230625 WAF 36 Read on……!

In our imagination, as one more frequently associated with a destruction of books which started with the burning of ‘un-German’ books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square in 1933 and ushered in some 12 years of uncompromising state censorship, Adolph Hitler had established, at the time of his death, a formidable personal library.

The conclusion of World War 2 saw some 1,200 surviving books, which comprised the substantial part of the remnants of his 16,000-volume collection, transported to the Library of Congress in Washington where they would be stored in climate-controlled obscurity for some 50 years in the rare book division. There they would remain inaccessible to the public, uncatalogued, and little studied, until Timothy Ryback secured permission to research the collection as a basis for his book, ‘Hitler’s Private Library’, which was published in 2009.

Amongst those collections, which had during the war been housed principally in the Berlin Chancellery, and in his private homes in Munich and at Obersalzberg (the alpine retreat he so loved) were Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gulliver’s Travels. Hitler ranked these as being amongst the greatest works of world literature. Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was also present as was, perhaps more surprisingly, the collected works of William Shakespeare, published as a German translation. The entire nine-volume set is bound in hand-tooled Moroccan leather with a gold-embossed eagle flanked by initials on the spine of each book.

A row of books on a shelf

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The collected works of William Shakespeare bound in                                                                  hand-tooled Moroccan leather.

Hitler considered Shakespeare superior to Goethe and Schiller in every respect, 

and frequently incorporated Hamlet into his everyday speech, regularly saying “Sein oder nicht sein”, and “Für mich ist es Hekuba“. Neither of these lines though have quite the ring or gravitas of their english counterparts: ‘To be or not to be‘ and ‘It is Hecuba to me‘.

He was also especially fond of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in this respect one of his early sketch books dating from 1926 contains a detailed stage set for the play’s first act in which sinister facades define the murder scene…..perhaps a foreboding of his own encounter with assassination, albeit unsuccessful, at the Wolf’s Lair some eighteen years later.  

More surprising, perhaps, as found in the collection, are Hitler’s copies of two of Henry Ford books. The first entitled ‘The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem’ was based on 91 articles that Ford had published from 1929 onwards following his acquisition of the ‘Dearborn Independent’ newspaper. The second Henry Ford book, ‘My Life and Work’ had been inscribed by the German-American businessman Ernst Hanfstaengl, an erstwhile close friend of Hitler who had assisted in the editing of the ‘Mein Kampf’. Incorporated into the marginalia of these publications are a series of notes written by Hitler which serve as evidence of his strong interest in Ford.

The library also contained folios of Hitler’s artwork, including work from his experiences of the First World War. As with the war poets, novelists, and artists of both sides of the conflict, Hitler’s drawings and paintings tell us much about the impact of events on him, as well as what they reveal about the environment within which he and his fellow soldiers struggled to exist.

A painting of a ruined building

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Ruin of a Monastery in Mesen: Adolph Hitler – 1914 

A picture containing drawing, painting, sketch, house

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Sketch of his farmhouse billet near Fournes: Adolph Hitler – undated

Overall, the library tells us much about Adolph Hitler, both by way of the extensive marginalia that are to be found within many of the texts, but also as an indication of Hitler’s main interests. In this respect the original collection had fallen broadly into three parts: firstly, a military section containing some 7,000 volumes, many of them – especially those dealing with Napolean’s campaigns – particularly heavily marginated with Hitler’s notes. The second section comprise some 1,500 books on artistic subjects such as architecture, for which he had demonstrated a great love and considerable ambition, the theatre, painting, and sculpture. The third part of the collection reflected his rather quirky interest in astrology, spiritualism, nutrition, and diet.

But it is the sub-heading to Ryback’s work ‘The Books that Shaped his Life’, that I find so interesting: for it is this selecting of what it is that we will read that is so important in our study, and indeed in the very shaping of our careers as architects.

