Celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Steingruber’s “Architectural Alphabet”

What is it about artists’ books and architecture that they intersect so often? Architectural interiors and exteriors, ideas, themes, styles, landmark dwellings and edifices have found their metaphorical expression and embodiment in book art with such regularity that they make up a genre within the genre. Perhaps it is that, as Victor Hugo expresses it in Nôtre Dame de Paris (1831/1902),

the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper. … The past must be reread upon these pages of marble. This book, written by architecture, must be admired and perused incessantly; but the grandeur of the edifice which printing erects in its turn must not be denied. (Book V, Chapter 2, p. 187)

Or perhaps it is even more fundamental. As Hugo asserts in his posthumous The Alps and the Pyrenees (1890/1895):

All letters were signs at first, and all signs were images at first…. Human society, the world, man as a whole, is in the alphabet…. A is the roof, the gable with its cross-beam, the arch, arx; … Z is the lightning, it is God. (pp. 64-65)

Beneath the mysticism and pareidolia, Hugo is on to something. Maybe the affinity of books and architecture lies in the origin of the raw material of books — the alphabet — whose second letter comes from a mark signifying shelter or house.

This wondering and wandering about the intersection of architecture and the artist’s book is prompted by the 250th anniversary of the publication of Johann David Steingruber’s Architectonisches Alphabeth(1773). This postcard-famous volume of print folios depicts architectural elevations and plans for residences in the shape of the letters of the alphabet. It is dedicated to Christian Friedrich Carl Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, not to be confused with the paying dedicatee of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. By a baroque coincidence, however, the first Brandenburg concertos, the ones composed by Giuseppe Torelli and influencing Bach, are dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, then George Friedrich II, Alexander’s great-uncle who employed Torelli as court composer. Unlike Bach, however, Torelli received no direct payment for his composition. Steingruber too had to be satisfied with his payment as an appointee (court and public surveyor, and later principal architect of the board of works).

Steingruber may have felt he had good reason to be miffed. After all he had published the volume in installments at his own expense and made sure that the Margrave’s monogram (and that of Carolina Frederica, his wife) in building form appeared in the span above the roman arch on the title page. His elevations and plans draw attention to the heating, kitchen, toilet and servants’ arrangements as if conferring with a prospective client ready to commission one of these typographic palaces. Perhaps he was thinking, Who would not want a serif with a view? Or conduct guests on a tour of the bowl, capline, crossbar, stem, stroke and tail of the property? In a flourish that illustrates the intersection of book and architecture, the title page presents the title and subtitle inside an arch and serves double duty as a Table of Contents with thumbnail images of the letter-shaped buildings to come inscribed on the columns.

Munich, Bavarian State Library

To celebrate the Architectural Alphabet‘s 250th anniversary, this online essay/exhibition explores sixteen propositions about the affinity of architecture and artists’ books. Examples supporting each proposition include works from within and without the Books On Books Collection, and each example includes a link or links for additional views of the work. Every effort has been made to provide bibliographical (or webliographical?) links from WorldCat and the Internet Archive. The former will allow the reader to find local libraries that hold a copy of the exhibited work to be viewed in person; the latter will partly address the problem of broken links. Where broken links (or factual errors) do appear, readers are encouraged to alert the curator in the Comments section at the end of the essay/exhibition.

Proposition #1: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in the alphabet.

Architectural alphabet (1773/1972)
Johann David Steingruber
Published by Merrion Press.

Architectonisches Alphabeth (1773/1995)
Prepared by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel for Ravensburger Verlag.

Of course the first exhibit would be Steingruber’s Architectural Alphabet, but related works — before and after, published or built — will clamor for admission: Geofroy Tory’s Champ Fleury (1529/1927/1998), Antonio Basoli’s Alfabeto Pittorico (1839/1998), Giovanni Battista de Pian’s Alphabetto Pittoresque (1842), and Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum (2000), whose form within the walls of a former power substation is composed of two Hebrew letters — the Yud and the Chet — which make up the word Chai (“Life”).

Left to right: Tory/Rogers, Basoli, Battista de Pian (Photos by Books On Books Collection), Libeskind (The Yud Gallery, Photo by Paul Dyer).

Lanore Cady’s Houses & Letters (1977) is another work supporting the proposition, in this case with calligraphy, watercolor and verse.

Houses & Letters: A Heritage in Architecture & Calligraphy (1977)
Lanore Cady

Proposition #2: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in telling stories.

As Daniel Libeskind has said, “For me, a building is a medium to tell a story.” Emily Speed’s Unfolding Architecture (2007) tells the tale of Gordon, a city dweller who witnesses the collapse of public buildings and, ultimately, his own home as the urban fabric begins to unfold around him — a story replicated by the housing’s structure and the book’s accordion fold.

Unfolding Architecture (2007)
Emily Speed

But Ulises Carrión denied that books are about narrative. Instead they are about space and time, which leads to the next proposition.

Proposition #3: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in space and time.

Olafur Eliasson’s Your House (2006) is a laser-cut model of his residence in Copenhagen at a scale of 1:85, which means that each page equates to a 220 mm section of the actual house. In the film Russian Ark (2003), Aleksandr Sokurov made cinematic history with his one continuous shot in 90 minutes, depicting a 17th century time traveller moving through different periods of history as he moves through the rooms of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. The film inspired Johan Hybschmann’s Book of Space (2009).

