Scholarship and Imagination: Alan Balfour’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter February 12, 2013

Alan Balfour

Architecture school dean Alan Balfour: College of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta)

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Dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture Alan Balfour divides his book list for Designers & Books in a way that reflects his distinguished career as a scholar, author, and educator. The book list contains, he states in his introduction, “first, books that have touched me in the last year or so, most related to supporting and stimulating my own writing; second, writers whose imaginations I can enter, whose books I can get lost within; and third, books that I often return to and continue to value.”

Balfour is the author of eight books on architectural subjects—and a contributor to many more. Though the city is the ostensible subject of his writing in recent years, which includes titles on Berlin, Shanghai, and New York, his underlying concern has been with exploring the cultural imagination.* His newest book, Solomon’s Temple: Myth, Conflict, and Faith (December 2012, Wiley-Blackwell), a highly praised architectural history of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, one of the world’s most hotly disputed sites, doubles as a social and cultural history of this region of the Middle East. Recently read books that Balfour says have connected to his own writing include W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (also on Maira Kalman’s book list). “Sebald writes about memory and the loss of memory (both personal and collective) and the decay of civilizations, traditions, or physical objects—buildings and beliefs,” Balfour observes.

Other titles that have resonated with his recent writing are Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, Nick Papademitriou’s Scarp, and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong, an author Balfour values for her “highly readable, extraordinary scholarship on religion and culture in many books over 30 years.”

Alan Balfour, Solomon’s Temple: Myth Conflict, and Faith, 2012 (Wiley-Blackwell)

Books whose worlds Balfour “can get lost within” range from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Year of the Flood (“raw, bizarre, yet prophetic,” says Balfour) to William Vollman’s Imperial, a history of the land of California’s migrant workers. There is also Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, which Balfour describes as “a glorious interweaving of scholarship and imagination.”

In the last category of books—those Balfour returns to often—are three histories of cities. The American City from the Civil War to the New Deal offers the perspectives of the late-20th-century Italian architectural theorists and historians Giorgio Ciucci, Francesco Dal Co, and Manfredo Tafuri. Then, of Mayhew’s London, originally published in 1851, Balfour says, “Nothing in Dickens comes even close to describing the underbelly of 19th-century London.” And finally there is the frequently reprinted (originally published in 1966) study The Making of Classical Edinburgh 1750–1840 by Alexander John Brown Youngson. Balfour, who co-authored Creating a Scottish Parliament with David McCrone, comments on this title, “ A beautiful book whose design is matched by brilliant scholarship. Reading it makes one in awe of a society in which, for a short period, wealth was pooled to create a unified reality.”


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