2. Mark Pimlott
Artist, Designer, Writer and Teacher
The Hague - Netherlands
‘Without and Within’
We are incredibly excited to welcome our second guest, Mark Pimlott - artist, designer, writer, teacher…Born and raised in Montréal, Canada, where he developed a thoughtful and inquisitive interest in place, history and culture. He went on to study architecture at McGill University before moving to London, attending the Architectural Association, as well as studying visual arts at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. He subsequently spent 25 years in London, writing and teaching, as well as practicing as an architect, interior designer and photographer. During this period, notable projects included the interiors at ‘Red House’ (in collaboration with Tony Fretton Architects, 2001;2004;2011;2014) and ‘World’, a public square at BBC’s Broadcasting House in Central London (2013). In 2010, the installation ‘Piazzasalone’ (once again in collaboration with Tony Fretton) was shown in the Corderie dell’Arsenale at the 12th Biennale internalionale di Architettura di Venezia, curated by Kazuyo Sejima.
He currently resides in The Hague, Netherlands and is writing his doctoral thesis on ‘the very extensive or continuous interior and the case of 1960s Montréal’s ‘ville intérieure’ at Delft University of Technology, where he is an Assistant professor of Architectural Design/Interiors.
The interview offers an insight into the constellation of Mark’s library. He speaks eloquently and openly about the way in which his library has developed, its interaction with his movement from Canada, to London and subsequently to The Hague, as well as evidencing his own unique and critical process; in practicing, teaching and writing and his distinctive approach to these actions. He describes the role of a specific book in developing his own philosophy of interconnectedness, startlingly conceived at the age of 6! Incredibly, this approach has stood the test of time and is something that he continues to negotiate today. To date he has published three fantastic books, ‘Without and Within; Essays on Territory and the Interior’ (2007), ‘In Passing: Mark Pimlott photographs’ (2010) and ‘The Public Interior as Idea and Project’ (2015), which distinctly synthesises his own thinking on the way in which people and places connect. We cannot recommend these books highly enough.
How many books do you currently have in your office?
It is an estimate based on metres of shelves and many stacks, but probably somewhere around 2,500.
And how did your library develop?
It developed as everyone’s library does - it started with a couple of books that I really treasured, which gradually led to a real affection for books and their worlds. The architecture, visual arts and photography library started very modestly. This interest in books was spurred along by an old colleague of mine, Eric Marosi, who has an extraordinary collection. He was always finding things from antiquarians and so on. All these rarities. Remarkable books. I developed a habit, or a culture of looking at, in particular, architects’ work through books. In Montréal you didn't have much access to real architecture…Architecture that was being made at that moment (though plenty of models from earlier periods), so, of course you would indulge in books. This contact with architecture, the nature of its making and so on, all came through books.
“The books, in their abundance, have migrated onto tables and onto the floor, in lots of 30cm high stacks, a few stacks deep, resulting in some books being rather hard to find. They have become a landscape as well as an environment.”
Where do you store them, and how are they organised?
Well, they seem to have taken command of my apartment, and so are on bookshelves, on tables, in stacks on the floor, and everywhere. The bookshelves are by Vitsoe, originally from the Triangle Bookstore at the AA, bought from the dear and sadly departed Derek Brampton and his partner Alan Young. Derek was wonderful and had an extraordinary collection of things. Although not an architect himself, he was a natural painter and literature person, he had this way of guiding you to things and understanding your predilections, to stretch your imagination. A bookseller who in fact gets to know you and is engaged with you and your interests is wonderful. It is comforting to have those shelves, that piece of culture and memory of them with me all the time. Otherwise, the books, in their abundance, have migrated onto tables (Magistretti, Urquiola) and onto the floor, in lots of 30cm high stacks, a few stacks deep, resulting in some books being rather hard to find. They have become a landscape as well as an environment, I suppose. They are organised, if one can say that, roughly according to their subject, which may either be architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, film, philosophy, theory (art, architecture), or books on Venice, or gardens, or literature… The core of the library––its logic––stems from an arrangement of associated books that has survived moves within and from London to The Hague, undergoing another couple of variations.
The biggest expansion of my library came about through writing; writing much more consciously than before. I wrote ‘Without and Within’ in 2007, which meant that I had to acquire many books to gain some sort of hold over the subject. Since then, as I continue to write, I have continued to add books to the library. For some reason, I don’t collect digitally, nor go to the library. There’s something about a private library, it being personal, that I hold very dear. I like that I have these books and can consult them personally.
And then more books have been added to that, and attempts have been made to arrange them in a similar spirit. Eventually they can’t fit on the shelves anymore and then you’re really in trouble. Their organisation in constellations or affinities (personal) could be described as organic at best, provisional at worst. I have entertained the idea of really sorting them out properly according to subject, but that would need a very dedicated and sympathetic soul. And then they would have to be catalogued.
