Books about building for peace in times of war are among the standout volumes of the last 12 months.
The ruined city of Homs, subject of the the Syrian architect, Marwa al-Sabouni. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Most of the time the pursuit of architecture is not as serious as its practitioners would like us to think. It can add to or detract from human joy or, by acting as the background of the events of our lives, impart a subtle influence to them. It is not generally a matter of life or death. Which makes two of this year’s books, about the relation of buildings to violent conflict, stand apart from the normal run of musings about the design of buildings.
One is The Battle for Home (Thames & Hudson £16.95) by the Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, who describes the political corruption of her discipline that she experienced from student days onwards, and the dismemberment of her home city of Homs through divisive planning that preceded and abetted its destruction in war. She argues that the close-knit form of the traditional city obliged people of different faiths and backgrounds to get along. In recent decades politicians and planners dispatched its populations to segregated zones around its edge, which made it more likely that they would fear, mistrust and ultimately kill one another.
The other is Mortal Cities Forgotten Monuments (University of Chicago Press £35) by Arna Mačkić, a Bosnian-born architect who as a child fled to Holland with her family. In her book she returns to Mostar, whose famous and beautiful bridge, a symbol and instrument of the peaceful co-existence of communities, was destroyed in Bosnia’s war. She reflects on the effects of war on cities and on the successes and failures of Mostar’s rebuilding, and proposes ways of rebuilding Bosnia’s heritage. Both Mačkić’s and al-Sabouni’s writings are remarkable for their calm perceptions in the face of horrors.
I hardly know how to make a transition that is not jarring and frivolous from these stories of brutality to new brutalism, the aesthetic preference of many architects of the mid-20th century. But, given that humans seem able to pursue artistic exploration and speculation no matter what else might be going on, it’s worth noting that the rehabilitation of this once-reviled style continues apace. More and more writers are noticing that buildings once dismissed as “bunkers” show a level of passion, grandeur and invention that contemporary architecture lacks.
Barnabas Calder’s Raw Concrete (Cornerstone £25) is a part-scholarly, part-personal survey of the subject, both eclectic and readable. Peter Chadwick’s image-heavy This Brutal World (Phaidon £29.95) does a good job of rounding up well-known and esoteric examples from around the world, while also throwing in recent buildings that might loosely be thought to have brutalist qualities. From the same publisher comes Breuer (£100), Robert McCarter’s meaty, well-illustrated book on Marcel Breuer, the Bauhaus architect and designer who emigrated to the US. Breuer was not precisely a brutalist, but knew how to wield the expressive powers of modern materials with the best of them.
For sheer richness and density of material it’s hard to beat Samantha Hardingham’s two-volume A Forward-Minded Retrospective (Architectural Association £150) on the great architectural thinker Cedric Price. Price, whose best-known work is the Snowden Aviary in London zoo, had a genius for looking beyond the self-serving orthodoxies of the architectural profession. He liked buildings to be mobile, impermanent, or maybe not there at all. Hardingham’s work draws on a rich archive of his playful drawings and words. With a price of £150, however, you’d have to be a dedicated Price fan to buy it or have an auntie who feels very generous at Christmas time.
Finally, two works of ascent and descent, one in time and the other in space. Dan Cruickshank bores into the rich history of Spitalfields (Cornerstone £25), the area of east London where he has lived for decades and helped preserve. Stephen Graham, in Vertical (Verso £20), explores the Y-axis in city building, from deep basements and bomb shelters, to skyscrapers, to the orbits of satellites. Both books are demanding to read from beginning to end, but both reward exploration of whatever chapters and themes you might fancy.