Rowan Moore’s best architecture books of 2017

This year’s picks take in absurdist humour, a deeply humane memoir and some stunning Italian hallways

Meet the Hon Aeneas Upmother-Brown, Minister for Pop-Uption. Hear how he gives a press conference in Milan, in which squadrons of bees recreate the lost library of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, while humming Auld Lang Syne. Read about the Placenta, an iconic building whose name will give “a literal sense of place, and also subliminally suggest that as a landmark entity it will be organic and full of transmittable urban nutrients.”

These are inventions of Ian Martin, who for a quarter-century has been lighting up the worthy pages of the Architects’ Journal. Among that periodical’s useful information on roof insulation, the photographs of quite interesting new schools and the paid-for puffs for the bigger practices, he weekly skewers and detonates the absurdities of the business of building. Like all comic geniuses, he creates his own cosmos, which means you don’t have to know everything about architecture to appreciate him. Although one of his strengths is that he does in fact know a lot about architecture, from its obscurely academic end to the cynically commercial.

A few years back his talent was recognised by his recruitment to the team that wrote The Thick of It and related works. This year Epic Space (Unbound £18.99) was published, a collection of his writing. As well as being weepingly funny, it has a moral core: Martin’s humour is motivated by true detestation of exploitation and deceit and by compassionate amusement at the more harmless pomposity of the people he describes.

Professor Joseph Rykwert, an architectural historian, is a different character from Martin, but his Remembering Places (Taylor & Francis £24.99) is also animated by its humanity. Born two weeks before our current Queen, he has a lot of remembering to do, from his upbringing in a well-off and cultured Warsaw family to his friendships with writers, philosophers, artists and architects across postwar Europe. His nine decades have been almost entirely concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, ideas and society, except for the terrifying time in September 1939, when he and his immediate family only just escaped the invading Wehrmacht. Other relatives were not so lucky.

Rykwert describes a period when a young enthusiast like himself could travel across Italy meeting the greatest architects of his time or, living for almost nothing in the attic of a rectory in Soho, could engage in intellectual and artistic ferments. One mentor was the misanthropic writer Elias Canetti, who used to go to a certain cafe in Hampstead – despite its specially bad coffee – because the scorn he felt for its patrons would help him get past his writer’s block. Rykwert’s wry and engaging book represents a triumph of civilisation, for the way a life punctuated by horror can stay true to its delicate but essential values.

Reinier de Graaf, a partner of the celebrated architectural practice OMA, is, like Martin, fascinated by the gap between the grandiosity of architectural ambitions and the grubby realities on which it often founders. Like Rykwert, he wants to place architecture in a wider social and cultural setting. Like both, he is driven by a belief in what architecture could be, but too rarely is.

His book, Four Walls and a Roof (Harvard £27.95), tells the stories that tend to get left out of official histories, but which actually shape our physical environment. He talks about the rise and fall of Marzahn, a colossal East German housing development, built of factory-made standardised components. He recounts his own practice’s entanglements with the politics of Putin’s court, when trying to build something in Russia. One chapter consists entirely of quotations by famous architects, justifying their decisions to work for the Chinese government and other tyrannies. (“I think the best thing is to have a benevolent dictator,” said Frank Gehry, “who has taste!”)

a staircase in the palazzo sola busca by aldo andreani
The Palazzo Sola Busca by Aldo Andreani. Photograph: jco/Delfino Sisto Legnani

De Graaf’s book is sharp, revealing, funny, drily passionate and not always encouraging. Which makes it pleasant to escape into Karl Kolbitz’s Entryways of Milan (Taschen £49.99), a photographic glimpse of mid-20th-century civilised Europe. Its calm, fine images show 100-plus examples of the playful, well-crafted lobbies through which bourgeois Milanesi like to enter their apartment blocks, spaces which wear lightly both Italy’s classical heritage and the freedoms of modernist design. The book is from the Taschen stable of sophisticated archi-porn, but an exceptionally refined example, whose seemingly narrow scope and boring title reveal a miraculous range of architectural invention. It is, to put it plainly, just lovely stuff.

To order any of the titles above for a special price, click on their titles, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Rowan Moore

The GuardianTramp

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