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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Venkova

Art, Design and Architecture Books to Inspire

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

With the lockdown and everything, I am trying to put my spare time to good use, which means catching up on my Goodreads list of books. Considering that it's been a while since I've recommended anything here, I thought, why not share some all-time favourite and newly discovered literature. Not just any literature, but one I hope will inspire-the theme is art, design and architecture ( no surprises here, you should know me by now, if you don't, well... design is my life, in all senses of the word.)

Atmospheres, Peter Zumthor

First on the list is Peter Zumthor. A renowned legendary figure that does not need much of an introduction. One of the greatest starchitects of our time, and possibly my all-time favourite creator in the industry. Peter Zumthor rarely appears in public, therefore there are not many chances for all of us aspiring designers and architects to learn from him. Luckily he has published a few books, which are definitely not a one time read, but a manifest of endless inspiration and knowledge, which one could keep coming back to.

Apart from being a beautifully designed and sculptured book, which completely represents the nature and works of Peter Zumthor, Atmospheres is also a rare opportunity to peek into the architect's mind and better understand what drives and excites him. Interestingly enough, this read was never intended as a book, it is a recording of a lecture the author gave back in 2003 in Germany. Reading the lines, one gets the feeling of being in a lecture hall surrounded by peers and colleagues. Unlike many philosophical architecture/design books, the language is simple and easy to follow and understand.

In the pages Peter Zumthor explores nine main principles that form the atmospheres:

  • The Body of Architecture

  • Material Compatibility

  • The Sound of a Space

  • The Temperature of a Space

  • Surrounding objects

  • Between Composure and Seduction

  • The tension between Interior and Exterior

  • Levels of Intimacy

  • The Light on Things

Each chapter explains those components of great architecture and includes the personal reflection of the author and examples from his approach when designing spaces. So if you are up to going on an emotional journey through architecture, you'll find value in Atmospheres.

Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor

“In order to design a building with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction.”

Thinking Architecture is a collection of essays in which Peter Zumthor expresses his motivation in designing buildings, which speak to our emotions and understanding in many ways and possess a powerful and unmistakable presence and personality. At its core, architecture is an art form and, according to the author - analytical assessments should follow artistic emotions. The forms in architecture are not purely based on logic, but on inner passion, feelings, memories and desires too.

I first read this book during my final year at university and found it especially captivating for the author's perspective on what is essential in the design and the contribution of what is missing. He also covers materials, finishes and the relationship between spaces and explains how users connect and relate to those on a more profound subconscious level. There you have it, another beautiful book worth your time!

The eyes of the skin, Juhani Pallasmaa

The eyes of the skin is yet another collection of essays and a classic of architectural theory. I was recommended this book by one of my lecturers at BAU Barcelona. It brought an immediate realisation of the complex nature of spatial design, which for some reason I have been failing to notice and inspired my final major project. (Thank you, Mar!)

In the first part of the book, the Finnish architect surveys the historical development of Ocular centrism - a perceptual and epistemological bias ranking vision over other senses in Western cultures ever since the Greeks, and the impact it has had on our experience of the world and architecture. The second essay explains the role of the other senses (hearing, touch, taste, smell) in authentic spatial experiences. What fascinated me was the concept of focusing our creative attention towards a multi-sensory architecture that facilitates a sense of belonging and integration.

‘‘I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the façade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections; my bodyweight meets the mass of the cathedral door, and my hand grasps the door pull as I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.’’

Ways of Seeing, John Berger

Ways of seeing was first published in 1972 and was based on the BBC television series by artist and art critic John Berger, where he analyses art and makes it seem more approachable, less overwhelming and something that should be part of our everyday life.

In a series of essays the author analyses the ways how different people from different backgrounds react to seeing images, caused by their inner reflections and experiences. For me, this book once again captures the perception of space (if compared to art) and what are the possibilities of something that might have been originally planned as something else. Slow to read, philosophical, but also mind-twisting as well.

"We never look just at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves."

In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki

Another excellent essay book, first published in 1933, which is still relevant in today's fast pace design world. In praise of shadows is a thorough examination and compelling comparison of the differences in the Western and Eastern cultures; and the Westerner's appreciation of everything light and bright opposed to the Japanese sensitivity towards shadows, obscurities and naturally occurring 'musky darkness'. A review on Goodreads describes the book as "A delightful essay on the ethos of Japanese aesthetics, its “frigid elegance” and its ancestral raison d’etre."

The author emphasizes the importance of tradition and natural materials in architecture and design and the simple yet meaningful phenomena of unremarkable shadowed corners, which bring the extra level of depth and mystery into an, at first sight, inconspicuous space, as these are in reality the principles that make a peaceful and restful environment to be in.

“Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”

I love this precious book so much, it is the only book I took with me coming to Malaysia. Absolutely recommend it if you are into Japanese design, but even if you aren't this book is still an amusing study on architecture, jade, food, and even toilets, all of which contribute to the acute sense of the use of space in buildings.

The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton

"Buildings speak - and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering of the past."

I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I read this beautiful book only recently. If I could have highlighted the whole book from start to finish, I would have. The Architecture of Happiness pays tribute to the often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery in our everyday environment: the kinds of walls, chairs, buildings and streets that surround us.

Alain de Botton is probably one of the 'kindest' sounding theoreticians and philosophers of the 21st Century. His style of writing is so gentle and understanding which makes all of his books quite easy to perceive and later on analyse. Prior to reading The Architecture of Happiness, one definitely must have a certain level of knowledge of historical movements, influences and styles in art, architecture and design. If that is you, I encourage you to give this book a chance. The writing focuses on the controversial theme of aesthetics against practicality, as well as the concept of beauty and ugliness. Buildings are presented as an embodiment of compound personality traits and characteristics, which contributes to the psychological effects of spatial design and architecture.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky

Finally, a book I only finished yesterday, yet I should have discovered years ago... (well, well, better late than never!). Once again, a weighty philosophy packed manifesto of the modernist art approach by an early abstract painter. Kandinsky explores and explains different topics concerning modern art: the movement of the triangle, the pyramid, the psychological, the psychological working of colour, the relationship between form and colour, all of which further clarified for me his specific artwork and the influence it has had on many artists and creators, including the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements in architecture and design.

The book offers plenty of reflections on the meaning and purpose of art and the ulterior and universal mission of every artist creating in a specific place at a particular time throughout history.

"They say to themselves: 'If the science of the day before yesterday is rejected by the people of yesterday, and that of yesterday by us of today, is it not possible that what we call science now will be rejected by the men of tomorrow?' And the bravest of them answer, 'It is possible.'"

To finish up this post, I wanted to mention one more book, which is of notable importance to the art/architectural audience out there, which I have not yet had the chance to read. It is currently on my shelf. Thus, as soon as I finish it, I promise to come back and update the post. I wasn't sure if I should mention it just yet, but having read its online reviews, I believe it will be a miss if it does not make the compilation shared above. I am talking about The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard. If you have read it, please share your opinion. I would like to hear it. Also, if you have any other recommendations, get in touch. I am at a point in my life when I have enough time to catch up on my reading list and sincerely appreciate all the wisdom shared by many great minds. So please stay in touch!

Here is a single beloved quote from the book... sounds promising! Brb

“I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”


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