Koen Mulder: We’ve discovered this time and time again, that for our technical colleagues from the rest of Delft, the library is mostly about articles, about information, about finding the right topic and research that’s involved. For us there’s something different, it’s also about the collection itself, it’s about the status of books, it’s about how books are part of our world as architects; architects draw but architects also write books. In a sense it’s more about the physical thing with its design and everything that’s part of that in a way – we have a unique position in this. It’s not so much about looking something up, it’s also about stumbling upon; finding something which you never expected
Louis Lousberg: That’s closely related to the way in which designers think, as opposed to engineering [which demands] an analytical way of looking at things. Designers explore, designing is exploring.
It could be said that Books contain information as a general whole, but within architecture, these books are often told in essay formats or with photographs and thoughts and opinions, or architectural theories. Would you call these kinds of fiction?
Louis: No, why?
Well, I think a lot of texts that are written about architecture are also narratives of the built environment or such things.
Louis: But I think most students aren’t reading at all, but are looking at pictures. They are interested in the pictures and, of course they are. They are looking for ideas to catalyse their own ideas.
As an editor for a predominantly text-based magazine, this was admittedly painful to hear.
Koen: I’ve never seen any equivalent on the internet to how you can look for something in the library and there is a cupboard with books from all different periods of time on that subject, and you can really quickly put things on the table and compare them and kind of specify your design question by use of the things you stumble upon. I think that’s very important, and the other thing is that it’s not only about the information in the books, but the books in their material existence are also a part of the same history. You see for example the way the print changes over time, how the book is bound changes over time and I think it’s also really important for our students to get to know they are also a part of a tradition. Those books are in a way a connection to that tradition.
Louis: You could call it a kind of tactile reading, it’s very important to have it in your hands. It’s an object.
You’re both speaking about it as kind of guardians of the library, which I admire. And we see all over the world how libraries are kind of changing into pseudo-community centres, do you think the Bouwkunde library is at risk of some kind of change in the coming years?
Koen: I think the faculty itself values it very highly, the fact that we have it. It might be a struggle with the technical university as a whole, where they ask, ‘Well, why should you be different from the others?’ But on the other hand, the BK library itself has a value on an almost national level. We are not paid for that anymore I think, but we used to be. For example, you’ll even notice therie’s a lot of other schools that send their students to our library because of the physical existence of the books.
Louis: That’s one, and second, students value the library also as a quiet place in a building where everything is going on, large halls, lots of noise etc. but there’s one place in the building that’s quiet where you can study in a quiet way. And that’s also valued very highly by the students, so I don’t think it will become a kind of community thing like you indeed see in the public libraries.
Koen: Maybe also what’s part of it, is that architects also make books. And students, as soon as they go to work somewhere, the first thing they are going to do is make booklets for projects or clients. Also, for that reason, it’s probably important that you have physical books, to steal styles and such [Koen laughs nervously]
But would you say the physicality of the book is as important as the book, if not, more?
Koen: I’m not saying that it’s as important, because I don’t know how to compare that, but it has a bit to do with the fact that theirs always more information in this material stuff than ‘pure information’ [laughs again], than translatable information.
Could I ask you to try and define that? What is that extra thing?
Koen: Yeah, I agree with you that it has a lot to do with the physical existence, but it’s also the fact that you can keep it in your hand you can take it with you and place it somewhere, if you read it totally it has a beginning and an end. Actually, those very simple things somehow structure your working. Well, take a topic and you read about it on the internet; you never know when you’re finished, you’re never finished. Sometimes I have this feeling that this kind of stream of information, [on the internet] that if you can’t chop it into any chunks, the result is that you take everything very pragmatically purely for a functional reason. “I have this problem, I need an answer ok, that is it.” I find our current information technology extremely pragmatic in this sense because it seems to purely revolve around direct answers to questions. But sometimes it is more about the process of you actually changing through the process of reading – I have this feeling that the time that the books asks of you sometimes provide more answers than the faster methods [of searching on the internet].
I think in that sense, books are very personal things and they say a lot about who you are because of that interaction, I was curious, do you have any books that have shaped you as an architect or as a person?
Louis: In my case, I’m not that much of an architect, I’m more of a management expert so to say… a theorist. So, my books are more about organisations, or management, or about philosophy of science… that’s my thing [Louis lets loose a solitary chuckle] as a matter of fact. And within that philosophy of science I have some topics, but also on architecture, for instance, one of my - well, you couldn’t say hero - but a very interesting architect for me, is Le Corbusier, somehow, I think it’s one of my favourites, well his houses, this book about his houses: I went to his Villa Savoye near Paris, and there they had this amazing book about the houses of Le Corbusier and that’s one of my favourites.
Koen: Yes, I think for me it’s the same; you have certain favourite architects. You can’t make your own enormous collection, but for those architects you kind of have an agreement with yourself that if you come across a new book you buy it because in a sense those books belong to who you are even if you haven’t read them yet. [Koen Laughs] I have that agreement with Scarpa or Zumthor for example, or maybe Alvar Aalto. [You could ask,] ‘Are all those big names important in architecture?’ But on the other hand, you need to have some kind of hook to hang things on, and that is kind of the purpose they have in your life.
How do you go about selecting new books for the library?