Your House (2006)
Olafur Eliasson

Book of Space (2009)
Johan Hybschmann

How do you read works like this? The size, weight and delicacy of Eliasson’s book and the fragility of Hybschmann’s book and its need for an armature to freeze-frame it defy a simple turning of pages. They must be turned slowly and carefully. Both works heed the task of the arts as posed by architect Juhani Pallasmaa for our age of speed: to defend the comprehensibility of time, its experiential plasticity, tactility and slowness (The Embodied Image, p. 78).

Proposition #4: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in process.

A trained architect and book artist, Marian Macken articulates and illustrates in her book Binding Space why and how the artist’s book can serve as an important tool for design, documentation and critique of architecture. Macken’s perceptive descriptions show how to observe materiality and its functioning and understand how they contribute to the making of art.

Investigating bookness results in the book becoming a highly productive intervening medium with which one can imagine, investigate, analyze, represent and exhibit particular qualities — haptically, and with narrative and ambiguity — of a built environment and the design process. Through the book, we read spatial practice anew (p. 163).

Reading Macken’s book will sharpen the ability of any reader or viewer to appreciate book art, especially her Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated. Ise Jingū is a Shinto shrine complex in the Mie Prefecture, Japan. “Once every 20 years, since … the seventh century, every fence and building is completely rebuilt on an identical adjoining site, a practice of transposition known as shikinen-zōkan” (Binding Space, p. 101). For Macken, this ritualistic rebuilding poses architecture as performative process rather than as inert object; it “manifests the replication of a beginning, of a process” (p. 100).

Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated (2011)
Marian Macken

Macken’s artwork consists of 61 loose sheets with a watermarked image within each, the number reflecting the 61 iterations of the shrine up until the making of this work of book art. The watermark is a perspective image based on Yoshio Watanabe’s photograph of the Inner Shrine, taken in 1953 on the occasion of the 59th rebuilding. The contrast of the watermark in kozo and the movement of its placement from one sheet to the next entice reflection on the phenomenon of representation and the architectural process of shikinen-zōkan.

Proposition #5: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in phenomenology.

Architects such as Alfredo Muñoz and his firm ABIBOO, Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor are among those often associated with architectural phenomenology, concerned with perception psychology, focused on the primacy of sensory and experiential qualities. Norman Foster and phenomenology are not so often yoked, but 30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009) and 30 St. Mary Axe: Cladding (2009)– Mandy Brannan’s treatments of his iconic London office tower (aka “the Gherkin”) that refocus the perception and experience of it — might prompt reconsideration.

Top: 30 St Mary Axe: Cladding (2009). Bottom: 30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009)
Mandy Brannan

Proposition #6: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in geometry.

Sarah Bryant’s The Radiant Republic (2019) insightfully integrates Plato’s and Le Corbusier’s texts and ideas. The very physicality of the blond wood, linen cover, glass window, concrete representations of Platonic solids, embossed type and sewn papers could easily be a response to Juhani Pallasmaa’s comment: “The current overemphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence” (The Eyes of the Skin, p. 35).

The Radiant Republic (2019)
Sarah Bryant

Proposition #7: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in modelling.

Helen Malone’s Ten Books of Architecture (2017) takes a broad historical and, most important, haptic view of architecture from Vitruvius to Hadid. Each of the ten books is a bookwork that models its architectural subject.

Ten Books of Architecture (2017)
Helen Malone

Proposition #8: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in folding.

At the end of the 20th century, architects like Peter Eisenman, Jeffrey Kipnis and Greg Lynn latched on to computer-aided design and Gilles Deleuze’s Le pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988) / The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1993). This led to real constructions such as Eisenman’s Rebstock Park in Frankfurt as well as to the seminal books Folding in Architecture (1993), edited by Lynn, and Folding Architecture 92003) by Sophia Vyzoviti.

Folded book pages rarely generate a work that rises above mere craft. Heather Hunter’s Observer Series: Architecture (2009) achieves the necessary height. It combines the altered book with an accordion book that incorporates a found poem composed of the words excised and folded outwards from the folded pages of The Observer’s Book of Architecture.

Observer Series: Architecture (2009)
Heather Hunter

Proposition #9: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in light.

Marlene MacCallum’s Theme and Permutation (2012) is a response to the permutations and variations over time in five houses built to a common plan in Townsite area of Corner Brook, Newfoundland. MacCallum used digital tools to translate the original film source of eight different window images from the houses. A tritone image of a single Townsite window under translucent pages opens the book. As the pages turn, new window images appear and layer over each other, darkening up to the book’s mid-point. In the center spread, two text blocks appear speaking to the history, architectural permutations and economic shifts of the Townsite area. The tonality begins to lighten over the ensuing new combinations of window layers. A third text block of personal narrative is introduced, and a tritone image of one of the Townsite windows in its original condition concludes the work.

Theme and Permutation (2012)
Marlene MacCallum

Proposition #10: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in perspective.

