Book Tower comprised of almost 7,000 books about Abraham Lincoln. As a tribute to Lincoln, who was assassinated there in 1865, each book was hand-glued by its designers around a pillar.

The Ford's Theatre’s Book Tower in progress. Photo by Gary Erskin, Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership

For Casa de America in Madrid, artist Alicia Martin used thousands of books to form a monumental tsunami-like installation with books in animated projectile from a building’s second-story window. Using mesh and wire, Martin affixed the books around a central shape—the loveliest aspect is revealed when wind blows some open and foils the structure’s calcified state.

Casa de America in Madrid by artist Alicia Martin

Though such projects are visually spectacular to behold, must we always destroy the book in the name of art and decoration? Must we render a book obsolete by using it as material?

For Slovakian installation artist Matej Krén, known for his monumental book sculptures, it doesn’t have to be so. Krén writes, “The memory and knowledge accumulated in the books gathered, closed and inaccessible, diverse and precious will be potentially recovered in the end, when all of the books can return to their function of being read.” In his works Le Drome, Book Dwellings, and Scanner, books are Jenga blocks forming spaces that look almost habitable.

Matej Krén's "Scanner" books building

Matej Krén at work on Scanner. Photo courtesy of Now Contemporary Art.


The Books

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Andreas Ruby
Art Made from Books Laura Heyenga

Marta Minujin’s seven-story Tower of Babel was designed to be dismantled. After a month-long exhibit in celebration of Buenos Aires’s designation as the UNESCO World Book Capital, the Argentine artist invited the public to take books they wanted from the installation. The unclaimed books became the seeds to a new archive called “The Library of Babel.” Though the form is suspiciously reminiscent of the Guggenheim, Minujin’s concept succeeds because it celebrates architecture, literature—and generosity. It’s a triumphant negation of our nagging ceci tuera cela tendencies. It’s not literature or architecture. It’s both.

Tower of Babel by Marta Munjin. Photo courtesy of Teaching Literacy.

A wall, a whirligig, or a tower of books can have enormous symbolic and political power. In the 1940s, the New York Public Library proved that it could even catalyze action. Through a dramatic display of books, the Library launched the “War Library Book Drive” at the footsteps of the Schwarzman Building. With the aim of collecting books to send to the troops, this campaign along with its “Victory Book Drive” generated 17 million contributions from the public.

The New York Public Library launched the “War Library Book Drive” with a dramatic display of books. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library.

There’s something spellbinding about seeing thousands of books in one visual gulp. The Rotterdam-based architectural firm MVRDV created Book Mountain library, a stunning glass structure that showcases the stack of over 70,000 books in circulation as the central design idiom. Nominated for the Mies van der Rohe award, the transparent facade allows the passerby to encounter an enduring “advertisement for reading.”

Book Mountain in Spijkenisse, Netherlands. Photo © jeroen musch, mvrdv.nl.


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