Louis: Well, what we do a few times a year, a delegation of the committee goes to Amsterdam to the library, Architectura Natura and because we have a budget to buy new books (a reasonably strong budget) we change the set of people that go there because it’s like letting a child into a candy store on someone else’s expenses; you can choose whatever you want. So, it’s really lots of fun to go there, but that’s where we select new books.
Koen: It’s also important to mention, there’s a suggestions possibility. Everyone in faculty can make a suggestion, and except for when the book is 10.000 euros, almost all books that are suggested are bought.
As with any conversation, it falls silent briefly, allowing all to digest what has been discussed so far…
Koen: I was thinking, this relation with physical books to pure information, it is a bit comparable maybe to how architects are fond of physical models and not only rendered pictures and 3D models in the computer. It probably also has to do with the fact that every architect knows that if you are making a model you discover things while making them; seeing something in another light, seeing them from a different side that you never intended to that gives a new insight. We have this much stronger with physical models than with computer models. I think the love for the book is kind of comparable to that.
Louis agrees softly, and I remain silent, waiting hopefully for Koen to inevitably fill the void with more interesting ideas...
Koen: Something I always find difficult to understand while researching, is, if it’s about science, you have popular science books and these are different from things like articles, or theses and I didn’t precisely understand how scientists value this. Because on the one hand, these books [which they] write for bigger audiences are always popularised but then again, these books are very important in what they do. So, I was always kind of struggling with this kind of division, is the book for them just a kind of simple version of the real thing? No, it’s not. Sometimes the book is just as important and then maybe at the end you point in a footnote to this article where all the technicalities are in, but this kind of overview is also the real thing. I have the feeling that with architecture and art, we don’t have this division. Of course, there’s the real building versus the book, but everything is on paper. Maybe you could say with drawings you have the same [division] in a way, but I don’t feel there’s this difference between popularising something and the real thing. I don’t think that we do that in architecture.
No indeed, it’s interesting speaking of kind of popularised books, there are a few architecture or built environment ‘bibles’ such as Jane Jacob’s 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' or Christopher Alexander’s 'A Pattern Language' is another one. What do you think it is that these books have that makes them so critical, or crucial?
Koen: I think the books are that important because they are kind of transformational moments in architecture, I think the reason those books are so important in general is because they are on kind of breaking points in how architecture and architectural theory changed: Jane Jacobs, for example, is the kind of the, ‘end of the time where men told the whole society how it should be with all their sexist, and maybe even racist opinions,’ and it’s a kind of, ‘well if you can’t do it then we’ll do it ourselves.’ So, it’s a typical kind of beginning of the 60’s book. Whereas for example A Pattern Language, is about the notion, ‘Is there any scientific knowledge that we’ve gathered as architects that is available and usable for everyone? Or are we dealing with individual artists and their mythical inspiration?’ The book tells you that there are these psychological, maybe scientific aspects of architecture that all architects should know.
Are there any contemporary books that recently have come out that are of similar merit? Or of similar esteem?
Koen: I’d say I think there are but I don’t know! In a sense, this is always afterwards that you say this was a really important moment, and I think 99% of the people like me don’t even recognise it when it happens. In other fields, where you see it more through newspapers etc. It might be easier to see, like for example with Thomas Pickety; it has become such a stepping stone in economics and labour relations etc. For architecture, I’m not really sure if architecture is important enough for that.
Louis: But maybe these things influence architecture very much, like for example circularity. There you have this young woman, Ellen Macarthur, that sailed a few times around the world, well, what she writes is I think very important and I see that it influences students very much, also architecture students. With this circular thinking anyway.
Koen: Yes, it’s interesting that although the people who live in a certain time don’t recognise it, afterwards you always feel that there’s some kind of theme in a period. For example in the 50s it was about social housing, Architecture as a social tool to make a better society. In the 80s it was probably about showing off success, in the 90s it became this kind of crisis where American architects didn’t build that much and most of the things were taken over by big commercial companies. And then you see this kind of philosophical shift, ‘What’s the meaning of everything?’ And that’s kind of in the beginning of the 2000s; everything was about aesthetics of architecture. We seem to in certain periods value totally different things as the most important, and now we have that certainly with sustainability.
I think speaking about these shifts in thinking and their relation to writing is very interesting, and it also makes me think of the written Manifesto as a kind of tool for architecture. Does our library contain manifestoes?
Louis: Yes, I’m pretty sure about it. Let’s not forget our Library contains the so-called EFL collection, the collection of van Eesteren, and I’m pretty sure there are manifestoes in there.
Koen: Yes definitely, and of course in the library there are a lot of books that are so valuable that they don’t have them on the shelves anymore, so, there’s also a hidden part that can only be addressed or seen if you make a special appointment for it. For some of these unique items this is probably the case, we can only display it in a glass cabinet or in a display box.
As a final question, do you have any final comments or inspiring words for the people?
Louis: In general, I’d like to challenge students to realise that first of all we have a great library with a great collection so please explore… please explore. And, don’t only see these objects exhibited in the hallways of our own building but make an appointment to see the cellar of the central library. You won’t believe what you can find there: The military chair of Rietveld! This is a very important chair, the only other one of these chairs you can find is in a museum near Dusseldorf. And it’s just standing there, on a shelf, you can touch it, it’s just there! That and all other, very valuable things are just collected and put in a cellar and that’s it. Go there. Please go there, explore this!