In conversation with Speck Lee Tailfeather

The Architecture According to Pigeons star on the Chrysler building, bird control spikes and human/avian relations
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Speck Lee Tailfeather, pigeon elder and avian architectural maven
Speck Lee Tailfeather, pigeon elder and avian architectural maven

You're hopefully familiar by now with the star of our latest architecture book, Architecture According to Pigeons. If not, the editor of our wonderful new book for cultured kids Hélène Gallois Montbrun tells all here. The book is an introduction to architecture for kids as told by pigeon elder Speck Lee Tailfeather. We caught up with the Hubba Bubba-footed fellow when he flew into Phaidon's canalside café last week.  

So Speck, we’ve never seen a pigeon wearing an acorn cup, and a watch around his neck. Could you explain your unusual get-up? A-ha! That, my friend, is the official garb of the Pigeon Elders. I don’t wear it all the time, of course, but when Ms Seki, the book’s marvellous illustrator, asked me to pose for her, I thought it was fit and seemly to don ceremonial wear for the occasion. 

 

Speck over Venice
Speck over Venice

How would you describe your new book, Architecture According to Pigeons, to those less familiar with your bird-brained insights? It is a revelatory tell-all shocker that will blow all previous theories about us out of the air. In it, I reveal that, far from the vermin you have come to see us as, pigeons are in fact a highly cultured and sensitive species and great aficionados of architecture - why else do you think we flock around all your most beautiful buildings in such numbers? But mostly, it is a beautiful journey, both literal and figurative; a personal account of my relationship with some of the most remarkable buildings on the world, which will hopefully inspire and inform all who encounter it. Incidentally, I see you are using ‘bird-brained’ in the real sense, i.e. highly intelligent – for instance, did you know that we pigeons are one of only six species who can recognise ourselves in the mirror?  It’s true! We also recognise all 26 letters of the alphabet and our navigation skills baffle human scientists. You won’t find us having a row on the Swindon Roundabout.

How did you acquire your love and knowledge of architecture? Most pigeons are hatched with an innate love of architecture. It’s as much a part of us as, say, picking your nose seems to be to humans (we see it all up there). That said, we are all raised in the nest to learn the rules of good architecture. They're taught to every young squab and passed down by word of beak over the generations. My editor tells me a human called Vitruvius had some similar ideas and wrote a famous book about them. I say he knew a pigeon. 

 

Speck in flight
Speck in flight

We notice pigeons have different words for some of our buildings. The Great Wall of China is The Great Wormfor instance. Could you offer us some insight into avian architectural lexicon? Ours is a highly complex, lyrical and descriptive language; one which humans have never managed to penetrate (and probably never shall). As a crude comparison I could liken it to, say, Mandarin, or the ancient tongue of the Native American. As a fluent speaker of your own language, I assure you these translations only manage to capture a glimmer of the depth of nuance and poetry they carry in Pigeon. “I’m The King of The Castle” – our name for the Chrysler Building, encapsulates not only the idea of the tower as fortress, but also as a totem of power, wealth and prowess. Echoing a well-known human playground taunt, this name also underlines the somewhat puerile motives behind some elements of its final design. 

You know quite a lot about buildings (for a bird). We feel your book could serve as a handy introduction to the subject for children. Would you concur? Absolutely! Although my feelings for the youngest members of your species are ambivalent, (no-one likes being chased by a three year old) I believe there are many thoughtful and open-minded children of, say 6-9 who may not have given the structures and buildings around them a great deal of thought, but would be fascinated to learn more about them and hear the unusual and insightful perspective of a pigeon.  

 

Speck surveys the Taj Mahal
Speck surveys the Taj Mahal

According to Toronto's Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) up to 10 million birds die each year from hitting skyscrapers, after mistaking reflective windows for open sky, or being drawn to lights at night. When will you guys learn? No comment. OK then, a comment: the very vagueness of the numbers suggests a smear campaign by the authorities to make us seem stupid. How many humans are killed by cars each year? Hmm?

As a pigeon, where do you stand on that most anti-avian, architectural addition, the bird control spike? It saddens us deeply that our relationship with humans has come to this pretty pass, and that, since the advent of the telegram and telephone, the many thousands of years of mutual harmony and dependence between us have been forgotten and desecrated. Bird spikes? Terribly unfair. The bird box, though, comes in handy from time to time on long journeys. A bit like your Premier or Holiday Inn. Learn more about Architecture Accoriding to Pigeons and peruse the vast range of Phaidon titles for cultured kids


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