What has been the most influential book throughout your time practicing as an architect?
This is hard. There are so many that have contributed to the way I support work, either designing, or making art, or writing, or teaching. As for practice, when I was young, I absorbed books on Edwin Lutyens and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which found themselves in my work.
Do you still look at these references? Tony Fretton spoke interestingly about the way in which one can absorb information, and how Le Corbusier was infatuated with Louis Kahn’s work but eventually stopped looking at it, he just didn’t need to anymore; he’d taken from it what he needed.
I will often make reference to those architects when talking to students, but I never look at them myself. One thinks about architecture and how to make it; the things which are incredibly important and useful to you along that journey, which develop your skills of looking, organising, planning and thinking. You take these things and ultimately transform them into whatever your own abilities might be and sometimes they continue to be useful to you, but quite often they are not. I’m quite aware of how important certain books were for me at particular times. Then you move on to other possibilities, other lessons. There are certainly things you return to, but surprisingly less frequently than you’d imagine; it doesn't match the frequency or the intensity of your involvement with these books when they were important at a certain stage of your development.
A giant monograph on the architecture of Michelangelo affected my thinking on and work within classicism. Hakon Ahlberg’s and Stuart Wrede’s books on Gunnar Asplund were very significant, as Janne Ahlin’s book on Sigurd Lewerentz. The catalogue to the 1980 Venice Biennale, ‘The Presence of the Past’ was an important measure for where I should go or not go. As I moved to London from Montréal, Gavin Stamp’s ‘AD London 1900’ gave me initial bearings, and so on. It is a constantly evolving thing naturally, and not necessarily logical. One searches for points of interest, or they find you. I don’t quite know how to explain it.
“I was reading this little catalogue religiously at the age of 6, this very tightly argued text about the political situation in the middle kingdom of Egypt. I had this notion at the time, that the suburban, North American landscape surrounding me was inherently connected to the history of 3500 years before, that somehow all places and times were connected. That was an attitude, or a thought, that I have negotiated with from childhood through my entire life.”
You have moved several times, have you found literature helpful in this process?
It was really important for me to read about London when I moved there. It was a complete mystery to me; a modern, but also falling-apart city. A fiction, or a myth that I had to come to terms with. So, in fact, those books on London architectural culture were an important part of my grounding in the city. As I settled, and graduated and started teaching with, talking to and walking with, and travelling with, Tony Fretton, the monograph ‘Poetic Profession’ on Alvaro Siza was very important; I learned a lot from it. The last issue of 9H: On Continuity, edited by Wilfried Wang and Rosamund Diamond is a treasure trove, from which much can be gleaned. From the 1980s to today, I have immersed myself in books on Franco Albini, Achille Castiglioni, Carlo Scarpa and Joźe Plečnik, among others. I have vast sections on Le Corbusier and Mies. But just as important have been books on artistic practice, such as Germano Celant’s book ‘Arte Povera', a small monograph on Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gerhard Richter’s book ‘The Daily Practice of Painting’, a Robert Morris catalogue from the Tate Gallery in the 70s, a little Vija Celmins catalogue on Television and Disaster paintings, and a book of Agnes Martin’s collected writings. Books on photography have moved me and helped me think. My first English edition of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, given to me by a dear friend, and Thomas Struth’s ‘Unconscious Places’ have profoundly affected the way I make pictures, as have books on Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, who Tony Fretton helped me see. I am interested in how the world as we make it speaks of our ideas of how we wish to be in the world. It isn’t always pretty. In terms of thinking about beginnings, about territories and cities, Joseph Rykwert’s ‘The Idea of a Town’, Leonardo Benevolo’s ‘The Architecture of the Renaissance’ and Manfredi Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co’s ‘Modern Architecture’ have all been fundamental. As have books that have been with me for a long time, which I find myself returning to for some kind of memory of my own beginnings in consciously writing about architecture. Michelle Stone and Alison Sky’s book ‘Unbuilt America’, which I bought at Jaap Reitman’s back in 1979 (it might have been my first or second proper architecture book, which I bought at the same time as Robert Venturi’s ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Modern Architecture’) keeps finding itself in my hands, as does Venturi, and ‘The American Space’, a book on nineteenth-century topographic photography edited by Daniel Wolf. Johann Friedrich Geist’s book on ‘Arcades’; Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcade Project’ (‘Passagenwerk’), and Susan Buck-Morss’s book on Benjamin, ‘The Dialectics of Seeing’ are a trio I turn to, time and time again. Francesco dal Co’s monograph on Kevin Roche is another. A very slight but highly evocative book, edited by Gio Ponti in 1960, ‘Milano Oggi’, is a constant source of reference, for its aura as much as its content. The catalogue of the exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Tutankhamun’s Treasures, which I saw sitting on my mother’s shoulders in 1964, haunts me to this day. So, the most influential book throughout my time practicing as an architect may be the sense of all of these and many more I have neglected to mention.