Cees Nagelkerke’s Piranesian Window (1996) resides in the Vedute Foundation’s collection of “spatial manuscripts”, invited works that must conform to the dimensions of the Gutenberg Bible. Piranesian Window‘s form and title capture multiple meanings of vedute (“views”). Views are things seen — which this spatial manuscript is. Views are prospects from which to see — which a window offers. Views are perspectives — for which Giambattista Piranesi’s etchings are famous. Views are thoughts held — which “Piranesian” implies (the work’s title could be that of a manuscript on art history and philosophy). Piranesi’s mid-eighteenth century etchings Vedute di Roma (“Views of Rome”) and Carceri d’invenzione (“Imaginary Prisons”) are the obvious sources of inspiration, but Nagelkerke provides an interview describing the dream source of the work:

– … Please, continue relating your dream …
– I wandered through vast ruins … along wrecked bridges … feeling remarkably at ease.
– How did you find the window in this windowless world?
– When a cool breeze wafted inside, I suddenly saw it. It showed a landscape, within the distance a city. There was complete tranquillity and harmony there, like in a painting by Piero della Francesca … I stood there for some considerable time and I became increasingly saddened, because I discovered that I was looking at something that had vanished forever.
– But how did you manage to take the window?
– I wanted to touch it … as a result, I immediately fell down. The gap left in the wall closed by itself … I picked it up and continued on my way, meeting people who spoke to me saying that I should leave the Carceri. I was taken to a gateway. No one looked at, or said anything about, the window… In the square where I found myself, there was an intense, chaotic commotion. The window still reflected something of the vast space I had left. The exterior showed traces of the wall in which it had been mounted. I looked through it and saw everyday life …

Piranesian Window (1996)
Cees Nagelkerke

Proposition #11: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in archaeology.

Mill: A journey around Cromford Mill, Derbyshire (2006) by Salt + Shaw (Paul Salt and Susan Shaw) is the result of the artists’ exploration of Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, the first water-powered, cotton-spinning mill developed by Richard Arkwright in 1771. Bound in a cover of recycled wooden library shelves, three plaster cast blocks and seven calico pocket pages containing hidden texts imply the hidden archaeological history to be found. The forensic-like casts are taken from interior surfaces, and the texts walk the reader step by step through each area of the mill.


Mill
(2006)
Salt+Shaw

Proposition #12: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in assemblage and collage.

Based on an architectural installation at the Minnesota College for Art and Design and drawing on her photos of Ayvalik, Amsterdam, Florence, Istanbul, New York City, Rome, San Diego and Venice, Karen Wirth’s Paper Architecture (2017) certainly prompts a revisit to MoMA’s “Cut ’n’ Paste: From Architectural Assemblage to Collage City“, 10 July 2013 – 5 January 2015, to prove this proposition.

Paper Architecture (2017)
Karen Wirth

Proposition #13: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in luxe.

Early theorists, critics and artists of book art expended great effort to exclude livres d’artiste and deluxe productions from the definition of a form of art that struggled to find a name: artist’s book, artists’ books, bookworks, book art, etc. The spectrum from objects of conspicuous consumption to democratic multiples characterizes both architecture and book art. Antoni Gaudí’s architectural efforts easily span that spectrum — from his Casa Milà to his tiles found underfoot in Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia. Under the guidance of Juan José Lahuerta (chief curator at the National Museum of Art of Catalonia), the publisher Artika produced Gaudí Up Close (2020), enclosed in a wooden case with marble sculpture finished in paint, cement powder and anti-graffiti varnishes and lined with Naturlinnen fabric.

Gaudí Up Close (2020)
Published by Artika.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Proposition #14: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in the memorial.

As you turn the corner into Judenplatz in Vienna, Rachel Whiteread’s great cube appears showing only the fore edge of book after book. As you hold J. Meejin Yoon’s small white brick of paper and turn its thick pages, a small pinhole appears on the page. Then two larger square holes emerge, one of which falls over the pinhole. Page after page, the two square holes repeat, creating two small dark wells in the field of white, until on the last page they take their place in the cut-out schematic footprint of the city blocks and buildings surrounding the Twin Towers. Whiteread’s Nameless Library (2000) and Yoon’s Absence (2004) surely underscore this proposition of memorial.

Nameless Library (2000)
Rachel Whiteread
Photo: Books On Books.


Absence
(2004)
© J. Meejin Yoon

Proposition #15: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in the sacred.

Jeffrey Morin and Steven Ferlauto’s Sacred Space (2003) is an intimate monument of book art. Made intimate by the content and texture of its book, made more intimate by the viewer’s having to construct the chapel. Made monumental by the echo of typographic history, made more monumental in Galileo Galilei’s echo from its floor: Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has created the universe.

Sacred Space (2003)
Jeffrey Morin and Steven Ferlauto

Proposition #16: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in collaboration.

In Victor Hugo’s Nôtre-Dame de Paris (1831), Archdeacon Claude Frollo points to the book in his hand and then to the cathedral and says, “This will kill that”. It is ironic that Hugo’s book (popularly known now by its English title The Hunchback of Nôtre-Dame) was written in large part to save the then-decaying cathedral (post-Revolution, it served as a warehouse), and it succeeded. It is also ironic that, while the fictional character’s metaphor has a point about the book’s permanence of replicability outlasting the building’s permanence of stone, it misses the collaborative foundations of both.

Created by ten students at Scripps College under the direction of Kitty Maryatt, Arch (2010) reminds us that the creation of a book — even a work of book art — is a collaborative effort.

Arch (2010)
Kitty Maryatt, Jenny Karin Morrill, Ali Standish, Alycia Lang, Jennifer Wineke, Mandesha Marcus, Catherine Wang, Kathryn Hunt, Ilse Wogau, Jennifer Cohen, Winnie Ding
Photos: Books On Books Collection

Maryatt’s preface to Arch is entitled “Blueprint” and is brief enough to warrant citing in full:

Books are inherently architectonic. Studying architecture would naturally be profitable to students building their own books.

