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Book Box: Seven fabulous books for architecture lovers

Hey readers,

Walking through the streets of Chicago, I feel I’m in a museum of architecture: Bridges that split to let the boats out, glass towers, Gothic churches, neighbourhoods built and rebuilt after the Great Fire.

Here’s a mix of books that explain how our homes came to be.

It is always a good time for books about building, more so when we are re-examining our habitat through lenses of gender, race, inclusivity, and the environment. So, here’s a mix of books that explain how our homes came to be. 

Book 1 is a real-life thriller set in Chicago. Book 2 provides a material perspective on buildings. Book 5 examines the psychology of buildings. There’s also a fabulous picture book celebrating a rock garden in Chandigarh and a graphic novel.

Must-read: Book 1 of 7

The Devil in the White City. 
The Devil in the White City. 

Who would have thought reading about building an exhibition could be so thrilling? But, honestly, I found it impossible to put this book down. An enthralling story of a city struggling for an identity, The Devil in the White City interweaves the race against time to build the Chicago exhibition with the story of a serial killer. In this riveting read, America’s architects squabble and strive, Edison goes head-on with Tesla as direct current and alternating current both compete, the first Ferris wheel is designed in Chicago by George Washington Gale Ferris.

Built. 
Built. 

Roma Agrawal is a Mumbai born civil engineer best known for her work on the Shard in London. In Built, she discusses the challenges builders face – like the physics of withstanding wind and the chemistry of raw materials. The book travels across the world, to the Brooklyn Bridge, digging underground for a Cathedral in Mexico City, tunnelling below the Thames river, and excavating for aquifers in Istanbul. It’s conversational, easy to read, and will change the way you view structures.

The Fountainhead. 
The Fountainhead. 

A generation of readers swooned over Howard Roark, fiction’s most famous architect. But, nowadays, The Fountainhead triggers a different kind of debate. Is Howard Roark someone we should idealise? And instead of individualism, shouldn’t a more consensus-oriented, environmentally responsible architect be more acceptable? Read this cult classic for its compelling characters, its propulsive plot, and the debates it ignites.

Must-reads: Book 4 of 7

Taj by Timeri Murari is the story of a craftsman and a king. Although the Taj Mahal has been romanticised as Shah Jahan’s creation, it was really Murthi and thousands like him, who were the master craftsmen behind this spectacular sepulchre. Set in Agra during the actual building of the Taj Mahal, this Downton Abbey like spliced story of the craftsman and the King makes for atmospheric fiction.

Must-read: Book 5 of 7

The Architecture of Happiness. 
The Architecture of Happiness. 

You can design homes to be happy says Alain de Botton in this eloquently argued ode to architecture. The Architecture of Happiness draws on designs as diverse as a rural Swedish living room, a McDonalds, a stark office complex in Troy, Michigan to prove the point. There is architecture, philosophy and best of all, lots of practical suggestions on how to create happy spaces.

We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us,” he says.

Must-read: Book 6 of 7

No Small Plans. 
No Small Plans. 

If you live in a city, you will relate to this gem of a novel. No Small Plans by Gabrielle Lyon, Kayce Bayer, Devin Mawdley, Chris Lin and Deon Reed follows teenagers in Chicago as they debate the history and future of the city of Chicago and explore protest as a way of questioning policies.

Rock By Rock. 
Rock By Rock. 

Nek Chand is a refugee who is homesick for the land he left behind. Now in India, he collects stones and plants to landscape the beautiful rock garden of Chandigarh. Rock by Rock by Jennifer Bradbury is like its subject – a gorgeous labour of love.

The book everyone’s talking about

The Immortal King Rao. 
The Immortal King Rao. 

The Immortal King Rao by Indian-American Vauhini Vara has rave reviews. The action swings between the coconut groves of South India and a Shakespearian Tempest style island, where our young protagonist is trapped with her father, a Dalit Indian techie-turned-villain. Also thrown into the plot is climate change, a cyborg, and an evil world order. All very worthy, but crammed into 384 pages of overwrought prose, like the description of a fat man with “skin like a dead tamarind tree”. We rate this 3 stars out of 5.

From dystopian isles, we return to real world buildings and books in this conversation with architects Anisha Shekhar Mukherji (ASM) and Snehanshu Mukherjee (SM), both of whom are also authors. Here are edited excerpts:

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji and Snehanshu Mukherjee
Anisha Shekhar Mukherji and Snehanshu Mukherjee

How did you get into reading?

ASM: I think the fact that we moved so often – practically every year. There was no continuity of neighbours, neighbourhoods or even cities. The only continuity was the books in the Army libraries.

On my 6th birthday, I got a fat bundle of books from the officers of my father’s battalion. I don’t know where they managed to get these books since we were far away from any town, and there were only fields and orange orchards around for miles. But it was an eclectic and fascinating mix, and I was hooked as soon as I opened them!

SM: I was gifted books. I also bought books from the many bookshops that existed in Connaught Place. And of course, I borrowed books every afternoon from the British Council Library, which was right below our home!

How do you choose which books to read?

ASM: Well, earlier, it was whatever I could get, and the fatter the better! Now, it is probably the reverse. I am very choosy about what I read, wary of volume, sceptical of ‘the top-of-the pops’. The Book Shop in Jor Bagh is one of our favourite places for browsing and picking up unusual books.

SM: I survey what’s available and read bits to figure out if they’re worth buying.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

ASM: Earlier, it was almost entirely fiction, and a lot of poetry too. Now, it is an almost equal amount of non-fiction. Lots of Indian authors, generally in translation but some in Bangla too, especially children’s literature and poetry. And some in Sanskrit now. It’s quite fascinating to read in different languages, because they are like windows to different worlds. But some reading habits haven’t changed – so crime fiction and humour are genres I fall back on all the time.

SM: I used to read fiction, but now I read more non-fiction.

You’ve said reading murder mysteries helps you be better architects?

ASM: A murder mystery is a piece of research. In design as well, initially, you are collecting all the information to build a picture of the structure you need to design—an exercise in analysis, research and imagination. Any book you read has a design or architecture component in it. Keigo Hagashimo’s The Newcomer for instance is such a wonderful portrayal of a quirky neighbourhood in Tokyo. Boris Akunin’s Erastin Fedora series tells the history and geography of Tsarist Russia. Murder mysteries are all about the detective figuring out hidden motivations, needs and restoring the right structure to society. They reveal the culture and the structure of societies.

Lastly, what are your favourite books on design?

ASM: Mayamatam: An Indian Treatise on Housing Architecture and Iconography is fascinating. Art, philosophy, science, construction, soil mechanics, urban dwelling, seat to palki, all in one text. I read it in translation first, and I am now reading it in Sanskrit. The Appearance of the Form by John Habraken; A K Coomaraswamy’s The Indian Craftsman, S Balaram’s Thinking Design, KG Subramanyan The Magic of Making, Malcolm Millais Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture. And of course, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Obelix and Co, which is an unusual and engaging take on the motivations of mainstream modern design.

SM: Palladio’s Children by John Habraken.

That’s all the reading for now. Next week, we bring you 7 books for mental health awareness month and a conversation with a bibliotherapist, an expert who recommends books as therapy.

Until then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading requests or a suggestion or two on how to improve this books newsletter, write to her at [email protected]

The views expressed are personal

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