How do you work with books? Do you take notes, annotate, read aloud, draw…?
There are all kinds of work to be done, and books fulfil different roles depending on what kind of work. I have books that I simply look at very carefully––photography, painting, sculpture, architecture––and absorb in some way. I look at the images and give them attention and think about other images as I do. I place what I see in a context of other things I have seen. In this way, I establish my visual culture, and come to know things. This way of ‘working’ helps me think when I am designing, and when I am making photographs, and when I am teaching. I have to say that I regard the printed book as an almost sacred object. I do not write in margins; I do not make notes. I look very carefully and try to understand what I see. I also read very slowly. If I am reading a novel, or poetry, I will often read aloud. Words as written are terribly important to respect. I feel I have to give them their space to work. And sometimes, as in poetry, they are like songs: they need to be uttered.
“I’m always looking at it in relation to something else. The image of it is in my mind and I'm trying to create connections. You see something and it makes you think of something else, and I have a natural tendency to want to pull these affinities together in order to explain them in some way…”
You briefly spoke earlier about three books approaching the subject of arcades and I wondered whether, in your own way, this process has replaced writing in the margins. I’ve read ‘The Public Interior as Idea and Project’, which has a wonderful balance of image and text, presumably by virtue of it being a lecture series. But you also gain a sense of the process, of pairing images and text, which seems in many ways to correspond to your own admission of reading and writing slowly, often out loud. I wondered if your own version of writing in the margins was reading Geist’s book on arcades; a historical discussion with drawings, illustrations and diagrams, and comparing it with Benjamin’s work on arcades, which is heavily text based and philosophically rich, as well as Back Morss’s discussion on the conceptual coherence of Benjamin’s book. They’re almost three parts of the same thing, all approached from a different angle, which to me felt similar to writing notes.
There is something in that. I know that whenever I’m looking at something, I’m always looking at it in relation to something else. The image of it is in my mind and I'm trying to create connections. You see something and it makes you think of something else, and I have a natural tendency to want to pull these affinities together in order to explain them in some way…I always sense that in the physical world for example, places bear the ideas of somewhere else, of wanting to be somewhere else and that there are similarities and relations between all things. I think that comes from a very early perception of the environment that I occupied as a child where I had this sort of revelation (Tutankhamun’s Treasures). I was reading this little catalogue religiously at the age of 6, this very tightly argued text about the political situation in the middle kingdom of Egypt. I had this notion at the time, that the suburban, North American landscape surrounding me was inherently connected to the history of 3500 years before, that somehow all places and times were connected. That was an attitude, or a thought, that I have negotiated with from childhood through my entire life. There is this natural desire to associate things and it’s ended up leading to the constellation of the library. It’s a little bit out of control now, but the idea was that one thing would lead you to another thing, that this book would lead you to another.
Which is something quite evident in ‘The Public Interior as Idea and Project’ and how you have identified certain associations being carried through history. Associations that one wouldn’t normally categorise together, but seem to make so much sense in the book, for example, the corporate atrium being a requisite of the garden is a fascinating connection.
The first book, ‘Without and Within; Essays on Territory and the Interior’, which was really another case of sensing, in a moment, this sprawling…or continuous interior as I called it and its connection with the idea of urbanisation of the American West and building an argument that drew those things together through many sorts of utterances or events.
“These public interior spaces seemed to offer a kind of freedom of movement and association, action, all through a refined aesthetic. Somehow I intuited that these things were connected; these apparent opposites, so I tried to draw those things together. There was a series of related images and text which suggested that indeed, a line could exist.”
How did this work come about?
There are a number of sources. I had been taking photographs since my childhood, in travels with my parents across the North American continent. I was really interested in the significance of local differences and what bound different places together. I was very interested in looking at the nuance of how things were made and the extraordinary extent and reach of one culture over an entire landscape. I was intensely aware as a young boy that Canada was a land of other people. So the book came about partly through a memory, or understanding of that enormous landscape and partly through a photographic practice; my own photographic practice which concerned places and the way they express themselves - a topographic photography. This was in parallel to an encounter with nineteenth-century photography, through a book, ‘The American Space’, which features series of photographs of the American West, made in the Great Surveys in the 1860s. The meeting with that landscape, meeting with the space of the other was really central to the work of one particular photographer, called Timothy O’Sullivan. These things, and another abiding concern with the urban environment in Montréal in the 1960s, which seemed to be very utopian, or promised a utopia. These public interior spaces seemed to offer a kind of freedom of movement and association, action, all through a refined aesthetic. Somehow I intuited that these things were connected; these apparent opposites, so I tried to draw those things together. There was a series of related images and text which suggested that indeed, a line could exist.
