It’s been a largely wet, dreary summer here in London, and if you’re sensible you’ll have booked yourself a sweet escape to some sunnier clime – be it Cornwall or Santorini. No doubt that trip will involve lounging by the pool (or the secluded Cornish cove) for hours on end, reading a book and sipping some beverage or other.
But what to read? Contemporary fiction is exhausting and overrated, you’ve covered the classics already, and there’s no point reading political books as everything’s changed too much by the time you get to chapter two, anyway.
Fear not: here’s a collection of the best summer reads for fans of urbanism, infrastucture, cities, public transport, and all such good things.
A Walk In The Park: The Life and Times of a People’s Institution, Travis Elborough
What good is a city with no breathing space? From the historic (and etymological) origins of parks in manorial Norman Britain to the foundations of royal forests and the formalisation of public parks in the 18th and 19th centuries, this book covers the full story of the lowly but vital park. And if you can’t live without a political diatribe in your tome of choice, the afterword is full of the predictable rampages against austerity, Donald Trump, and privatisation.
Mmm, green. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Historical, green, everyone loves a good park.
Cons: Touches of soapbox, tangetial at times, dangerous whiffs of NIMBYism.
Fun tidbit: Charles II grew rather fond and jealous of Versailles during his exile on the Continent and shoved a Versailles-style avenue of trees in St James’s Park, along with a long, fenced court for playing a game called ‘Pelle Melle’. This game inspired the names of Pall Mall and The Mall, in the area.
Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital, Franz Hessel (translated by Amanda DeMarco)
1920s Berlin. Christopher Isherwood’s playground, the Weimar Germany of culture, glamour, cultish art-films like Metropolis, and the faint but definite smell of Nazism – the full package is laid in this deliciously colourful, cosmopolitan book. With essays divided into geographical chunks, you can tackle the book in daily doses – if you’re one its adoring followers – or peruse it in bitesize chunks from afar if you’re not. It’s more than just a travel guide, though.
It’s got definite touches of novel and confessional to it, too, which make it all the more enjoyable, if a little outlandish.
Comes with groovy cover imagery. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Look intelligent, Berlin is fabulous, historical chic.
Cons: At times pretentious, lots of Hessel’s spots don’t exist anymore, not that fun to read if you’re not in or into Berlin.
Quote to fire at ex-London-hipster Berlin emigrés: “There’s really no reason to visit Neukölln for its own sake.”
Night Trains: The Rise And Fall Of The Sleeper, Andrew Martin
Trains! Finally. For true train fans, the night train has a particularly seductive mystique. The son of a British Rail employee, Andrew Martin chronicles the long historical arc of the European night train via today’s Eurostar, the chat-up venue of the Blue Train’s bar car in the 1950s, the Orient Express, and Agatha Christie herself. It’s an attempt to relive the glory days of these great locomotives – as much cultural landmarks as mere timetabled services – through their modern counterparts.
Obviously, this is equal parts nostalgia, appreciation of modernity, and grumpish growling, but Martin has great insight, and knows an awful lot about trains.
A seductive billow of smoke. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Trains, fuzzy European feelings, chic mid-century vibes.
Cons: May elicit sad European feelings, not enough pictures, can feel too much like you’re reading about someone else having fun on trains you’d like to be on.
Enjoyable moment: A visit to Hell Station, just around the corner from Trondheim Airport in Norway.
Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination, Adam Lashinsky
Uber is the tech world’s (and the urbanism world’s) marmite, so if you’re going to love or hate something so passionately, you might as well try to get clued up on its history. Lashinsky plots the rise of Uber, and its seemingly inevitable global takeover, through exclusive interviews with Uber’s founder and ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick, and other bits and bobs along the way.
Nothing like the sweet smell of allegations of misogyny and exploitation to get you up in the morning. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Important subject matter, lengthy and exclusive interviews, not too long.
Cons: A little glorifying at times, history may not be kind to this book, things around Uber are moving a little too quickly.
Cringe-inducing closing line: “Adversity, after all, had become part of the journey.”
The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality, and What We Can Do About It, Richard Florida
Though written from an American perspective for a US audience, this book clearly has vast significance on our side of the pond – and Florida write an appropriately-sized preface to the UK edition that claims London is, in fact, the “epicentre of what I have come to term the New Urban Crisis”. There are graphs, charts, and maps galore, and a healthy dose of case studies in specific cities and neighbourhoods alongside more generalising pictures based heavily in facts and studies.
The book closes with a manifesto of sorts, firing of a series of guiding principles for policy makers that are reasonably hard to disagree with: make clustering work for us and not against us, invest in the infrasturcture for density and growth, build more affordable rental housing, turn low-wage service jobs into middle-class work, tackle poverty by investing in people and places, lead a global effort to build prosperous cities, empower cities and communities. The usual sort of stuff.
BIG WORDS little words, Shard on the side. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Comes endorsed by Michael Bloomberg, hits all the big issues, good basing in facts and pleasing charts.
Cons: Can veer towards tub-thumping, very American-focussed.
Best map: London’s neighbourhoods broken down geographically into ‘primarily creative class’, ‘primarily service class’, and ‘primarily working class’, produce by the Martin Prosperity Institute using Office for National Statistics data.
Brutal London, Simon Phipps
A classic. Though detractors would call it a coffee table book, at best, it’s just as fun to take a slice of London’s Brutalist corners with you to the beaches of the Algarve. Beautiful black-and-white photography throughout pairs with sparing touches of text at the front and back of the book to please both lookers and readers.
Brutalist works are divided by London Borough, and each section comes with a handy map so you can easily locate your nearest local slice of Brutalist goodness if you fancy an excursion. If you hate Brutalism, look away now.
Calm down, Brutalism fanatics. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Beautiful Brutalism, great photography, good for sun-tired eyes as there aren’t that many words
Cons: Horrible Brutalism, barely any words, the black-and-white effect can get a little monotonous after your 37th hi-rise.
Fun tidbit: Thamesmead’s Southmere Lake – which Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange uses in a particularly gruesome scene to violently dunk the ‘droogs’ underwater – was originally intended to mirror the calming effect of water in Swedish housing developments.
Seeking New York: The Stories Behind The Historic Architecture Of Manhattan – One Building At A Time, Tom Miller
The texture and detail of the contents page tells you that this is going to be an enjoyable read. A colour-coded map divides the island of Manhattan up into sections, each with four or so choice architectural intrigues, on a pleasingly small scale. Think Sugar Hill and Bowery, rather than just a vague ‘North of Harlem’ or ‘Downtown’.
The book is full of beautiful sketches of buildings alongside quality colour pictures of sites as they are today, occasionally alongisde historical shots of the buildings or their developers or early owners. Miller goes into great detail with each building he chooses, but manages never to bore.
Whether it’s witty extractions from the New York Times of the day, or extracts from historical documents pertaining to the original owner or developer of a particular site, he gets behind the archiectural conversation into the personal historical level that makes this more than just an archi-wonk’s pastime.
As much an encyclopedia as anything else. Image: Amazon.
Pros: Beautifully laid out, attention to detail, wide range of sources.
Cons: Several key buildings aren’t discussed, and some of the contemporary photography is disappointing.
Fun tidbit: The death of 14-year-old John McTaggart on February 6, 1903, was blamed on the newly erected Flatiron Building due to the bizarre wind currents its unusual shape occasionally whipped up. “The messenger boy was attempting to round the 23rd street point of the building against the wind,” Miller writes. “After attempting three times, he was reportedly blown into Fifth Avenue and fatally injured by an automobile.”
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