On January 17, 2010, just days before class was to start, the Los Angeles Times published a fascinating article on contemporary women architects, highlighting a striking building by Jeannie Gang.

Earlier this year, the brand-new President of Scripps College chose The Genius of Women as her inaugural theme. What serendipity! This gave us the perfect inspiration for our artist book: the genius of women architects.

After extensive research and class discussion, a mission statement for the book evolved:

Architecture, like books, is a delicate balancing act between stability and motion, interior and exterior, aesthetic values and structural practicalities.

Books, like building, are fundamentally inhabited spaces. They are incomplete without human interaction.

The first portals were built of post and lintel construction. A curved arch is more difficult: the keystone is needed at the apex to lock the other pieces into position. Building a book is a similarly difficult feat. — Professor Kitty Maryatt

Conclusion: The affinity of architecture and artists’ books lies in our attraction to the beauty of form.

No doubt the proximity of the need for shelter and the need for oral and written language have played some gravitational role of mutual attraction for architecture and books (and latterly artists’ books). But equally, both architecture and artists’ books speak to our attraction to the beauty of form. All of the examples above are re-offered here in support of this proposition. Look at them again.

“Architecture”, “art” and “the book” are all fluid concepts. So it should be no surprise that we arrive at the equally fluid similes: architecture is like book art, book art is like architecture.


An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Blue Notebook, Volume 16 No 2, Spring – Summer 2022.

Further Reading

Carrión, Ulises. 1975. “The New Art of Making Books”. Reprinted in Lyons, Joan. 1993. Artist’s books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press.

Côme, Tony. 2018. “The Typotectural Suites“, The Palace of Typographic Masonry. Accessed 5 April 2021.

Goldberger, Paul. 2008. Counterpoint: Daniel Libeskind. Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag.

Hugo, Victor, and Jessie Haynes, trans. 1831 (1902). Nôtre Dame de Paris. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Hugo, Victor, and Nathan Haskell Dole, trans. 1890 (1895). Victor Hugo’s Letters to His Wife and Others (The Alps and the Pyrenees). Boston, MA: Estes and Lauriat.

Lynn, Greg. 2004. Folding in Architecture Rev. ed. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Academy. See for references to Mario Carpo, Gilles Deleuze and Peter Eisenman.

Macken, Marian. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London: Taylor and Francis.

McEwen, Hugh. 12 January 2012. Polyglot Buildings. Issuu. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Niessen, Richard. 2018. The Palace of Typographic Masonry. Leipzig: Spector Books.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 1996. The Eyes of the Skin. London: Academy Editions.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2009. The Thinking Hand. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2011. The Embodied Image. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Steingruber, Johann David. 1773 (1774). Architectonisches Alphabeth: bestehend in Dreysig … . Schwabach: Johann Gottlieb Mizler.

Tsimourdagkas, Chrysostomos. 2014. Typotecture: Histories, Theories and Digital Futures of Typographic Elements in Architectural Design. Doctoral dissertation, Royal College of Art, London. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Vyzoviti Sophia and BIS Publishers. 2016. Folding Architecture : Spatial Structural and Organizational Diagrams. 14th print ed. Amsterdam: BIS.

Williams, Elizabeth. 1989. “Architects Books: An Investigation in Binding and Building”, The Guild of Book Workers Journal. 27, 2: 21-31.

Books On Books Collection – Olafur Eliasson

Your House (2006)

Your House (2006)
Olafur Eliasson
Hardback handbound with 454 laser cut leaves. H273 × W432 × D114 mm. Edition of 225, of which this is #210. Acquired from Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art, August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artist.

Your House is a laser-cut model of Olafur Eliasson’s residence in Copenhagen at a scale of 1:85, which means that each page equates to a 220 mm section of the actual house. How do you read a work like this — physically? At the 22″ mark in the video below, the pages fall in a cascade like a flipbook, but for the most part, their size, accumulated bulk and weight — and delicacy — defy that handling. They must be turned slowly and carefully. Your House heeds the task of the arts as posed by the architect Juhani Pallasmaa, “in our age of speed, …to defend the comprehensibility of time, its experiential plasticity, tactility and slowness” (The Embodied Image, p. 78).

Your House (2014)
Studio Olafur Eliasson

As you move from Your House‘s entrance to its exit, the outlines of walls, floors, stairs, doors, domes, windows, fireplaces and bookcases tremble in the air. Is this what Gaston Bachelard calls “the material imagination”? What Juhani Pallasmaa calls “the embodied image”?

Video: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

There is something meditative about reading Your House properly. The cautious repetitive turning of pages can induce a daydream of inhabiting the space revealed. At some point in turning the pages, the empty shapes begin to become “your house”. Perhaps you see yourself moving through its spaces, and imagined furnishings occupying its rooms.

Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

Or perhaps as in the sequence above — the end of one room (or chapter or part) and the start of another — you become a ghost — with all the work’s past and future readers — passing through the walls.

Video: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes of poetic time and prosodic time. The one is vertical, a spot in time, a frozen moment; the other is horizontal, a narrative, a continuity. But they are not mutually exclusive. Your House is a site where poetic and prosodic time occupy the same space. More than that, it is a site where temporality, as Eliasson puts it, “becomes something you perform by involving yourself physically over time” and thereby you become, “in the end, the createur” (“Not how, but why!”, p. 108).

