Notable Design Books: Reviews

10 Notable Design Books of 2013: November Reviews

November 7, 2013


Our November reviews highlight the design of an ancient hanging garden, some of the world’s most spectacular opera houses, the lost art of architectural drawing drawing by hand, and a guide to the iconic figures of graphic design. We also look at new books on architects Louis Kahn and Lina Bo Bardi.

Notable Design Books of 2013 have been selected by members of our Book Board. You can also view the complete list of Notable Design Books of 2013, in our signature grid format.

Book Board members who have participated in selecting titles for our November post are Allison Arieff, Diana Balmori,  John HillPhil Patton, Witold Rybczynski, and Norman Weinstein.

Neil Bingham
100 Years of Architectural Drawing

By Neil Bingham
Laurence King Publishing (September 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

100 Years of Architectural Drawing: 1900–2000, by Neil Bingham, 2013 (Laurence King Publishing)

I had a conversation with the CEO of a major architectural software company recently. When I shared with him how much contemporary renderings made me miss old-fashioned architectural drawings, he agreed—but told me we were both getting old and were just being nostalgic. Hogwash. I’ll have to show him the new book 100 Years of Architectural Drawing: 1900–2000 and see if he continues to defend the often lifeless computer versions that are now the norm.

100 Years of Architectural Drawing is, to use an over-used but completely apt descriptor here, an absolute gem. It embraces the most eclectic and wildly international assortment of practitioners and projects—not just the usual suspects. So while you’ll see Schindler, Pelli, and Rodchenko, you’ll also see a stunning hydroelectric plant by Piero Portaluppi, a sort of biomorphic-meets-streamline designed cafeteria by Henri Mouette and Pierre Sziekely, and a Dubai-worthy pink ziggurat created by Henri Sauvage. Everything is good in here, much of it unfamiliar to American audiences. Looking at the red-capped rowers in Sigurd Lewerentz’s elegant gouache of a rowers and their boathouse in comparison to a recent rendering of a local landscape architecture project made me wince, the former so immersive and lovely, the latter, so sterile and unconvincing. But the book isn’t just about pretty pictures. It’s lovingly curated and intelligently researched by Neil Bingham of the Royal Academy of Arts in London (who wrote the series of five historical essays on major periods of architectural drawing that organize the book).

This book (and my review) in the end, isn’t a clarion call against a new technology (CAD, parametricism, et al.) but an inspiration, an expression of how much more is possible.


 Interior pages from 100 Years of Architectural Drawing, courtesy of Laurence King Publishing
Interior pages from 100 Years of Architectural Drawing, courtesy of Laurence King Publishing
Mason B. Williams
City of Ambition

By Mason B. Williams
W. W. Norton (May 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Phil Patton (New York Times)

City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York, by Mason B. Williams, 2013 (W. W. Norton)

Thousands of fans heading for Yankee Stadium pass the sign “Bronx Terminal Market 1935,” its letterforms cast in a sturdy concrete facade suggesting their era. The market was the site of one of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s triumphs--over government inefficiency and organized crime—and serves as one of the smaller symbols of his role as city shaper.

I thought of that market while reading City of Ambition, a study of La Guardia’s relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and thus of the New Deal. City of Ambition is important reading for anyone interested in the design of cities and particularly how plans and visions are translated to physical and social reality—or not. The Bronx Market, whose days since La Guardia have been less happy, is proof of how much New York is still the city of Roosevelt’s New Deal—still the city La Guardia and FDR built. Bridges, highways, parks, schools, and more were constructed as economic stimulus measures. They are what we today call infrastructure; they are also extensions of the market, in its ancient sense of the agora, the common, public space.

