The City as Subject: Urban Books

Unique course and exhibition examines the city through artists books

Even the most familiar neighborhoods hold roads we’ve never walked, views we never considered, buildings we’ve never remarked upon.

So how do we come to grasp the modern city, with its dizzying tangle of geography, history, peoples, cultures, economics and infrastructure? How do we read its meanings and images, interpret its secrets? How does the city unfold before us and in our imagination?

Like a book, posits a recent course and current exhibition organized by Zeuler Lima, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, and Jana Harper, lecturer in book arts in the School of Art.

The City as Subject: Urban Books, on view in Olin Library Special Collections through Feb. 21, features 56 artists books whose subject is the city. Sixteen of the books were created by students as part of the interdisciplinary course “Urban Books: Imag(in)ing St. Louis,” which Lima and Harper co-taught last fall thanks to a grant from the Sam Fox Arts Center.

The remainder, by a variety of international artists, are part of a collection of 92 books also acquired as part of the grant. (A smaller, parallel display featuring books created as part of the School of Art’s study abroad program in Florence, Italy, is on view in the Art & Architecture Library.)

At 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4, Harper will speak on The City as Subject in Olin’s Ginkgo Room, located immediately adjacent to Special Collections. A reception will follow from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, call (314) 935-5583.

“Urban Books” combined the analytic tools and techniques of urban theory and representation — such as maps, plans, photography and artworks — with the craftsmanship and narrative expertise of fine art bookmaking.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century, art, architecture and urbanism together have investigated the production of images that shape the symbolic dimension of our experience of large cities,” Lima said. Urban Books “critically embraces this tradition and brings together different methodologies for the visual analysis and representation of contemporary urban phenomena, using St. Louis as a focal point.”

Over the course of the semester, each of the 15 students created three handmade artists’ books. The first, which grew out of a section on urban theory, focused on the sequential graphic design of the written word and texts about the city, while the second focused on different forms of visual representation of urban spaces. For the third and final book, students integrated the lessons of the previous two with their own original research.

The results range from Rajeev Tailor’s photo essay 1904 St. Louis and Anthony Tong’s Out and About: The Metro Link to Jodi Steyer’s The Wasted City, which takes an historical and analytical look at the city’s toxic waste problem, and James Lewis’ Market-Life, which captures an autumn Saturday in Soulard Market.

Harper noted that physically crafting a book is very different from computer-facilitated writing, research or design. “Working with your hands and constructing something on this very tactile level has the capacity to influence your vision,” she explained. “It changes your way of thinking.”

“The book is a kind of common entity, a place where different disciplines converge,” Harper added. “One of the exciting things about this studio is that it appeals to students from all over the university.” Artists, architects and writers, for example, each “have their own interests and interpretations, and hopefully each will benefit from this kind of proximity and collaboration.”