In the work of Douglas Adams(1), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spectacularly outsells the Encyclopaedia Galactica partly because it tells the reader not what alcohol is and what it does, but where in the Universe to get the best drink. While the encyclopaedia goes for the objective, bias-free representation of its subject, in order to be useful for the largest possible audience, the ‘Guide’ revels in the subjective and the particular. Its information is gathered by a privileged ‘insider’ or expert for communication to a particular audience or constituency. It is wedded to time and to place. The best drink (for the record, a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster) is something endlessly negotiated, revised, and unique to the worldview of the Guide.
While we realise that guidebooks are of utmost importance when trying to find the best drink on the Universe, the best custard tart in Portugal, the artist who made the painting third from left, or how to squat a disused building(2), we rarely consider them to have any long-term or retrospective value. We prefer to classify them alongside the telephone directory, the catalogue and the building specification as forms of production unworthy of attention beyond their everyday, mundane usefulness. While everything mundane becomes of value eventually – if it lasts – I propose here that the guidebook is not only a form of production deserving of greater attention but also a valuable tool for the production of courteous architecture.
A guidebook – and I use the term in as broad a sense as possible – is a proposal for action. It transfers knowledge from the experienced to the inexperienced. Whether a guide to a place or a process, a guidebook tells us what to do and how to do it, and we believe in this because we believe in the person behind the guide: the insider, the local, the pro(3). When we use a guidebook we mimic the movements of its author, inhabiting an at least partly romanticised version of their lives or explorations. ‘We’ perambulate around the counties of England with Nikolaus Pevsner, while in Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See(4) the author sets up the conceit of meeting the reader off a boat at Lisbon’s wharfside: ‘We shall now ask the tourist to come with us.’ In exceptional circumstances the character of the guide becomes an essential part of the books’ value: Alfred Wainwright, Karl Baedeker, and Pevsner again, whose Buildings of England has been described by Jonathan Meades as “oblique aesthetic autobiography.”(5) More importantly for us, the Guide can become intimately associated with its subject – Wainwright’s Lake District, Ruskin’s Venice, Pevsner’s Britain, Denecourt’s Fontainebleau(6) – a kind of authorial filter through which we perceive place or process.
Muf architecture/art are a London-based architectural practice led by Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke. As variously revealed in their curation of the British Pavilion at the 2010 Venice Biennale, named ‘Villa Frankenstein’(7), we copy in order to find authenticity, and the generous practitioner is one who allows this practice to occur, for example by writing the guidebook that enables it. ‘Villa Frankenstein’ is based in part on the ideas of John Ruskin, whose own guidebook to architectural quality, The Stones of Venice, led in its ungenerous author’s own words to ‘indirect influence on nearly every cheap villa-builder between this and Bromley… the accursed Frankenstein monsters of, indirectly, my own making,’ a form of mimicry which surely, he should have seen coming.
Unlike Ruskin, we must expect our guidebooks to be interpreted and abused. We don’t seriously imagine someone following a 24-hour travel itinerary to the letter, and I remember my grandfather huffily revising the instructions in Blizzard’s Wonderful Wooden Toys(8) when he realised that the guide, Richard Blizzard, used wheels bought from a shop instead of making his own. For an architect, the production of a guide is just such an invitation to use and abuse. It broadens responsibility for production to include the user. The architect Walter Segal ‘designed’ a series of houses, many of them in the London Borough of Lewisham in the 1970s and 80s, which utilised standard timber lengths and processes that can be managed with simple, non-professional tools and little to no wet-trades. This method of self-building homes follows the generous model(9) described above, where a series of principles can be used in the self-production of houses the form of which the architect could not have imagined. For this reason we can still ‘build a Walter Segal’ house today in the way we can’t ‘build a Mies van der Rohe’. ‘The role of the designer is discharged in order to encourage the process it contributes to start.’(10)
So, when writing a guidebook we are not only practicing but encouraging others to practice- the ‘proposal to action’ already suggested, an entreaty that we find strongly in Pessoa or Wainwright, and still shining within the grumpiness of Pevsner. This propositional quality, combined with the ‘courtesy of interpretation’ that all good guidebooks embody, has been exploited by artists and activists. A list of temporary and transient urban events, Anna Best’s Occasional Sights(11) (‘a London guidebook of missed opportunities and things that aren’t always there’) advocates for a way of perceiving the city rather than expecting people to go looking for the events it lists. The language and line drawings of Pablo Bronstein’s Postmodern Architecture in London(12) manage to gently poke at London’s post-modern excesses whilst at the same time passionately arguing for a reinterpretation of their value. I worked with the artist Lara Almarcegui on her Guide to the Wastelands of the Lea Valley(13), one of a series of guidebooks produced by the artist which act as gentle manifestos for the value of urban emptiness and a call for urban exploration. Ken Isaacs’ How to Build Your Own Living Structures,(14) Ant Farm’s Inflatocookbook(15) and the Squatters Handbook (13 editions since 1976) are all radical life manifestos disguised as straightforward how-tos. My own SUB-PLAN:A Guide to Permitted Development(16) is a guidebook produced with a team of students and tutors at the Architectural Association, which explicitly used the guidebook format as a means of educating its student authors in the generosity of ‘guiding’. Additionally, the general public audience for the book forced the students into means of communication – text and image – which communicate with as much clarity as possible, the opposite of most architectural communications. SUB-PLAN is a guidebook to ‘permitted development’ in the UK – the law which defines what can be done to our built environment below the radar of the planning system. The subject matter, which was of most interest to homeowners and householders, necessitated absolute clarity and clear-headedness- pretty good training for people at the beginning of their architectural training. Perhaps learning from Walter Segal, the guidebook translates arcane planning legalese into something of direct use in extending or expanding our homes and workplaces – an act of courtesy on the part of the architect.
In such ways, and many others, the ‘proposal to action’ embodied by the guidebook has an effect on the world, and this can be collateral as well as direct. Anyone compiling the guide to a city, or a historic site, must carry the responsibility of what their words will mean when they become real: By proposing a ‘significant place’ out of many, the guidebook creates, widens, or tarmacs a road to that place, and can make or break the fortunes of a restaurateur, gallerist or hotel. Similarly I know of a public house whose locals have steadfastly refused to vote for it in the ‘best pub’ category of a local awards system out of fear of what would happen to the place if it were more widely known. And on a more strategic level, such processes have the potential, in our bureaucratised world, to transcend planning and urban design processes. They could connect small enterprise and a global economy, cutting out the middlemen of the planning system and economic development. An extreme example would be the legendary use of the Baedeker guides as a kind of ‘index of cultural value’ when planning bombing raids during World War II, wherein both sides of the war explicitly destroyed buildings and places with cultural rather than military significance, in the process cutting to the heart of the values of the intended target. Authors of future guidebooks should be very aware of their intentional or unintentional consequences for the shape of our places- and their potential, if used strategically, for radical change.