Contact is Content (2014)

Contact is Content (2014)
Olafur Eliasson
Casebound, cloth mesh-covered board. H345 x W310 x D50 mm, 416 pages. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Like Your House, this work requires a slow, careful interaction in which viewing becomes learning the language of Eliasson’s images, discovering its syntax and exploring its rhymes and rhythms — reading the content presented with it. Unlike Your House, which focuses on contact with one source of content, Contact is Content draws on multiple sources: photographs Eliasson took in Iceland between 1986 and 2013 as well as images from his other projects and artworks. Over 80 different series make up the content of this work. The overwhelming number of round images — artificial and natural — in Contact is Content might suggest that Eliasson is completely sold on Bachelard’s pronouncement in The Poetics of Space that all being is round. But Eliasson’s world is spikier.

Within Contact is Content, images converse with one another — over near and far subjects, over aerial and ground level perspectives, over contrasting textures, over colors and their absence or presence, over artifice and nature

Often the conversations are reverse echoes: the reflective surface of blocks of ice echoes that of basalt.

The echo of near and far becomes a theme in itself: black-and-white aerial views of landscapes elide into black-and-white close-ups.

The absence and presence of color also emerges as a theme in its own right that interweaves with that of “near and far”: waterfalls without color vs waterfalls with the barest hint of color; close-ups of rocky terrain without color vs those dotted with intensely green or blue flora.

Some reverse echoes are the artificial conversing with nature: a gallery room containing a construction pumping water upwards over four levels echoes an Icelandic waterfall; or shorescapes under fog echo human outlines swallowed up in gallery rooms flooded with color-lit mists. Down to up; outside to inside; black-and-white to color; nature to artifice. And back.

Some of these artifice/nature echoes are compressed into one image: a brightly half-painted stick of driftwood echoes the multiple color wheels used to punctuate the stretches of landscape images.

Other echoes occur within the span of artifice (whole color wheels echoed by sliced black ones) before colliding with nature (a piece of driftwood impaled by a glass triangle) and then jumping back to artifice (round mirrors bisected at floor and wall and cascading upwards to be bisected by wall and ceiling).

Some echoes occur across dozens and dozens of pages. Still others occur in the single turn of a page.

These are but a few of the themes that Eliasson weaves into a narrative with his images, artworks and projects. Every encounter with this book as container seems to reveal a new theme.

Contact (2014)

Contact (2014)
Olafur Eliasson
Front and back covers and center spread of exhibition catalogue in paperback. Designed by Irma Boom. Acquired from Artbooksonline.eu, 27 September 2020. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

Contact interprets the eponymous site-specific exhibition, commissioned by the Fondation Louis Vuitton and held in its Frank Gehry-designed building, 17 December 2014 through 23 February 2015. Here is the artist’s statement on Contact:

being in contact is the opposite of being disconnected. to be in contact is to be aware of the consequences that your actions have in and on the world. contact is about experience rather than consumption. to be in contact is to be in touch with the good things in life as well as with the difficult things in life. contact can be a greeting, a smile, the feeling of another person’s hand in your hand. contact is not a picture, it is not a representation; it is about your ability to reach out, connect, and perhaps even put yourself in another person’s place. for me, contact is where inclusion begins. contact is the highest luxury of all. olafur eliasson

Contact is also between page and page. Eliasson and Irma Boom, “the queen of books”, have worked together on several works. Boom’s mastery of the full bleed, double-page spread and gutter is the perfect match for this volume that brings the virtual into contact with the material.

Contact is also between paper and ink, between black and white as well as between dark and light when the book’s fluorescent title glows in a darkened room. The cover’s fluorescent ink, however, is not integral enough with the rest of the book to rise above an amusing touch; whereas contact between black and white extends to the division of the book into black and white halves.

In the first half of the book, photographs on entirely black paper present a codex-experience of the exhibition. In the second half of the book, drawings take the viewer behind the scenes of the exhibition’s design and, retrospectively, train the eye to read the book as exhibition.

This incorporation of design drawings draws attention to time, and Contact is very much about our perception of time. In her book Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice, Marian Macken refers to “the tenses of the book”. Especially when presented in a book, architectural plan drawings “are not fixed in their sequence, but instead may be read and interpreted as existing within a range of times, such as the time of their making, of the present of the reader, the future they may refer to, and the contextual moment of apprehension” (p. 157). In the case of this “book of the exhibition”, published to coincide with the exhibition, the plan drawings and photographs exist in the exhibition’s past and present. For an exhibition attendee, they exist as a reminder of a personal past performance of contact with the exhibition. For attendees and non-attendees, they bring the exhibition’s past and future together in the present in a performance of contact guided by the architecture of the book.

How appropriate it is that, in her essay in the book’s white section, Caroline A. Jones writes, “Personally, I will not have seen the installations that the present text accompanies” — as is/will be the case for many of us experiencing Contact only in its book form. Jones’ essay is entitled “Event Horizon: Olafur Eliasson’s Raumexperimente”, which confirms that contact is not only about perception of time, but of space as well. While Jones teases out how the exhibition will play/plays/played with the astrophysical conundrum, she cites a comment from Eliasson in conversation that captures a simpler view: “There is a tradition of the horizon as a boundary between the known and unknown. But as you approach, it fades in, or comes into your experience. You can think of it as a space” (p. 133).

