by Jana Harper, Curator of Urban Books Collection
In William Gass’s essay, A Defense of the Book, he refers to the book as both a body and a building, and describes the possibility of books becoming a civilization as their numbers increase. This metaphor is appropriate when considering a class of architecture and urban theory students making books about the city they live in.
The act of making a book is both humbling and empowering. The book carries weight as a cultural artifact. It represents the physical embodiment of ideas. As a teaching tool it provides a significant function: the student must travel the complex path from conceptualization to formulation and organization, and finally to the craft of fabrication. This produces a sense of exhilaration for anyone from a kindergartener to an academic knows the joy when his or her ideas take form in a physical package.
Artists’ books provide a uniquely intimate experience for the viewer and can serve as a private window into the mind and ideas of the maker. This makes them a form of expression that is attractive to people from many different disciplines: photographers, performance artists, printmakers, philosophers, typographers: all of whom, in this situation, became urban theorists. The artist book is appealing to both formalists and conceptualists alike and represents a kind of democracy that actually works. For the most part they are an inexpensive, accessible, primarily visual experience existing outside the museum and gallery construct.
With support from a Sam Fox Arts Center interdisciplinary teaching grant we were able to purchase ninety-two artists’ books on the subject of the city. In assembling the collection my sole criterion was that the book in both form and content needed to reflect a singular perspective of the city. The thematic diversity includes travel and mapping, photography, documentation of performances, actions and site-specific work, artist’s periodicals, architectural competitions, social awareness, ecology, urbanization and decay, and the human element in the city. The authors and subjects are truly international, representing a multitude of imaginings of what the city is or can be.
The development of the Urban Books collection was brought about with as many beneficiaries in mind as possible. Beginning with our own class, we were able to gather books on one subject, use them as a teaching tool to examine the city, and engage the physical structure of the book as an architectural artifact. This construct reinforced for the students the potential that the libraries hold as stimulus for in-class research.