What is the name of the book?
David Theodore (DT): Sir Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method for students, Craftsmen & Amateurs, 8th ed., rev. and enlarged (London: B.T. Batsford, 1928).
I am always reading a stream of books and rarely finish any of them. I am almost finished going through the 21 editions of History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, so let’s go with that.
Who is the author?
DT: The first edition, published in 1896, was written by Banister Fletcher and his son, also named Banister Fletcher. Later editions were put together in the architectural office Fletcher fils ran with his brother, H. Philips Fletcher. Lady Bamford Slack, Banister’s first wife, now receives credit for the major revisions and rewriting of the sixth edition. Murray Fraser edited the latest edition, the 21st, published in 2019, which includes 88 authors from around the world.
What is the genre?
DT: It’s a compendium, a 19th century genre the internet has made less compelling. It’s a handbook for builders, a study guide for students, and a travel guide for tourists.
Do you judge a book by its cover?
DT: I try not to judge books at all! In the Zoom era, the question could be posed the other way around: we don’t judge books by their covers, we judge others by the covers of their books. Make sure you have interesting books in your Zoom backgrounds!
Book cover design is a fascinating art form. History of Architecture on the Comparative Method has a beautiful line drawing of architecture personified as a woman as its cover. The illustration is uncredited but was likely drawn by George G Woodward.
What made you pick it up? Can you highlight any notable aspect of the book’s design aesthetics, typography, images…
DT: I do most of my reading for work. I started reading History around 2010, and my essay on it should come out next year. Reading is slow work.
The book’s illustrations and photographs are really well known. The idea is to evoke so-called lithic history - the culture and politics of nations - through regularised drawings. These graphics are deep in the psyche of English-speaking architects.
Your most favourite part(s) of it?
DT: The pleasures of this book have to do with the book’s role in architectural thinking and education. It’s curious that 19th century ideas about architecture can still be so alive in the 21st. Why do we think there is such a thing as primitive architecture? Blame Banister Fletcher!
Did you gain any insight or did it help you unwind?
DT: It’s a formidable book, but it is meant to be synoptic rather than insightful. It presents facts in as digestible a manner as possible.
I read for work; reading to unwind would be a bit of a busman’s holiday.
Your favourite lines to quote from the book.
DT: Can I pun and say it’s the “line” drawings? No? Another book I have open has this great line about architecture: I date my old age from the day I took the lift first at the Uffizi! A whole world opens up in this phrase, a world in which the characters would likely have the History in their luggage.
At what time of the day do you read?
DT: Constantly? When I used to take the bus to work, I read a lot then. Now I walk to work, so I have no special time to read.
Hard books, e-books or audio/video books?
DT: All kinds—though I have never been offered a video book.
One book or book adaptation as a film that you always want to go back to.
DT: I often don’t make it to the end the first time; re-reading an entire book is a rarity. Though some modernist prose stylists—Proust, Joyce—reward rereading. These are pretty boring books the first time through.
What’s the use of having libraries if you are going to re-read the same books? That’s how you get people reading Jules Verne and HG Wells rather than Octavia Butler and NK Jesmin.
I think Fassbinders’ Berlin Alexanderplatz and Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales reward careful viewing as adaptations. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does something interesting: it adapts the TV adaptation of a book. The TV adaptation pushed characterisation through acting; his film adaptation pushes characterisation through architecture. I should say that more emphatically: his film re-imagines themes of analysis, information, trust, and secrets as architectural settings. The techniques of the book—gritty detail, jargon, repetition—fall away, and instead we see distances manipulated, views blocked or framed, characters on thresholds or (literally) in containers. That sensitivity to architecture goes way beyond anything offered in the book. So I would be more willing to re-watch the movie than to re-read the book.
Check out STIR’s exclusive, insightful interview with Prof. David Theodore and Thomas Balaban on Impostor Cities at the Venice Architecture Biennale’s Canada Pavilion, here
Look up more such interesting reads from the series ‘What Am I Reading’ and watch out for more.