Space — which brings up the awkward point of the setting in which the exhibition occurred. Since the Renaissance, imagination in art and science has sat sometimes uneasily, sometimes too easily with wealth and privilege. There may be nothing democratic in Eliasson’s expensive, spectacular art, but Contact’s fusion of science, art, nature (Earth-bound and cosmic) and social connectedness contrasts pointedly and paradoxically with its setting in the opulent property of a global luxury brand — “the blandishments of follies and bling” as Jones puts it. As Eliasson’s artist statement asserts: “contact is about experience rather than consumption….is where inclusion begins….is the highest luxury of all”. But without the Fondation’s patronage, the experience of Contact in situ or even in these artfully designed pages would be denied.

Somewhat less reconcilable is the statement “contact is not a picture,… is not a representation”. Placing contact with art (a picture, a representation) in opposition to contact through human touch and empathy is not quite right. Just as Your House resonates with the perspective of the physicist/philosopher/humanist Bachelard, for whom the image is language, so too does the language of Contact as exhibition, images, objects, book — and experience. We cannot have contact without it.

Studio Olafur Eliasson. 2015. Olafur Eliasson, Contact, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris 2014 – 2015.

Further Reading, Looking & Listening

Architecture“, Bookmarking Book Art, 12 November 2019.

Bachelard, Gaston, M. Jolas, and Etienne Gilson. 1964. The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Chavasse, Paule. Interviewer. 1959. “Gaston Bachelard – Entretien : La poétique de l’espace.” Radiodiffusion Française (RDF). 1959. Accessed 8 February 2021.

Denis, Claire. 2016. Contact by Olafur Eliasson. Video. 8 March 2016. Accessed 7 February 2021.

Eliasson, Olafur. 2009. “Not how, but why!” in Concrete Design Book on Implicit Performance. Eds. Siebe Bake and Billy Nolan. Brussels: FEBELCEM.

Fondation Louis Vuitton. 2015. Contact – Olafur Eliasson. Video. 13 January 2015. Accessed 7 February 2021.

Jones, Caroline A. 2014. “Event Horizon: Olafur Eliasson’s Raumexperimente”, pp. 132-37, in Contact. Paris: Flammarion.

Marian Macken. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2016. “Matter, Hapticity and Time Material Imagination and the Voice of Matter.” Building Material, no. 20: 171-89. Accessed February 8, 2021.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2011. The embodied image: imagination and imagery in architecture. Chichester: J. Wiley & Sons.

Razzall, Katie. 2013. “Celebrating books… with pages made of glass“, Channel 4 News, 20 September 2013. Accessed 3 November 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Edward Andrew Zega & Bernd H. Dams

An Architectural Alphabet : ABC (2008)

An Architectural Alphabet : ABC (2008)
Edward Andrew Zega & Bernd H. Dams

Slipcase, casebound in a variation of the Chinese fashion. H210 x W178 x D25 mm, 96 pages. Edition of 400, of which this is #21. Acquired from Architectural Watercolors, 8 April 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artists.

Since 1995, Zega & Dams have published several volumes of their architectural watercolors, almost all focused on the Ancien Régime but with some diversions to New York’s Central Park and Russia’s Tatarstan. An Architectural Alphabet is, however, not quite a diversion and certainly more than a divertissement. Two elegant essays — “Letter Pictures” and “Artists’ Alphabets” — bracket the elevational drawings of A to Z with their accompanying illustrations. The essays weave together reference points from the history of the Latin alphabet, architectural history, histories of architectural and natural science illustration and those of typography and graphic design. They do this lightly and knowingly just as the letters and images do, which play simultaneously with typographic and calligraphic traditions and the vocabulary of the architecture and decorative arts of the Ancien Régime and the Grand Tour.

The acanthus leaf commonly used to decorate a column’s capital, hence the gentleman’s upward gaze.

Balustrade: a rail supported by balusters (vase-shaped columns), used for balconies from which a lady might like to peer.

The authors/artists’ choice and use of fonts offer other examples of their subtle erudition. The body text is set in Capsa italic, a rather allusive and self-allusive choice. Dino dos Santos, its designer, was inspired by fonts created by the 18th-century type-founder Claude Lamesle. One of those Ancien Régime fonts is Gros Romain Ordinaire, whose name draws further attention to Zega & Dams’ decision to use italic in place of the usual Roman for the body text. With its “Romain” roots, Capsa italic performs as the perfect foil to the choice of display font, which also serves as the template for the “letter pictures”: Carol Twombly’s Trajan. The name and design are based on the Roman capitals entwining Trajan’s Column in Rome. The fact that the ancient Roman capitals had no letter U, only the letter V to stand in for both, provides the artists with the opening for the following visual joke.

Urn versus Vase

The authors take the stylistic development of chinoiserie during the Ancien Régime for two rides in the work: one for vocabulary with the letter C and another for structural allusion with the binding.

The binding is a variation on Chinese casebinding. Here the sewn book block has been placed on the middle board of three hinged boards and is attached to the left-hand and middle boards by the endpapers (CD and YZ, respectively). The right-hand board is hinged to fold on top of the left-hand board. The Curtis by Curtis 1.5 paper (a 200 gms vellum stock) is stiff, and the sewing is so tight that the book does not easily open or lie flat. The casing, however, allows extensive pressure without the hazard of breaking the spine’s covering. In two finishing Oriental touches, the artists called for grey silk for the board coverings and green for the inside of the right-hand board and hinge.

With its architectural and alphabetic themes, An Architectural Alphabet makes a fitting addition to the Books On Books Collection, and its essays serve as welcome reminders of the more discursive volumes by Laurence de Looze, Marian Macken, Hugh McEwen and Chrysostomos Tsimourdagkas (see Further Reading).

