The Library as Paradise: Books Every Architect Should Read—Barry Bergdoll

By Steve Kroeter June 7, 2011
Barry Bergdoll

Architecture curator and architectural historian Barry Bergdoll: The Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University (New York)

book list

A lover of books and architecture would be hard-pressed to find three finer libraries than the Helen Kate Furness Free Library in Wallingford, Pennsylvania; the Avery Library at Columbia University in New York; and the Cambridge University Library in England.

These, as it turns out, are the libraries that have been in Barry Bergdoll’s life—while growing up, while in college and graduate school, and while a Kellett Fellow abroad. In these libraries he says, “I had the luck of spending many of my days.” In fact, Bergdoll at one point imagined that “being a librarian might be the best of all possible worlds.”

While that was not to be, books have remained a fundamental element in Bergdoll’s career—at The Museum of Modern Art and also at Columbia University. In these positions he has written extensively— including histories, monographs, and exhibition catalogues—and has “drawn up countless book lists, syllabi, and recommendations for purchase by librarians.”

For his list of “Books Every Architect Should Read” Bergdoll says he chose books that “always combine great writing with great insights”; that “represent the values and insights that keep architecture alive for me”; and that “one knows could continue to deliver even on that mythical desert island.” On his list are titles that address classical architecture, modern architecture, and cultural history. 

Of John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture, Bergdoll writes: “A fantastic, quick entry into the meaning of the classical system that provides a lively understanding with no dogmatic belief in its eternal validity.” He describes The Details of Modern Architecture by Edward R. Ford as “inspiring not only for studying the architecture of the late 19th and 20th centuries but also for developing an architectural expression today.” 

In what might to some be considered a surprising pick on a list of “must read” titles for architects, Bergdoll includes The Great Cat Massacre; And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (“One of the great reads in recent history writing.”). He also includes one significant work of fiction: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. About it he writes, “The opening lines about 19th-century architecture, beginning in Antwerp, reveal that often the greatest texture of architectural appreciation comes form the least expected places.”

For architects (or anyone else), Bergdoll intimates that to be surrounded with books is a fine place in which to find oneself. “My greatest curiosity . . . is someday to confirm Jorge Luis Borges’s marvelous thought: I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”

*Note: Summer is around the corner. This, and reading Bergdoll’s reference to having drawn up “countless book lists,” reminded us that Juhani Pallasmaa—in addition to his personal list of formative books, which we published this February—also gave us a second book list. As dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Helsinki University of Technology, he routinely sent to all incoming architecture students a list of 40 books to read during the summer before their first year. The selected titles tended to emphasize literature, film, and other non-architectural subjects. The list that was sent out to the class that entered the school in the fall of 1992 is posted in the “Essays, Etc.” section of Designers & Books.



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