Reader’s Report by Sean Gasper Bye
Did you know that only 2% of buildings in the world are designed by architects? What about all the others—where did they come from, and why do they look the way they do? This is the question that Jakub Szczęsny sets out to answer in his surprising and delightful book Welcome to a World Without Architects. A Polish architect and visual artist with an international upbringing, the author takes us on a trip around the world, looking at traditional villages, slums, underground dwellings and all manner of structures that human beings have built for themselves and which they still live in today. Richly illustrated and beautifully designed, this is an entertaining all-ages exploration of a fascinating subject.
Jakub Szczęsny (pronounced: YA-koob sh-CHEN-snee) is a Polish architect, designer and visual artist. He is perhaps best known for the “narrowest house in the world”—Keret House in Warsaw, an apartment squeezed into a gap of about 150 cm (4 ft) wide between two buildings. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Atlas Obscura, Deutsche Welle and numerous travel, design and architecture websites. He runs a studio and teaches in Warsaw, and also hosts TV series promoting architecture and interior design.
Welcome to a World Without Architects is made up of 22 short chapters, each dealing with a type of housing in a different part of the world. Some are “traditional”—such as the Kasbah in Algiers or the Chinese cave-houses known as yaodongs. Others are more modern, like the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side or the kibbutzim of Israel. What all of them have in common is that they weren’t designed by one master planner—they were built by necessity and shaped by external environmental and economic factors. Sometimes this creates communities in unique harmony with nature and themselves—as in the floating villages of the Iraqi Marsh Arabs, or the communal religious utopia of the Shakers in the United States. Other times, this creates structures barely fit to be called housing—as in the industrial slums of Victorian England or the tent cities of refugee camps. And some combine the two, such as the quilombos of Brazil, villages where escaped slaves and their descendants could live beyond the reach of the law, albeit in poverty and isolation.
Szczęsny’s own talents as an artist and designer shine through in the book, through its creative use of fonts, color and illustrations. Each chapter includes rich drawings by the author, showing the structures he’s talking about and demonstrating certain technical features, such as how a wooden frame is built or an underground tunnel is dug. Done in a dynamic, creative style reminiscent of French bandes dessinées, they feature simple, bright colors and quirky details. The texts themselves are enriched by commentary in orange, giving accessible explanations of terminology or historical context.
This book is a feast for the mind and the eyes. Written in a light, entertaining style, it’s perfect for anyone from teens to adults with a curiosity about architecture, urban design and the outside world. Its short chapters and illustrations are ideal for casually leafing through, while also being meaty enough for serious readers. An engaging introduction to a fascinating subject by a talented writer and illustrator.