What I’m Reading

1. January 2021

I do always enjoy lists of the books people recently read and usually discover one or more interesting titles that I’d like to read myself. Maybe you will too? This is an ongoing list of what I read (and liked) in 2021 so far: Last updated 11.02.21

Recaps This year I intend to write a short summary of everything I read, to improve my recollection of it.

Recaps — January

apartamento: an everyday life interiors magazine — issue #25 (Spring/Summer 2020)

apartamento is an interiors magazine focused on depicting the homes of interesting people as they actually are, rather than the clean, impersonal pictures we are used to seeing on design blogs, Pinterest and Instagram.

My favorite interviews in this issue were with Carlos Matos and Lucas Cantú, founders of Mexican art and architecture studio “Tezontle”, artist and sculptor Thaddeus Mosley and Gabrio Bini, pioneer of natural wine.

Recaps — February

Jane Jacobs — The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacob’s 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a heartfelt, but outstandingly rational defense of cities — written by someone who sincerely loves them — against megalomaniac designers clinging to utopian visions of cities which are aesthetically clean, yet bear no resemblance to what actually makes cities attractive in real life. She urges the urban planners of her time to acknowledge cities as complex systems, and abuses them of the notion that their simplistic, patronizing schemes have any chance and improving urban live. (I added some quotes from Jacob’s book to my Notes on Complexity.)

They care more about their grand utopian theories than about actual observable outcomes — Howard’s “Garden City” and Le Corbusier’s “Ville Radieuse” come to mind. Instead Jacob’s suggests six goals for “Planning for vitality”: It must “stimulate and catalyze the greatest possible range and quantity of diversity among uses and among people”, “promote continuous networks of local street neighborhoods”, “combat the destructive presence of border vacuums”, “aim at unslumming the slums, by creating conditions aimed at persuading a high proportion of the indigenous residents, whoever they may be, to stay put by choice over time”, “convert the self-destruction of diversity and other cataclysmic uses of money into constructive forces” and “aim at clarifying the visual order of cities, and it must do so by both promoting and illuminating functional order, rather than by obstructing or denying it.” [p. 409] Every one of these goals, each of which is discussed at length, is logically deduced from observations of real cities.

I enjoyed this book very much for two reasons: First, as a designer it is a great cautionary tale. It is easy to get caught up in discussions about superficial aesthetics and in great visions of what ought to be. I do believe there is room for both in design, but they can’t become the primary concern. Jacob’s approach anticipated the methods of Human Centered Design, observing on a small scale, looking at individuals to learn about the larger system. Secondly, even though the book is 60 years old and from what I’ve heard is is now considered a classic in urban planning circles, there are still plenty observation in it that can just as well be made today about the city around you. It for sure changed the way I look at the city around me! The terminology it offers is great to describe what makes neighborhoods feel attractive or plain and this in turn helps you appreciate the manifold complexity of city life at its best.

Pop: Kultur und Kritik Heft 17 (Herbst 2020)

Pop: Kultur und Kritik” is one of my favorite magazines. It is published twice a year, and unfortunately is German-language only. It is a cultural studies journal, publishing shorter comments, reflections and analyses, along with a few longer essays, on current matters of popular culture. I enjoy it, because it is a very serious and academic look at topics that are not often treated with such intellectual rigor, such as TikTok, the latest TV shows, Instagram trends and emerging micro-genres of music.

I was a bit behind reading this issue — it was published in October 2020, all texts were written in May and July 2020. In this issue my favorite notes and essays were Thomas Reinhardt’s “Max Weber und der Thermomix”, about the relationship between step-by-step fail-safe cooking instructions and protestant work ethics; Wolfgang Ullrich’s “Kunst für alle – die Vermittlerrolle des Museums” about the conflicting and ever-shifting role of art museums as mediator (of what to whom?); and Thomas Hecken’s “Pandemie und Exekutive im Fernsehen”, where the author recaps the coverage on Covid-19 in German talk shows throughout the first half of 2020 (based on notes taken through the months). Having read about Covid-19 everywhere for about a year now I expected to be bored by this last essay, but instead it was rather interesting to reflect and think back how this pandemic unfolded, because it seems so ubiquitous and self-evident now.

Currently Reading: Ernst H. Gombrich — The Story of Art

Ernst H. Gombrich’s “The Story of Art”, first published in 1950, is the best selling art book of all time. It is an approachable summary of art history from ancient Egypt to the modern period in 27 chapters.

I am currently reading my dad’s edition, which he studied thoroughly, with his highlights and notes (and corrections!) from 1982.