What Am I Reading: Prof. David Theodore

STIR looks into the reading habits of leading creatives – Montreal-based David Theodore indulges in the rather timeless A History of Architecture by Sir Banister Fletcher.

by STIRworldPublished on : Jun 01, 2021

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.

Theodore’s current reading spot on his balcony at his residence in Montreal | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
Theodore’s current reading spot on his balcony at his residence in Montreal Image: David Theodore

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.

The classic book is a compendium of architectural theory and construction for students, builders, professionals, and even tourists | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
The classic book is a compendium of architectural theory and construction for students, builders, professionals, and even tourists Image: David Theodore

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.

A History of Architecture’s eighth edition has architecture personified as a woman on its cover, beautifully illustrated through a line drawing | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
A History of Architecture’s eighth edition has architecture personified as a woman on its cover, beautifully illustrated through a line drawing Image: Courtesy of STIR

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!

Theodore considers his reading to be an intensely academic activity | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
Theodore considers his reading to be an intensely academic activity Image: David Theodore

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.

  • A page from A History of Architecture’s eighth edition, originally authored by Sir Banister Fletcher | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
    A page from A History of Architecture’s eighth edition, originally authored by Sir Banister Fletcher Image: David Theodore
  • Theodore states the intricate line drawings to be the most impressive parts of the book | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
    Theodore states the intricate line drawings to be the most impressive parts of the book Image: David Theodore

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.

Theodore has been reading History for long now, with an intention to publish an essay on it next year. “Reading is slow work”, he states | What Am I Reading| David Theodore | STIRworld
Theodore has been reading History for long now, with an intention to publish an essay on it next year. “Reading is slow work”, he states Image: David Theodore

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.

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