Rare & Beautiful

Architecture and the Illustrated Book

From Palladio to Frank Lloyd Wright, architects have brought their work to the printed page with exquisite results.

By Peter Kraus April 7, 2020

Besides books illustrated by artists, the books that are most appealing to me are those that deal with architecture—whether history, theory or practice. While these books are collected by both institutions and private collectors, it is still a largely overlooked field, and were it not for the habit of breaking books up for their plates, there would be a plentiful supply of the majority of titles. Luckily this habit, which was in full swing in the 1980s and ‘90s, has largely ended.

Here are just some examples of notable illustrated books on architecture published since the early sixteenth century.

Andrea Palladio, I quattro libri dell’architettura (1570).

In 1521, in Como, Italy, the first Italian edition of the works of Vitruvius, De architectura—generally considered the first book of architectural theory—was published, featuring woodcuts by Cesare Cesariano. This was followed some fifty years later by one of the most influential of all architecture books, I quattro libri dell’architettura by Andrea Palladio. Published in Venice in 1570, this is a book whose importance is impossible to exaggerate. Both these books are extremely hard to find in contemporary bindings, and in fine condition, but lesser copies of both books appear regularly for sale.

The beginning of the seventeenth century witnessed the publication in Paris of Jacques Perret’s Des fortifications et artifice: Architecture et perspective (Fortifications and artifice: architecture and perspective), a truly stunning work whose visionary plates are some of the most arresting to be found in any architecture book. And in 1615 in Venice, Vincenzo Scamozzi published L’idea della architettura universale (The idea of a universal architecture), which became the most influential architectural work of the first part of the century.

Jacques Perret, Des fortifications et artifice: Architecture et perspective (1601).

The eighteenth century saw a tremendous increase in the publication of architecture books. Three of them stand out. The first is Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurff Einer Historischen Architektur (Design of a historical architecture) published in Vienna in 1710. This collection of ninety-three engravings compiled by one of Austria’s most distinguished Baroque architects is a splendid pictorial record of buildings ranging from the Ancient World, including King Solomon’s Temple, to the early 1700s, and features some the architect’s own buildings, such as Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg imperial summer residence.

A very different type of architecture book, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena’s Architetture e prospettive: Dedicate alla Maestà di Carlo Sesto Imperador de’Romani, was published in 1740. Here the fifty superbly engraved plates do not portray buildings, but rather stage sets and architectural designs for festivals and events such as weddings. This is one of the most elaborate and grandest in a chain of similar books going back to the sixteenth century.

John Riddell, Architectural Designs for Model Country Residences (1864).

Another book of great physical splendor is Scottish architect Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia, published in 1764. Adam published this magnificent work to use as a tool for obtaining commissions from members of the British aristocracy. The sixty-one plates were engraved by such important artists as Charles-Louis Clerisseau and Antonio Zucchi. Like Palladio’s work two hundred years earlier, this was to have a tremendous influence on the development of architecture.

Fitting into the tradition of elaborate studies of individual buildings, in 1842 the Welsh architect Owen Jones began publication of his monumental two-volume study of the Alhambra, which was eventually completed in 1845. The 101 stunning lithographic plates constitute a landmark in the history of color printing.

Like the Alhambra studies, John Riddell’s Architectural Designs for Model Country Residences, published in the United States in 1864, makes use of chromolithography Its twenty distinctive and extremely captivating plates of villas, cottages, and mansions create an uncommon American entry in the panorama of great illustrated architecture books.

Owen Jones, Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Details of the Alhambra (1842–45).

Le Corbusier, Des Canons, des Munitions? (1938).

The beginning of the twentieth century celebrated the publication of one of the rarest and most sought-after of all architecture books. This is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe, published in Berlin by Ernst Wasmuth (the two-volume work is also known as the Wasmuth portfolio) in 1910, and mostly destroyed in a fire at Wright’s home at Taliesin, Wisconsin. The 101 magnificent plates are original lithographs after Wright’s designs, and as a result many of the few surviving copies have been broken up.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe (1910).

Last, but by no means least, is an unusual book by Le Corbusier—although it is typical for the architect—Des Canons, Des Munitions? Published in 1938, this book, which is a classic piece of avant-garde book design, is a plea for the integration of the technologies used in the manufacture of the materials of war in the creation of enlightened architectural urbanism.

Fortunately for the armchair collector and anyone interested in architecture books, reference works abound. Particularly outstanding is the four-volume series covering the Mark J. Millard Collection in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which includes more than six hundred rare illustrated books and bound series of prints on French, British, Northern European, and Italian and Spanish architecture and design.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to printing techniques and possible acquisition (Des fortifications et artifice: Architecture et perspective; Architectural Designs for Model Country Residences; and Des Canons, des Munitions? are available for acquisition), please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com:

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the eighth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

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