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BOOKS ON URBAN DESIGN


The ghost of Ian Nairn looks out from
the fog of great literature over the
fading dreams of urban design.

Dedicated to the memory of John Barrick , 1946-1995, RTPI Librarian 1972-1995.

When I undertook to edit this special feature for UDQ I'd hoped that I'd be able to involve John Barrick, then the RTPI Librarian. Sadly he died suddenly, before I'd even mentioned it to him. But I like to think that the contents of this issue would have appealed to the man who put Jazz Monthly and The New York Review of Books on the shelves of the RTPI (even if no one apart from myself read them, as he remarked when we first met).

John's widow sent me some of John's unpublished notes which serve uncannily well as an introduction.

'One of the things that continues to make me happy is the fact that there is always a new writer to discover, or an old writer to rediscover.. my main love is literary fiction, I do like other books as well, but the whole business of putting books into genres is absurd as it means that something is missed because it seems to come within a certain genre. Many books transcend genres anyway'

In seeking contributors and planning the content of this issue, I avoided the conventional focus on the latest and flashiest publications in our sub-discipline. Instead, I invited (or asked for) wide-ranging essays on all aspects of 'the literature' from people I knew cherished books or relished language. Just as when I was instructed to update my reading lists by deleting anything prior to 1980, I added Alberti's Ten Books , and gave their original publication date of 1485 (even if all I had was the Dover reprint), so there are very few new books here. Even John Punter's 'review article' features books that were published a couple of years ago that he sought out rather than the publishers promoted.

We use books in different ways: for some they are a way of life. Peter Inch is a dealer in specialist second hand and rare editions, previously a lecturer in planning history and his piece blurs the distinctions between art and trade and life. If you ask an academic almost any question you get a reading list and Tony Lloyd Jones and Marion Roberts attempt to sketch a definitive canon for urban design. Which will be disputed even before it's read. Giles Worsley is editor of Perspectives in Architecture , the magazine that has put architectural debate on the popular bookstalls, to reach a wider non-professional public.

Chris Smith s plea for more vivid and evocative (though no less accurate) language in describing places and their qualities is a reminder of just how dull (and incomprehensible) or technical talk can become. Graham King celebrates one of the few architectural writers who vividly transcended the conventions (and yet still collaborated on The Buildings of England ). Some years ago Robert Riley wrote in Landscape [1] of the importance of looking at trade papers and enthusiasts magazines to really understand the way places are: here Michael Crilly rereads Mister X comic magazines to see the future of urban design.

Amongst these longer essays are shorter, more personal sketches, 'books that changed my life'(a little, even). They serve as a reminder that books should be valued not for what they are but what they do for us.

  1. Robert B. Riley, 'Speculations on the New American Landscape', Landscape, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1980, pp. 1-9.

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