Where do you find the books you collect?
My first books came from Jaap Reitman. But only the first two. After that, one could order books from bookstores. There was a renowned bookstore in Toronto––Ballenford’s Books on Architecture––that was a first source, but I lived in Montréal, so I relied upon the advice, and, over the years the generosity of my friend, the architect Erik Marosi, for what was happening. Over the years, he has given me so many beautiful books that have miraculously aligned with or anticipated my interests. His collection and his library is quite astonishing. In London, the Triangle Bookshop, which I mentioned earlier, was the place to look, mooch around, get gossip from Derek, and acquire many, many books. Travel has led me to wonderful bookstores, whether in Köln (Walter König), Paris (La Hune, Swiss Cultural Centre, Centre Pompidou), Milan (Hoepli), or Venice (Toletta). I buy books at the CCA in Montréal. I should buy books more religiously from NAi booksellers in Rotterdam. I buy books at art galleries and museums: catalogues that must be had. And I do buy them wherever I see them. The Hague used to have many good bookstores with unexpected finds, but these have disappeared one by one over the last 15 years. The London Review of Books ‘finds’ things for me, on culture, politics, history, literature. Sadly, reading of new titles on the internet and taking the quick step of buying them via Amazon, happens.
If you could re-discover one book, what would it be?
For many years, a very large picture book on expo67 in Montréal, which my uncle in Vancouver owned, and I swooned over until I was 15, was the Holy Grail. A purely sentimental affair, It seemed impossible to find. By some stroke of good fortune, I acquired it two years ago. A book called ‘Structures Explicit and Implicit’, out of the University of Pennsylvania, with articles on De Ricolet and a photographic essay on the William Klein film Mr. Freedom, was borrowed by a student 30 years ago and never returned. So now it is the one. I could probably find it on Amazon, but I would prefer some sort of miraculous re-appearance.
You briefly mentioned novels at the beginning of this discussion, has fiction played any significant role in your literary journey?
There was a period when I was reading all the great Russians. The nineteenth-century novel as it is finding its form is fabulously influential for descriptions of people. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were particularly masterful at sketching people, psychologies and personalities in ways which you can recognise so completely, even though they’re writing about people 100 and somewhat years ago. They describe human nature and I don’t think human nature really changes. The fact that one can recognise the characters and the situations of those novels, personalities, and make pictures of them in your mind because you’ve seen them before, shows us that fundamentally, we are unalterable, despite our knowledge. And I think that’s been an education, to think and imagine. The conditions and situations of others; to want to listen to them; to want to find out who they are and how they live. Like all great art, these books show the world back to you. They’ve had an enormous effect on me. Perhaps I don’t read novels as assiduously as I used to, they still have their power. There’s a literary section in another place in my apartment, the ‘bedroom mountains’.
That ties really nicely into your ‘Letter to a young architect’, on listening and caring, which you overarchingly describe as responsibility. I feel that it can often be quite disappointing at architecture school where you are supposed to be developing this great sense of the world, yet you’re so often stuck in a studio for 24-hours a day. I think it’s one of educations downfalls, that you don’t get to experience this community around you and this very specific place, because you spend so much time working. I think this is a great shame and something that isn’t seized upon enough at universities.
I don’t know. I have a lot of students of course who do a lot of their design thinking by gathering things off the internet, often because of limited financial resources, which I do understand. They don’t tend to buy books, or films…I have always felt compelled to do these things. Of course you make a choice to buy things but books were very naturally a part of one’s landscape as a developing architect. There were bookstores, lots of bookstores; secondhand bookstores; specialist bookstores; non-specialist bookstores with things you could discover. That environment was out there and plentiful. You wanted to have physical contact with things and I think the physicality of books is really important.; it is real, like buildings are real.
“I would think that an architect would ask themselves how they might contribute to such a story, the story of making a city, from the scale of a sash window frame to a monumental terrace facing an urban park.”
That being said, what book would you recommend every young, aspiring architect to read?
This is another difficult question. I realise that books are intimate things, they attach themselves to one’s nature. I suppose that ‘Complexity and Contradiction’, at least the first part of it, opens an area of curiosity in the architectural artefact, which may inspire a young aspiring architect to look more. Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s ‘London: The Unique City’, and John Summerson’s ‘Georgian London’ are portraits of a city’s material culture, which are both evocative and informative. I would think that an architect would ask themselves how they might contribute to such a story, the story of making a city, from the scale of a sash window frame to a monumental terrace facing an urban park.
All photography by Mark Pimlott.