Books on architecture occupy a unique, beguiling role in the field. Buildings are, of course, enormously complicated machines, and the factors that come into guiding one towards completion—the negotiation of political, economic, physical, and social terrains simultaneously—are equally labyrinthine. A book is, in many ways, its own edifice—Victor Hugo famously equated the two when speaking to the loss of architecture’s relevance in the age of the printing press. But a book allows the architect to carry out his or her particular vision—what architects seem to be after—without dealing with the inexorable mess of the world around them. Robert Venturi put it succinctly in a panel discussion a few months ago, “if you can’t build it, then you write it.”
In Chicago this past weekend, I received news through Chicago Tribune architecture critic (and RECORD contributing editor) Blair Kamin that Prairie Avenue Bookshop—one of the best architectural bookshops in the world—is in danger of closing this September. On Monday, I spoke briefly with proprietors Marilyn (who founded the store in 1961) and Wilbert Hasbrouck. When asked why they were looking to sell, Wilbert said it was their inability to deal with the shop at their age—he is 76, Marylinn 74. They have received some interest from potential buyers in Chicago and elsewhere in the country, but no one has yet made a commitment. If a new proprietor isn’t secured by September 1, the store will likely close. Kamin’s article goes into some detail on the circumstances of a possible sale, which would include taking on a credit line the owners have amassed in the last 15 years or so, when the operation has been less than profitable.
For me, finding Prairie Avenue as an architecture student was an overwhelming experience. The shop has a huge collection of architects’ monographs (8 bookcases), but also of architectural theory, urban planning, landscape architecture, as well as related fields of industrial and graphic design. On Monday, there was an understandably solemn air—after a clearance sale earlier this month, the selection of books is dwindling somewhat.
The shop, like the visions in many of its books, seems to exist in spite of, rather than as a part of, the world that surrounds it. Bags are checked at the front door with architect’s names as the placeholder—mine on Monday was Harry Weese. The space is low-lit and has three staggered levels, all shrouded in carpet and dark greens. Most important is the encyclopedic collection—one, as Kamin points out, that feels increasingly anachronistic. But the charge often pointed at outdated institutions doesn’t apply here—saving the shop wouldn’t be a “museumification” of the place, because it was designed as a museum to begin with. It is a place where one sees all of the books architects have come to expect and many, many more that they do not. An encyclopedic collection (like a great building) is the location of the “both/and”—we find Le Corbusier and Sigurd Lewerentz and Marc Antoine Laugier, lined up for us to discover. It is that sort of fortuitous physical encounter—an experience that, after all, is at the center of architecture itself—that will be lost if the store can’t find someone to continue its legacy.
Marilyn and Wilbert can be reached here.