Introducing Architecture According to Pigeons

Hélène Gallois Montbrun, senior editor of children's books, talks though the cultured kid's guide to architecture
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Phaidon Senior Editor of Children's Books Hélène Gallois Montbrun with a copy of Architecture for Pigeons
Phaidon Senior Editor of Children's Books Hélène Gallois Montbrun with a copy of Architecture for Pigeons

As we all know, children are happy to acquire highbrow interests as long as they're introduced to them in an entertaining way. We had a hunch that architecture was just the kind of topic that could engage young minds if it were presented appropriately. So, drawing on our sizeable architectural knowledge and some anthropomorphic antecedents, as well as the abundance of certain feathered friends one finds around most architectural landmarks, we dreamed up the character of Speck Lee Tailfeather - Pigeon elder and avian architectural expert of note as the star of our new book, Architecture for Pigeons. 

In the book Speck offers some charmingly bird-brained insights into many of the world's great landmarks, from the Chrysler Building through to the Taj Mahal. You might call it the Walt Disney Concert Hall but to Speck and his friends it's the Silver Squiggle. And while the book obviously represents a leap forward in human-avian architectural relations, we also believe it will pique the interest of inquisitive young minds. Hélène Gallois Montbrun, senior editor of children's books at Phaidon, describes how we came up with Speck, flew with him from his perch, and rendered his bird's-eye view in words and pictures.


So why an architecture book written by a pigeon?

"We wanted to make a beautiful book about architecture, for children. We thought it would be nice to have a character that could speak to children directly, rather than producing simply a non-fiction title. As you see a lot of pigeons on lots of buildings around the world, we came up with the idea of pigeons being great fans of architecture and having a pigeon as the book's narrator."

And how did the character of Speck Lee Tailfeather, pigeon elder and architecture expert, come about?

"Well, pigeons are not usually very popular with children. Often, children chase after pigeons and try to scare them. The idea was that children might look at both architecture and pigeons in a different way. Speck can always be recognised because he wears a hat throughout the book. So the children can spot him on every page. Yet, as he says at the end of the book, he doesn't always wear his hat. So children can also play games spotting him around real buildings, in the wider world."

 

The Crabshell a.k.a. Notre-Dame de Ronchamp, from Architecture According to Pigeons
The Crabshell a.k.a. Notre-Dame de Ronchamp, from Architecture According to Pigeons

How did you decide on which buildings to feature?

"We tried to keep the selection of buildings really international. We wanted them to also be a range of styles and from different periods. Leaf through and you can find ancient and modern works from around the world. There's the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Great Pyramid of Giza, Paris's Pompidou Centre, and San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, among many others."

How does it fit in with the rest of Phaidon's catalogue?

"It fits in perfectly. We are well known for our architecture titles, and our innovative children's titles. We know parents love to share their enthusiasms with their children, but some books on architecture are very hard to read and unwelcoming for kids. We realised there was a gap there that should be filled."

 

The Forest of Dreams a.k.a. Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, from Architecture According to Pigeons
The Forest of Dreams a.k.a. Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, from Architecture According to Pigeons

Tell us a bit about the title's author

"The book is written by Stella Gurney, a really great British children's author. She is the co-author of  Calm Down Boris! (Richard and Judy Best Book for Christmas 2006), with illustrator Sam Lloyd as well as The Stone Age Boy (2007) with Japanese illustrator Satoshi Kitamura. We needed someone who could take the character of Speck and make it her own. She did just that."

And its illustrator?

"She is Natsko Seki, a Japanese-born illustrator living in London, who has worked for, among others, Hermès, The BBC and Louis Vuitton. We like her work very much. She creates collages, which were perfect for architecture, as they are realistic and very lively too. I think it's really important that, while the parent is reading the book, the child has something engaging to look at. We've tried the book on several children, and they liked being able to spot cars, birds, camels and other little features within the pictures.

 

The Silver Squiggle a.k.a. Walt Disney Concert Hall, from Architecture According to Pigeons
The Silver Squiggle a.k.a. Walt Disney Concert Hall, from Architecture According to Pigeons

How did you ensure that the pictures were architecturally faithful, yet were still visually appealing for a young audience?

"That was a very difficult task. We had an architecture editor work on the title too, to ensure its accuracy. For each building we referenced recent photographs to make sure you could see all the important details, while also making sure that the pictures looked beautiful. Speck can fly of course, so we wanted to take advantage of all the points of view a bird can have."

Some architectural concepts are hard to get across to a young audience aren't they? How did you overcome those difficulties?

"Well, it was never going to be easy; you can say so much about architecture. So we had to make some hard choices, and decide which were the most important things for the children to understand. Simple things, like expressing sizes in terms of easily understood references, like Olympic swimming pools rather than in cubic metres for example, certainly helped. We've also printed separate US and UK editions, to guard against any Imperial to Metric difficulties. The idea is that children will get a lesson in architecture without even realising it."

 

Fallingwater a.k.a. Fallingwater from Architecture According to Pigeons
Fallingwater a.k.a. Fallingwater from Architecture According to Pigeons

What's your favourite thing about the book?

"The illustrations! I can't stop looking at them, and each time, I see something new that I hadn't seen at first. I also very much like all the little stories you can read about on each building. For example, there is a slide at one section of the Great Wall of China for visitors to get down! Or that when the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles was built, the sunlight reflecting off the metal panels blinded passing drivers, so they had to sand down certain panels."

Our kids adore it. Can we expect other books like this in Phaidon's catalogue?

"Yes! It's certainly something we're trying to develop. A design book for children should be coming up in the future. We'll keep you posted."


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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