In terms of my early career that selection process took the form of a very dreary false start: indeed, I cannot begin to understand what the faculty staff were thinking of when they compiled a reading list of books that they advised us to acquire prior to enrolling for our first term of study back in 1971. Those texts are still on my bookshelf at home, all unread albeit with one notable exception. I don’t in any way question the worth of such publications as Kidson, Murray and Thompson’s ‘History of English Architecture’ with its opening sections on the Anglo-Saxon period and Norman Church Architecture through the Tudor and Jacobean periods to the end of the Victorians at page 298. But goodness me; only a mere 29 pages within Chapter 13 were dedicated to Modern Architecture in a book published in 1962 in the immediate aftermath of the Festival of Britain, the Skylon and the new town programmes that were transforming the then often bomb-damaged slumland legacy of the Victorian era. I wanted to look forwards and shape the future, not backwards!

And of course Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Outline of European Architecture’ was also on the list devoting some 403 stuffy pages of grim text to everything that wouldn’t interest my young mind at that time; that is until, finally, in Chapter 9 he let rip and looked to the ‘Present day’ for a refreshing 31 pages which gave us glimpses of the Barcelona Pavilion and Ronchamp. 

Even today, I do severely challenge the wisdom of offering such a turgid list to a first-year intake, particularly at a school that would attract low grade A Level achievers such as me.

The notable exception to which I refer was of course Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture’ which offered an electrifying introduction to my chosen career, with its provocative and beautiful images, its breath-taking optimism and challenging concepts such as ‘a house is a machine for living in’, and his commitment to mass production.   

So apart from that, I read next to nothing until I found myself in the privileged position of working my first ‘year out’ in the office of Cedric Price. There, some three months on and having given me time to settle in, Cedric called me into his private room adjacent to which were floor to ceiling shelves devoted to just a part of what I came to learn was his formidable 6,000 plus book collection.

‘What are you reading at the moment?’ he enquired against which I offered the disappointing reply of ‘nothing’. Cedric’s response was to promptly march me to the shelves where he instructed me to carefully select two books prior to returning. I chose works by two regular visitors to the office:  Peter Hall’s ‘London 2000’ (first published in1963) and Reyner Banham’s ‘Age of the Masters’. Blowing the dust off each volume, Cedric paused to thumb their pages, whereupon he carefully put Hall back on the shelf and handed me Banham with the comment: ‘I never lend two books at once!’. This was followed by the terrifying instruction for me to read it carefully over the next four weeks after which I would be invited to give a presentation to the office over morning coffee and brandy.

Thus started my own serious interest in books and reading, and the beginnings of a collection which has continued to grow to this day. I too write commentary in my books…..always in pencil which I see as non-defacement, and absolutely essential. Indeed, I cannot read without a pencil in hand.

Visiting the offices, and occasionally the homes, of many friends in architecture, I have always taken pleasure in scanning my eyes across their collections, and it is amazing how often the same great classics of architectural commentary are found on their shelves. In each case those libraries have informed, stimulated, and nourished the work of the offices in which they are housed, and in each case, they again reveal much of their collectors. I especially remember enjoying seeing the respective libraries of Rick Mather and Eric Parry, both generously available to their respective offices, and both clearly much in daily demand and use. So often on such visits I have wished for the time to not only browse the shelves in more detail, but to peep inside the books to see what more the marginalia might indeed reveal about their respective approaches to architecture and the incredible work that they and in Rick’s case, their teams, continue to produce.

Which takes me to the epitaph at St Paul’s Cathedral, which mercifully survived Hitler’s intense bombing campaign, ‘Lector, si momentum requires, circumspice’….’If you wish to see his memorial, look around you’. These words were memorably repeated within the eulogy of the brilliant engineer Sam Price at Peter Foggo’s memorial service in the now brutally destroyed Broadgate Arena. I could add to those fine words: ‘si vis scire quid opus suum certiorem fecit, vide in bibliotheca’…. ‘If you want to know what informed this work, go look at their library!’