So, as the author writes, “The book is also a study of how government came to play an extraordinarily broad role in a quintessentially market-oriented city.” The Federal government accounted for about a third of New York’s budget at the high point of the New Deal. The story is a useful corrective for the naïve policy wonk: it tells of political club houses, ethnic resentments and crime, organized and semi-organized. Aside from intermittent stiffening into academic jargon, the narrative is engaging. La Guardia summed up New York’s variety: his parents were an Italian and a Jew, he was born in Greenwich Village and raised in Arizona. He was a progressive Republican. He managed to charm even FDR and the two crossed party lines in mutual support. He was also folk hero, part neighborhood grocer, part favorite uncle, the “little flower” who read the Sunday newspaper comics on the radio to children when a newspaper strike prevented their delivery. Such acts were given physical form in parks and pools and schools, many of them still in use in the city today.

The book comes at an appropriate time, when Federal stimulus is under discussion again, and also when Bill De Blasio, another activist candidate with a short article in his name and a melting-pot background, is set to move into City Hall.

The newly inaugurated Governor Roosevelt greets his predecessor, Al Smith. Reprinted from City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York by Mason B. Williams. Copyright © 2013 by Mason B. Williams. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Major La Guardia poses with the airplane designer Gianni Caproni in Milan shortly before returning from service, 1918. Reprinted from City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York by Mason B. Williams. Copyright © 2013 by Mason B. Williams. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


John Clifford
Graphic Icons

By John Clifford
Peachpit Press (August 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Allison Arieff (SPUR)

Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, by John Clifford, 2013 (Peachpit Press)

Graphic Icons is a book that probably everyone assumed already existed but didn’t. We owe a debt of gratitude to graphic designer John Clifford for making sure it does. What a labor of love: Clifford’s reverence for the greats of the profession is apparent on every gorgeous page of the book. Sure to become required reading for any graphic design student (but also ideal for the coffee table), Graphic Icons is 240 pages of pure inspiration.

The book includes most of the designers you’d expect: Lissitsky to Lustig, Lois to Landor. But despite that sense of recognition on nearly every page it’s just amazing how fresh all the work feels. In fact, there is so much terrific visual (and written) information here that my only complaint is that the book isn’t much, much longer.

Excerpted from Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design by John Clifford. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.
William Whitaker and George H. Marcus
The Houses of Louis Kahn

By William Whitaker and George H. Marcus
Yale University Press (November 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member architecture commentator Witold Rybczynski (emeritus, University of Pennsylvania)

The Houses of Louis Kahn, by George H. Marcus and William Whitaker, 2013 (Yale University Press)

Between 1940 and his death in 1974, Louis Kahn designed more than 30 private residences. The majority of these commissions did not come to fruition, although eight went as far as construction drawings. But nine, all in the Philadelphia area, saw the light of day. These houses have not attracted much attention. The reason for this neglect may be, as George H. Marcus and William Whitaker write in The Houses of Louis Kahn, their elusive character. “Kahn’s houses are difficult to grasp at once,” the authors write, “for they were designed not as architectural manifestos but as buildings that express the circumstances of their creation.” In other words, for Kahn, houses were not an opportunity to experiment, but rather a considered response to the site, the program, the budget, and the (patient—Kahn sometimes worked slowly) client.

In this exemplary study, Marcus, who teaches art history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Whitaker, who is curator of Penn’s Architectural Archives, which house the Louis I. Kahn Collection, document all four aspects in detail. Introductory essays examine the ideas behind Kahn’s domestic designs, both built and unbuilt, as well as the life experiences that influenced the architect’s idea of home. The authors also write about a previously ignored subject: Kahn’s approach to furniture. Unlike his friend Eero Saarinen, Kahn did not design any chairs, but Marcus and Whitaker describe his built-in seating as well as tables and cabinets. In early houses he used furniture by Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, and Saarinen, but later abandoned midcentury modern and encouraged his clients to purchase pieces by local furniture-makers such as Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. He also favored antiques.

Margaret Esherick House, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1959–62. From southeast. From The Houses of Louis Kahn, courtesy of Yale University Press. Photo: 2008 © Matt Wargo

Jesse and Ruth Oser House, Elkins Park, 1940–42. From northeast. From The Houses of Louis Kahn, courtesy of Yale University Press. Photo: 1990 © Matt Wargo

More than half of this book is devoted to a detailed description of the nine built houses, all extant, all but one lived in (the Esherick House is currently empty and for sale). The three oldest houses, which all demonstrate considerable architectural ambition, predate 1950 and undermine the idea that Kahn discovered his true architectural self only when he built the Yale University Art Gallery (1950–51). The detailed descriptions of his domestic commissions show that Kahn, despite his reputation as a philosopher-poet, was an experienced professional, responsive to clients’ requests, concerned with the details of construction, driven by practical considerations. This interesting book is full of such aperçus. While it contains photographs of the houses, it also includes archival material such as design sketches, details, and construction drawings. If you thought you knew all there was to know about Kahn, read this splendid book—there is still more to learn about the greatest American architect of the second half of the 20th century.

Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima
Lina Bo Bardi

By Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima; With a foreword by Barry Bergdoll
Yale University Press (November 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Lina Bo Bardi, by Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima , 2013 (Yale University Press)

Today Lina Bo Bardi is considered one of the most important 20th-century Brazilian architects—with Lucia Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha—yet her buildings and other creations have received relatively little exposure, with the result that she is not as common a name outside the country she emigrated to in 1946 at the age of 32. This thrift can be attributed to her late blooming as an architect (her first building, a house for her and her husband, Pietro Bardi, was completed two years before she turned 40; and her first major commission, MASP, wasn’t realized until 1968, 14 years later) and the small number of built works (14 are discussed, modeled, and mapped in this book) before her death in 1992. But I’d wager she hasn’t received the proper attention until now because, while she is remembered for two important pieces of architecture (MASP-Museu de Arte de São Paulo and SESC Pompeia Leisure Center, also in São Paulo), she was more than just an architect; she wrote, taught, edited and laid out magazines, curated and designed exhibitions, and created some of the most beautiful chairs of the last 60 years.

Assembling her story and accomplishments into a book could not have been a simple task, but architect and Washington University professor Zeuler R.M. de A. Lima has astutely navigated the complexity of Bo Bardi’s life and crafted a deeply researched yet highly pleasurable book. Lima’s historical narrative—neither straight history nor monograph—responds appropriately to Bo Bardi’s multitasking nature, intertwining her actions and creations through short, chronological chapters that gracefully pull the reader along on her voyage from Italy to Brazil, and the frustrations and developments that shaped her particular position in her adopted country.

Southwestern view on avenida Paulista. MASP, São Paulo, 1957–68. From Lina Bo Bardi, courtesy of Yale University Press. Photo: Nelson Kon

Lina Bo and P.M. Bardi house in Morumbi, Sao Paulo, 1949–52. Interior view with dining room and internal patio in the foreground.  From Lina Bo Bardi, courtesy of Yale University Press. Photo: Nelson Kon

Admittedly there is a palpable unease in Bo Bardi’s architecture, as if the late start and sporadic commissions did not give her enough chances to develop a consistent formal language. Yet already in Italy, where she wrote and edited publications more than anything else, she had adopted a stance that favored the activities of people occupying spaces rather than the form architecture should take (her wonderful drawings of street life express this position particularly well). And because she embraced history and the continuity of culture through construction and other means, her buildings could be vague about time, authorship, and where architecture ends and scenography or exhibition begins.

Yet Lima discovers and describes the strands that give meaning to Bo Bardi’s life by, among other things, finding importance in the smallest, and often poetic, details—a particular sentence she wrote or the way a stair tread connected to a stringer. Speaking of details, it’s worth noting the excellent design (by Thumb/Luke Bulman) of Lina Bo Bardi, from the chipboard cover and sturdy, matte paper to the page layouts and the dictionary-like index tabs marking the short chapters that trace Bo Bardi’s multifaceted life.

