Reading List


Classical Architecture is a set of lectures by Demitri Porphyrios, originally delivered as the University of Virginia and Yale University in 1987 and 1989. The book is beautifully illustrated. To the lectures are appended extracts from Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, Vitruvius, Alberti and Viollet-le-Duc among others. The argument is polemical. Porphyrios is writing against modernism and deconstruction and in favour of classicism, particularly in the context of urban reconstruction.

Porphyrios follows Aristotelian ideas in defining the difference between building and architecture.

‘Significance lies not in the utility or beauty that may accompany the artefact but in the recognition of ourselves as makers of that artefact. This recognition is essentially a contemplative experience and when viewed like this the building – though it may be useful – refuses to be used in any way. Architecture begins precisely here; it speaks of the usefulness which produced it in the first place, from which it detaches itself as art and to which it always alludes’.

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The reading circuit for 2012 has concluded, and in my case, it’s back to Afghanistan where it started with the story of Enaiatollah Akbari, taken by his mother to Pakistan to escape the persecution of the Taliban.

I have been reading ‘Letters to my Daughters’, written by Fawzia Koofi in collaboration with Nadene Ghouri. It is subtitled ‘between terror and hope, the struggles of the first Afghan women in politics’. Fawzia Koofi was elected to be the vice-president of the lower chamber of the Afghan parliament when it was reformed in 2005 and intends to be a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections.

The book tells the story of her life, with letters to her two daughters and also to her dead mother and father seeded between the chapters. She was born in 1975 in Koofi in Badakhstan, the most northerly and impoverished region of Afghanistan. Her family was important in local politics and her father was a deputy to the first Afghan parliament which was called under the monarchy of Zaher Shah in 1965. Her grandfather had been an important local leader.

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I have been reading Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn. It is set in the mid nineteen fifties in southern Ireland and in Brooklyn. The story is the story of Irish emigration, at a time when the economy is stagnant and jobs difficult to find. Eilis Lacey’s brothers are in Birmingham in England. Her sister, Rose, does have a good job, but Eilis can only find a Sunday job in a local shop.

Her emigration to Brooklyn, where opportunities are better, is mediated though her sister Rose and the brief return of an Irish priest from Brooklyn. Father Flood organises her employment with Bartocci’s in Brooklyn which enables her to get immigration papers. Her sister has one of the few good jobs around, but by sending her sister away, she is condemning herself to remaining close to their mother and giving up chances to marry.

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Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is one of my favourite books, maybe one of the half dozen non-fiction works I would take to a desert island. It’s a book about buildings, and specifically how buildings are modified and adapted over time, but the theoretical ideas on which it’s grounded can be applied to any type of system.

The argument is illustrated by sequences of photographs, and these are the greatest asset of the book. Brand has trawled the archives for sequences of photographs of the same building or street scene taken at different times. The cover features two Greek Revival townhouses on St. Charles Street in New Orleans; identical in a auctioneers drawing made in 1857, quite different in a 1993 photograph after various modifications to add storeys, extensions, balconies, windows and entrances.

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Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother attracted plenty of critical response when it was published last year. The excerpts in the Wall Street Journal suggested it was a guide to parenting which praised the superiority of the ‘Chinese’ method. But this is misleading. Chua tells us she started to write the book in summer of 2009 when the family returned from Moscow, where, during a break in a café in Red Square, she finally admitted defeat over her parenting methods, at least in the case of her younger daughter Lulu, and allowed her to make her own choices about where to focus her efforts and her own choices about how much dedication and intensity to invest. The presentation of herself as an extreme ‘Chinese’ mother is delivered dead-pan, which makes it very funny.

The Wall Street Journal knew what it was doing when it printed extracts from the earlier chapters, because there can be fewer more contentious activities than bringing up the next generation. The polarities of ‘Chinese’ parenting and ‘Western’ parenting can stand in for most of the conflicts between strict and liberal and traditional and modern. I think there are at least four objectives involved in bringing up children: transmitting culture; preparing for life, developing an individual and protecting the experience of childhood.

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This year I have joined a reading circuit. This is not exactly a book group. The organisers select a number of recently published works which are the circulated round the members of the local group. Each member has about 2 weeks to read the book before passing it and receiving a new book. Fortunately, the first two books I have received have been short.

Nel mare ci sono i coccodrilli (In the Sea there are crocodiles) is the story of  Enaiatollah Akbari, taken by his mother from Ghazni in Afganistan, where his people the Hazzara are persecuted by the Taliban, to Quetta in Pakistan, and there left to make his own life. His story begins around the turn of the millennium when he is 10 years old or so. Using the services of people traffickers he makes his way to Iran, then Turkey, Greece and finally Italy, where he is given sanctuary and later political asylum. The writer Fabio Geda met him later in Turin and Geda, a journalist with experience in education, makes it possible for him to tell his story and allows us to understand, at least in part, the life and motivations of a clandestine immigrant. There are interpolated conversations between Geda and Enaiatalloh, in which the writer seems to be probing for more and to understand further what is being said and also what is not being said.

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