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Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession

by Reinier de Graaf Harvard University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 528 pages
AU$63.99 NZ$66.95
Product Status: Not Our Publication - we no longer distribute
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Architecture, we like to believe, is an elevated art form that shapes the world as it pleases. Four Walls and a Roof challenges this notion, presenting a candid account of what it is really like to work as an architect.


Drawing on his own tragicomic experiences in the field, Reinier de Graaf reveals the world of contemporary architecture in vivid snapshots: from suburban New York to the rubble of northern Iraq, from the corridors of wealth in London, Moscow, and Dubai to garbage-strewn wastelands that represent the demolished hopes of postwar social housing. We meet oligarchs determined to translate ambitions into concrete and steel, developers for whom architecture is mere investment, and the layers of politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, and mysterious hangers-on who lie between any architectural idea and the chance of its execution.


Four Walls and a Roof tells the story of a profession buffeted by external forces that determine—at least as much as individual inspiration—what architects design. Perhaps the most important myth debunked is success itself. To achieve anything, architects must serve the powers they strive to critique, finding themselves in a perpetual conflict of interest. Together, architects, developers, politicians, and consultants form an improvised world of contest and compromise that none alone can control.


I. Authority

1. I Will Learn You Architecture!

2. More Specifically, Everything!

3. Let Me Finish!

4. Four Walls and a Roof

II. Default by Design

5. Bloody Fools! The Story of Pimlico School, 1970–2010

6. Architektur ohne Eigenschaften

7. Neufert: The Exceptional Pursuit of the Norm

8. Reference without a Source: The Appeal of Atlanta Airport

9. The Inevitable Box

III. Found Causes

10. Spaceship Earth

11. Mies en Scène

12. Intruders: How Smart Technology Infiltrates Architecture

13. “Public” Space

14. From CIAM to Cyberspace: Architecture and the Community

15. With the Masses: The Architecture of Participation

IV. Trial and Error

16. Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: Part One

17. London

18. How Is Denmark?

19. Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: Part Two

20. Facing the Facts

21. Naukograd

22. A Spanish Tender

23. On Hold

V. Powers That Be

24. After the End of History

25. The Other Truth

26. Socialist in Content, Realist in Form

27. The Descendant: A Conversation with Xenia Adjoubei, Nikita Khrushchev’s Great-Granddaughter

28. Undesirable Work Styles

29. A Benevolent Dictator with Taste

30. Royal Approval

31. His Architect

32. A Property Developer for President

VI. Megalopoli(tic)s

33. A Faustian Bargain

34. Amanhã

35. Smart Cities of the Future

36. The Sum of All Isms

37. Dear Mr. Barber

38. At Your Service: Ten Steps to Becoming a Successful Urban Consultant

39. Rankings

VII. Progress

40. Coup de Grâce: Pruitt-Igoe Revisited

41. The Century That Never Happened

42. In Memoriam: A Photo Essay

43. The Captive Globe

44. Remains of a Brave New World



Chapters Previously Published

“Something of a revelation… [De Graaf] has produced an original and even occasionally hilarious book about losing ideals and finding them again… He deftly shows that architecture cannot be better or more pure than the flawed humans who make it.” - The Economist


“This is a book about power, money and influence, and architecture’s complete lack of any of them. It is a book not about architecture’s successes but about its failures. Witty, insightful and funny, it is a (sometimes painful) dissection of a profession that thinks it is still in control.” - Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times


“[It] tells the stories that tend to get left out of official histories, but which actually shape our physical environment… De Graaf’s book is sharp, revealing, funny, drily passionate and not always encouraging.” - Rowan Moore, The Guardian


“Provocative… De Graaf has no fixed method. But the impressive extent and depth of his knowledge persistently inform his meditations, which take in many subjects. His mood is invariable. He is constantly and exhilaratingly cynical… Because he displays such candor - albeit polished candor, and such a perfectly gauged lack of tact - it is easy to forget that de Graaf is an architect, an insider, part of the system he dissects… De Graaf is likely to remain an architect for decades to come. In those circumstances, his enthusiasm for biting the hand that feeds him is admirably risky.” - Jonathan Meades, Literary Review


“De Graaf is an excellent, witty and perceptive essayist. The heart of the book is a series of astonishing accounts of the protracted - and as it turns out, all doomed - sagas to get big urban projects approved and built in London (just pre-crash), Moscow (just pre-Putin), the Emirates (just pre-oil slump), and Kurdistan (just pre-Isis). The way de Graaf builds up to each (in hindsight) inevitable disappointment is masterly…He emerges as an unlikely, deeply skeptical architectural Everyman.” - Hugh Pearman, The Spectator


“This is the most stimulating book on architecture and its practice that I have read for years. Not only is de Graaf a good anecdotalist (his hilarious account of a long-winded and fruitless masterplanning competition in Russia should be turned into a film), but a perceptive analyst of how architecture represents, or connects with, wider political and economic movements and trends.” - Paul Finch, Architects’ Journal


“Takes an idiosyncratic look at architectural history and dissects contemporary practice - from the quotidian (and sometimes comic) frustrations to the occasional triumphs and memorable failures.” - Josephine Minutillo, Architectural Record


“Reinier de Graaf paints an honest picture of what it is like to work as an architect today… [He] provides engaging stories about the banal, everyday reality of working for an acclaimed firm. These vivid, uncompromising narratives are contextualized with shrewd essays about architecture’s lost ideals, its false pretentions, and utter dependence on forces far more powerful than design.” - Mark Minkjan, Failed Architecture


“A refreshingly accessible, honest portrayal of a quixotic field from someone within the most successful architecture firm in the world today… One of the most intelligent, candid discussions on architecture I have read to date. Thus, Four Walls and a Roof offers an entertaining, penetrating, and much needed primer on the current state of the profession and the contemporary global forces influencing the built environment. A must-read list for architects, planners, and urban designers alike.” - Erick Villagomez, Spacing


“Ruthlessly honest about what it is like to work at architecture and wickedly cynical about how power works in our current economy, Reinier de Graaf’s vantage point from a top architectural firm doesn’t make him crow of success but, rather, pushes us architects, for better or worse, to keep fighting the good fight. Reading Four Walls and a Roof will make you laugh, cry, and so identify.” - Peggy Deamer, Yale School of Architecture


“The title of this book, provided by an innocent enquirer, has provoked Reinier de Graaf into a shrewd, lucid, and engaging survey of the architecture and building scene. He seems to have been everywhere and listened to anyone who is - or has been - active and influential in building and planning, from Prince Charles to Buckminster Fuller. Yet he has also managed to direct attention to some neglected personalities, past and present - Ernst Neufert, Lucien Kroll. You will not find a better guide to planning, building, and architecture of the last half-century!” - Joseph Rykwert, Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania


“This is a terrific book. It weaves together reflections on design, history, politics, and economics in a seamless and illuminating manner, offering a kaleidoscopic portrait of the state of architecture and its recent history. The writing is delightful, always irreverent, and at times exceedingly funny.” - Bernardo Zacka, Research Fellow, Stanford University and University of Cambridge
Reinier de Graaf is Partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam.