125 Kilos of Books at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

From March 23 to April 30, 2006 in the Octagonal Gallery, the Canadian Centre for Architecture presents 125 Kilos of Books. Celebrating the designation of Montreal as UNESCO World Book Capital City for 2005-2006, the exhibition presents a selection of printed architectural works dating from the 15th century to the present from the CCA’s collection in order to provoke thought about what seems, at first sight, the most banal fact of any book: its size.

A book’s dimensions are only partly determined by the technology of its production or the physical comfort of its readers. Size is routinely used by authors and their publishers to indicate value, to justify price, and to control how and by whom their work is read – whether casually or ceremonially, individually or in groups, by the rich few or the many poor. Books are big to convey magnificence, or small to indicate virtue. Their size is also a function of public and private spaces – the dimensions of warehouses and bookstores, palace libraries and office desks, horse-drawn carriages and airplane seats.

Architecture in print has a long tradition of the big book. As in other disciplines such as human anatomy, this tradition developed because scale added clarity to the illustrations in a treatise, and kept better faith with the original drawings. But there are many other reasons why scale rapidly became a tool, or even a weapon, in the hands of the architect turned author. Most obviously, perhaps, certain architects and clients have enjoyed pushing the limits of monumentality in books as in buildings. And although modern methods of distribution and marketing have severely reduced the scope for format to be an expressive feature of a book, there are still some notable examples of self-conscious supersizing to be found on the contemporary market.

By contrast, the builder’s manual is traditionally small enough to fit the literal and metaphorical pocket of its intended audience. And even books that begin big, if successful, have often been republished in smaller formats so their message can travel further, at a different price point. As mass digitization projects lead more and more people to experience words and images via the homogenizing scale of the computer screen, this exhibition seeks to retrieve an underexplored element of the physical history of the architectural book.

The books presented in the exhibition encompass an impressive range of scale and size, from the smallest, A brief discourse concerning the three chief principles of magnificent building: solidity, convenience, and ornament by Sir Balthazar Gerbier D’ouvilly (London, 1662), measuring 14.2 cm x 9.5 cm x 0.8 cm, to Sulpiz Boissere’s Histoire et description de la cathdrale de Cologne (Stuttgart, 1823), a hefty tome more than a metre in height and weighing 21 kilos!

All works have been selected from the CCA collection, which comprises nearly 200,000 volumes, by the exhibition’s curator Gerald Beasley, Director of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, and until 2004, Associate Chief Curator and Head Librarian at the CCA. Mr. Beasley, who holds a first degree in English Language and Literature from Oxford University and an M.A. in Library Studies from University College, London, came to the CCA in 1994. He is a co-author of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)’s five-volume catalogue Early Printed Books, 1478-1840, which won the prestigious Besterman/McColvin Medal from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the United Kingdom.

On Thursday, March 23, 2006 at 7:00 pm in the Paul Desmarais Theatre, exhibition curator Gerald Beasley discusses 125 Kilos of Books.