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books on Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Architecture“, Books on Books Collection, 12 November 2018.

Federico Babina“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Antonio Basoli“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Antonio & Giovanni Battista de Pian“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Richard Niessen“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Paul Noble“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

Johann David Steingruber“, Books On Books Collection, 20 April 2021.

De Looze, Laurence. 2018. The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Macken, Marian. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

McEwen, Hugh. Polyglot Buildings. 12 January 2012. Issuu. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Tsimourdagkas, Chrysostomos. 2014. Typotecture: Histories, Theories and Digital Futures of Typographic Elements in Architectural Design. Doctoral dissertation, Royal College of Art, London. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Books On Books Collection – Michael Snow

Cover to Cover (1975)

Cover to Cover (1975)
Michael Snow
Cloth on board, sewn and casebound. H230 x W180 mm. 310 unnumbered pages. Published by Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Unnumbered edition of 300. Acquired from Mast Books, 10 December 2020. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

After a long search since first sight of it in 2016 at Washington, D.C.’s now defunct Corcoran Gallery library, the original hardback edition of Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover (1975) finally joins the Books On Books Collection. Thanks to Philip Zimmermann, more readers/viewers have the chance to experience Cover to Cover — if only through the screen — than the original’s 300 copies and Primary Information’s 1000 facsimile paperback copies will allow.

Amaranth Borsuk describes the work and experience of it in The Book (2018), as do Martha Langford in Michael Snow (2014), Marian Macken in Binding Spaces (2017) and Zimmermann in his comments for the exhibition “Book Show: Fifty Years of Photographic Books, 1968–2018” (for all, see links below). Like Chinese Whispers by Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas and Theme and Permutation by Marlene MacCallum, Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover has that effect — of evoking an urge to articulate what is going on and how the bookwork is re-imagining visual narrative, how it is making us look, and how it makes us think about our interaction with our environs and the structure of the book.

The already existing commentary about Cover to Cover sets a high hurdle for worthwhile additional words. One thing going on in the book, though, seems to have gone unremarked. Some critics have asserted that, other than its title on the spine, the book has no text. There is text, however. It occurs within what I would call the preliminaries, and they show us how to read the book.

Front cover and its endpaper

On the front cover, we see a door from the inside. Then, on its pastedown endpaper, the author outside the door with his back to us. On turning page “1” of the preliminaries, we see in small type a copyright assertion and the Library of Congress catalogue number appear vertically along the gutter of pages “2-3” (a tiny clue as to what is going on).

Pages “2-3”

Over pages “4” through “14” from the same alternating viewpoints, the author reaches for the door handle, the door is seen opening from the inside, and the artist is seen walking through the door (from the outside) and into the room (from the inside). But who is recording these views?

Pages “10-11”

Over pages “15” through “24”, two photographers appear. Facing us, they are bent over their cameras — first the one outside (clean shaven and wearing a short-sleeved shirt) behind the author, then the one inside (bearded and wearing shorts) in front of the author. As the author moves out of the frame, we see that the photographer inside is holding a piece of paper in his right hand. All of this occurs through the same alternating viewpoints. At page “21”, the corner of that paper descends into the frame of the inside photographer’s view of the outside photographer, and after the next switch in viewpoint that confirms what the inside photographer is doing, we see a completely white page “23”, presumably the blank sheet that is blocking the inside photographer’s camera aperture. Page “24” is the outside photographer’s view of the inside photographer whose face and camera are blocked by the piece of paper.

Pages “16-17”, pages “20-21” and pages “24-25”

Over pages “25” (from the inside photographer’s viewpoint) and “26” (from the outside photographer’s), something strange happens with that piece of paper. Fingers and thumbs holding it appear on the left and right: we are looking at photos of the piece paper as it is being held between the photographers. What’s more, on the outside photographer’s side of the paper is the developed photo he just took of the inside photographer with his face and camera hidden by the sheet of paper. We are looking at images of images. But what is on the other side of that photo paper? — a blank with fingers holding it, which is what page “27” will show us from the inside photographer’s perspective. But whose fingers are they?

Pages “26-27”

From page “25” through page “38”, we see images of this piece of paper being manipulated by one pair of hands. The thumbs appear on the verso (the view from the outside photographer’s perspective), the fingers on the recto (the view seen by the inside photographer). By page “34”, it is upside down. By page “37”, we can see that the photo paper is being fed into a manual typewriter. But does the pair of hands belong to one of the photographers? Or a typist — the author?

For both pages “42” and “43”, the perspective is that of a typist advancing the paper and typing the title page. On both pages, we can see the ribbon holder in the same position. Pages “44-45” return to alternating perspectives, page “44” showing the photo paper descending into the roller. Page “45” presents itself as the full text of the book’s title page, curling away from the typist and revealing the inside photographer on the other side of the typewriter. Page “46” shows the upside-down view of the title page as it moves toward the inside photographer and reveals the outside photographer on the other side of the typewriter. Not only are we seeing images of images, we are witnessing the making of the book’s preliminaries.

From page “48” through page “54”, the photographers alternate views of blank paper advancing through the typewriter. By pages “55” and “56”, the typewriter has moved out of the frame. Look carefully at page “56”, however, and you can see the impression of the typewriter’s rubber holders on the paper. As a book’s preliminaries come to a close, there is often a blank page or two before the start of the book, which in this case is page “57”, showing a record player.

