Books Every Architect Should Read
Long before I came to the conclusion that I wanted to study architectural history, I knew I wanted to collect books. Arranging my books in new classification systems in my room at home as a teenager on rainy days, I even imagined that being a librarian might be the best of all possible worlds. Ever since then I’ve had at least as many books I intend to read as books I have actually read. And ever since then I have been torn between the idea of a small collection of desert island books and a big house with every room lined in books—“dessert island” books, I suppose one could call those that would line the dining room—so that every after dinner conversation might be seasoned with reading and shared books. For a long time I thought my library should emulate those where I had the luck of spending many of my days.
Growing up I tried to replicate the methods of the beautiful library in my suburb, the Helen Kate Furness Free Library in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, built in honor of the Shakespeare scholar sister-in-law of Frank Furness—one of my earliest passions in architecture (my great-grandmother had studied at his Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts).
When I discovered the Avery Library as a freshman at Columbia University, I realized that as much for its buildings as for its books, New York City was the place where I wanted to stay as long as possible. Worried that might not happen, I didn’t learn the lesson that books might always be nearby in beautiful rooms designed by McKim, Mead & White or Carrère and Hastings and managed and organized by others. I still thought to replicate the great working architecture library alone, despite the strain on the floorboards. I would be ready to travel wherever professional life might take me, armed with a library! At Avery and then at Cambridge, where Robin Middleton was librarian when I was a student, I also gained the knowledge that came from books as objects and not simply as transmitters of information.
Lately, my library has burst again, and once again I am undertaking the futile task of organizing the books in a system that makes sense, even as the possession of beautiful new, and temporarily empty shelves seems like a wonderful new beginning with old friends and an invitation to invite more in. But now I realize that organizing my library as interests shift and new projects emerge is a part of intellectual life, the physical labor, perhaps, of reading and writing.
Each time I launch a new project—an exhibition or a book—I gather together the books across subjects that I will want to have at hand, creating a space for them nearest my keyboard and desk. Everything else has to part ways and give up prime space for a new mapping of the networks I want to surf in real pages, even while the Internet has found its way into my library. Fiction and non-fiction merge; architecture books to be sure, but also the other voices I will want to be in conversation with as I try to develop a new subject, acquire new neighbors. My greatest curiosity in this regard is someday to be able to confirm Jorge Luis Borges’s marvelous thought: “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”
Having taught for more than a quarter of a century at Columbia, I have drawn up countless book lists, syllabi, and recommendations for purchase by librarians. But when young art history and architecture students ask for advice I am eager to convey some of my own eclectic range of reading. Inspiration for designers can come not only from the illustrated books that have nourished the design professions since the Renaissance but also from books without illustrations whose ideas can provoke us to see architecture and cities in new ways. The best way to arrive on site before a masterful or provocative building is not simply seeking to confirm the information already recorded in photographs.
As a young student, I was as much moved by the illustrations in Edmund Bacon’s Design of Cities, one of the books that expanded my love of the shape of Center City Philadelphia, as I was by the descriptions of the buildings of Venice as the residue of the complex cultural currents mingling and mixing in the lagoon in Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, a book I read for the first time the summer before I left Philadelphia for college. So what I have assembled is as much a list of books that represent the values and insights that keep architecture alive for me, whether a trek in the Auvergne to find a Romanesque chapel I haven’t yet seen—usually with a volume from the Zodiac series on the Romanesque, a veritable fetish object in our household—or a guided visit to new work in my jaunts as curator at MoMA, most recently to the astounding work underway in Medellín, Colombia.
Here I offer books that always combine great writing with great insights, books that when I offer them to students are meant to captivate by their ability to translate architectural insight into great writing, and thus be books that one knows could continue to deliver even on that mythical desert island. Frankly, I only want to go if there is a delivery service from Amazon and AbeBooks.