The current exhibition in the Graduate School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library may celebrate the digital revolution in design, but if last week’s faculty book launch is any indication, print is alive and well at the GSD.
As visitors shuffled around the long banquet table arrayed with beautifully constructed print objects, one was reminded of the simple tactile pleasures of books: the subtle tooth of quality paper, the fibrous textiles and intimate letterforms. In the endlessly recursive world of hypertext, it’s reassuring to hold the entire contents of something (an argument, a history, a voyage) in your hands.
It isn’t surprising that books still hold court at Harvard. As historian Ed Eigen explained, Boston is a book city and the university, one of many “centers of print.” “Our very categorization of knowledge through library sciences is a product of book culture within the institution we occupy right now, and I think it's a proud part of our heritage,” he said.
In his introductory remarks, Eigen likened the GSD to a printing house, a place where printing is used and that supplies the means of production. “This extraordinary work house that brings together and amalgamates various disciplines is also a place where things are materially coming into being,” he said. The faculty book launch, hosted by Loeb Library, exemplified this melding of thing, place, and production.
The event also provided a snapshot of the School’s current interests and ambitions, revealing trends in the kinds of publications that have emerged in the last two years.
For Charles Waldheim, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, the list reflects a moment of transition. “The school is increasingly interested in research,” he said. “As we build design labs and engage in a range of research activities, it’s important to reflect on the productivity of our faculty in other forms. The book enjoys pride of place for many of us.”
That pride was evident in the variety of publications by LA faculty: from books on the history and theory of landscape architecture by Sonja Dümpelmann, Ed Eigen, and John Dixon to the stunning monograph of Gary Hilderbrand’s firm Reed Hilderbrand. The department’s commitments to ecology and technology were reflected in the works of Richard Forman, Niall Kirkwood, Carl Steinitz, and the newly released Projective Ecologies, co-edited by Chris Reed and Nina Marie Lister.
Felipe Correa introduced publications from the Department of Urban Planning and Design by foregrounding them in current practices. “Many of these publications exemplify the methodological and instrumental diversity of UPD today—from books that deal with issues of fine-grained open space to larger territorial procedures,” he said. The books also reflect the diverse geographies and urban contexts that GSD faculty engage, from extreme urbanisms in Mumbai to issues of infrastructure and urbanization in cities like Quito, Ecuador.
Correa noted Neil Brenner’s advancement of critical urban theory in two recent publications, and cited the contributions of Judith Grant Long and Peter Rowe to a series of books on implementation and post evaluation of urban design projects. “These lines of inquiry present an incredible body of work that helps up continue to advance mediating between society and space, which is our greatest mission,” he said.
Representing the Department of Architecture, Inaki Abalos ruminated on the nature of book design and the process of book production for architects: “[Architects] construct with words as we construct with bricks” he said. “I look at books as flat skyscrapers with 200 or 300 floors. There is a kind of schematic concept that organizes the whole thing and there is a façade. The kind of intensity that you dedicate to the book is parallel to the kind you dedicate to a project.”
Like cities under siege by the effects of rapid climate change, books, it turns out, are resilient. The future may be uncertain, but printed books still account for about three quarters of overall book sales in the United States, and a recent survey revealed that even the biggest fans of e-books continue to purchase printed matter.
Staring at the sea of volumes on display, it's easy to see why. “These books have a very long duration and gestation,” Eigen said. “Each one has its own curious history.”