Zimmermann notes that, at somewhere near the book’s midpoint, the images turn upside down, and that readers who then happen to “flip the book over and start paging from the back soon realize that they are looking at images of images produced by the two-sided system, and indeed the very book that they are holding in their hands”. He notes this as another mind-bender added to the puzzlement of the two-sided system with which the book begins. Yet the prelims foretold us that the upside-downness, back-to-frontness and self-reflexivity of images of images were on their way. Without doubt, Cover to Cover is an iconic work of book art.

Further Reading

Afterimage (1970). No. 11, 1982/83. On the occasion of an exhibition of his films at Canada House in London, an entire issue on Snow’s work.

… Cover to Cover is the result of another distanced use of self in the course of art-making. Snow is subject/participant as he and his actions are observed and analyzed by two 35 mm cameras… simulataneously recording front and back, the images then placed recto-verso on the page… Snow is subject observed in the book at the same time that he is also choosing and making decisions about images. Cover to Cover in 360 pages, [sic] becomes a full circle — front door to back door or the reverse. The book is designed so that it can be read front to back and in such a way that one is forced to turn it around at its centre in order to carry on. Regina Cornwell in Snow Seen and “Posting Snow”, Luzern catalogue.

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

Langford, Martha. Michael Snow: Life & Work (Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2014).

Macken, Marian. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice (London: Taylor and Francis, 2017).

Michelson, Annette, and Kenneth White. Michael Snow (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).

Zimmermann, Philip. “Book Show: Fifty Years of Photographic Books, 1968–2018“, Spaceheater Editions Blog, 3 February 2019. Accessed 16 December 2020.

But as the scene “progresses,” an action is not completed within the spread, but loops back in the next one, so that the minimal “progress” extracted from reading left to right is systematically stalled each time a page is turned, and the verso page recapitulates the photographic event printed on the recto side from the opposite angle. This is the disorienting part: to be denied “progress” as one turns the page seems oddly like flashback, which it patently is not; it might be called “extreme simultaneity.” Two versions of the same thing (two sides of the story) are happening at the same time. Zimmerman.

Books On Books Collection – Marian Macken

Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated (2011)

Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated (2011)
Marian Macken
Black Cotona bookcloth portfolio, with embossed base; 61 sheets of handmade washi paper, made from kozo, with watermark images. H245 x W330 x D80 mm. Papermaking undertaken at Primrose Paper Arts, Sydney, with assistance from Jill Elias. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 5 February 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Ise Jingū is a Shinto shrine complex in the Mie Prefecture, Japan, consisting of the Kōtai Kaijijingū, or Naikū (Inner Shrine), and the Toyouke Kaijingū, or Gekū (Outer Shrine). “Once every 20 years, since the reign of Emperor Tenmu in the seventh century, every fence and building is completely rebuilt on an identical adjoining site, a practice of transposition known as shikinen-zōkan. While empty and awaiting the next iteration of building, the unused site or kodenchi sits silently, covered with an expanse of pebbles” (Binding Space, p. 101). For Macken, this ritualistic rebuilding poses architecture as performative process rather than as inert object; it “manifests the replication of a beginning, of a process” (“Reading time”, p. 100).

What better suited phenomenon to be captured with book art?

Referring to the shikinen-zōkan process, Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated consists of 61 loose sheets with a watermarked image within each, the number reflecting the 61 iterations of the shrine up until the making of Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated. The watermark is a perspective image based on Yoshio Watanabe’s photograph of the East Treasure House of the Inner Shrine, taken in 1953 on the occasion of the 59th rebuilding. The contrast of the reduction of a photo to a drawing with the subtle embodiment of that image in kozo entices reflection on the phenomenon of representation.

By shifting the image’s placement on every other sheet to mirror its placement on the preceding one, Macken makes the reader’s page-turning replicate the process of shikinen-zōkan. As one sheet yields to the next, the differences between them, arising from the washi papermaking process, reflect the subtle variations within similarity arising in the shrine’s transposition from one site to the other. When the last sheet is removed from the portfolio, the position of the temple supports are revealed.

Macken’s book Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice offers further insight into Ise Jingū: Beginning Repeated, but more than that, it provides penetrating discussion of various forms of book art and specific works such as Olafur Eliasson’s Your House, Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover and Johann Hybschmann’s Book of Space. Although the book’s principal argument is why and how the artist book can serve as an important tool for design, documentation and critique of architecture, Macken’s perceptive descriptions show how to observe materiality and its functioning and understand how they contribute to the making of art. Reading Macken’s book will sharpen the ability of any reader or viewer to appreciate book art.

Exhibition: “The Book as Site”, Research Gallery, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, Australia, 2012. Photos: Joshua Morris. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Further Reading

Architecture“, Bookmarking Book Art, 12 November 2018.

Fred Siegenthaler“, Books On Books Collection, 10 January 2021. For more on “watermark art”.

Macken, Marian. 2018. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

Macken, Marian. 2015. “Reading time: the book as alternative architectural practice“. Cowley, Des, Robert Heather, and Anna Welch. Creating and collecting artists’ books in Australia. Special issue of The LaTrobe Journal.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2019. The eyes of the skin: architecture and the senses. Chichester: Wiley. Another whetstone for sharpening the ability to appreciate book art.

Tange, Kenzō, Noboru Kawazoe, Yoshio Watanabe, and Yusaku Kamekura. 1965. Ise. Prototype of Japanese architecture. Kenzo Tange, Noboru Kawazoe. Photographs by Yoshio Watanabe. Layout and book design by Yusaku Kamekura. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.