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Winter 2008 Roundup: Coffee-Table Books

David Schoonmaker, Catherine Clabby, Fenella Saunders, Morgan Ryan, Anna Lena Phillips, Flora Taylor

Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Art, by Peggy Macnamara
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People have long looked to animals’ nests for architectural inspiration. For Architecture by Birds and Insects (University of Chicago Press, 2008, $25), Peggy Macnamara, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and artist-in-residence of the Field Museum’s zoology program, has put together a delightful collection of paintings that invites further exploration of the techniques and materials that birds and insects use to make their homes.

The nests are arranged not by the kind of organism that makes them, but by how they are made. Thus the section called “Nests Made by Carving Wood” includes the constructions of both woodpeckers and carpenter ants; “Nests Made by Sewing, Weaving, and Binding” has caddisfly larvae, an ant garden, and the homes of swifts, wrens, and a bald eagle, among others. Every plate is accompanied by a numbered key and captions that describe each element of the image.

Most of the nests pictured are from the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, and most were found in North or South America. Apart from the sheer pleasure of poring over these images, the book also affords a sense of the ways that scientists and artists can engage with museum collections. Macnamara’s decisions about how to arrange and interpret the specimens give them new life.

It’s clear that every aspect of Architecture by Birds and Insects, from typography to binding, has been given careful attention. The book is compact, just 6 1/4 by 9 1/4 inches, but the horizontal design leaves plenty of room for Macnamara’s paintings to shine. Some of the images show the nests and their architects in situ, such as the plate that depicts European storks nesting on a rooftop. Others display many kinds of nests together for comparison. A collection of mud nests and their builders arrayed on the page—the greater flamingo, the cliff swallow, the ovenbird and the potter wasp—hearkens back to the wonder cabinets of the Renaissance (above). Within the pages of this small book, readers will find enough to fascinate them for at least the span of a winter afternoon.—Anna Lena Phillips

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