Guillaume de Laubier
The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World

Photographs by Guillaume de Laubier; text by Antoine de Pecqueur
Abrams (October 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member Norman Weinstein (

The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World, photographs by Guillaume de Laubier; text by Antoine Pecqueur, 2013 (Abrams)

If this book’s title evokes an expensive coffee-table collection of gorgeous color photography of for the most part traditionally designed opera houses, you’ll be largely, and yet insufficiently, correct. The text is considerably more worthwhile than the clichéd title suggests. Through 32 examples of global opera houses—the focus generally avoids multi-functional concert halls and cultural complexes—the photographs and text present an exceptionally detailed overview of varieties of opera-driven design luxuriance. Many of the same qualities of “over the top” melodramatic musical ornamentation found in classic opera find expression in classic opera house design.

Guillaume de Laubier is a photographer who relishes details a hair’s breadth from kitsch, highlighting an Edwardian stained glass design crowning an exit door in the London Coliseum as well as rococo tapestries and murals florid to the nth degree. There is enough sweet eye-candy in these photographs to send a reader with modernist and/or inimalist proclivities into an aesthetic equivalent of diabetic shock. But a half dozen opera houses far more congenial to those sensibilities also are showcased effectively, including Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House and Henning Larsen’s Operaen Store Scene in Copenhagen.

Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, Italy. Palladio was inspired by the amphitheaters of antiquity, with a triumphal arch serving as a stage wall. From The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World © Abrams, 2013. Photo © Guillaume de Laubier

Den Norske Opera Og Ballett, Oslo, Norway. Inside the building is a successful alliance of glass and wood. From The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World © Abrams, 2013. Photo: © Snøhetta for Den Norske Opera Og Ballett, Oslo

Antoine Pecqueur’s writing is entertaining, breezy, anecdotal, and situated effectively facing each page of Laubier’s photography of a particular structure. Those seeking information about the acoustical imperatives facing opera house designers won’t find much enlightenment here. Luckily, Victoria Newhouse’s magnificently written Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls will help in that area, although the uneven quality of its often undersized photographs is annoying. Designers interested in extraordinary opulence, particularly in terms of finely finished public interiors, will rejoice in consulting de Laubier’s and Pecqueur’s tome.

Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, entrance hall decorated by Sam Francis (the colorful ceiling) and Sol LeWitt (the black-and-white marble tiling). From The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World © Abrams, 2013. Photo: © Guillaume de Laubier
Stephanie Dalley
The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon

By Stephanie Dalley
Oxford University Press (August 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member and landscape and urban designer Diana Balmori (Balmori Associates)

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, by Stephanie Dalley, 2013 (Oxford University Press)

This is a notable book. After decades of doubt about the very existence of Babylon’s hanging garden, this extremely interesting and solidly researched work takes us step by step along the circuitous route that led historical sources astray to the wrong site or the wrong attribution.

First, Dalley asks why, while the existence of six of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World had been proven, this one had been consigned to myth. With this intriguing question, she begins her long search for clues to solve this mystery.

In a good mystery, it is anathema to disclose the final discovery prematurely. But although I do not want to spoil this mystery for its new readers, I cannot help saying that the two major discoveries—first, that the garden was not built in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar or Semiramis, but in Nineveh, in Assyria, by Sennacherib in 700 BC; and second, that it was built not on the Euphrates River, but on the Tigris—resulted in searches in the wrong places. The reasons that the names became confused is one of the most interesting parts of the story and the crux of the mystery.

Once the information is applied to the new site, the data and archaeology begin to fall into place. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it is possible to actually find the hanging garden by conducting an archeological dig at the new site; many cities succeeded one another on top of Sennacherib’s palace and garden. But significant elements remain, including both the elaborate complex that brought water to the palace and irrigated the garden, as well as some of the sculpted structures in important areas of the waterworks. As the author points out, this water system is an integral part of what made the garden one of the Seven Wonders.

Citadel mound at Ninevah, possible location of the Hanging Garden. From The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, courtesy of Oxford University Press

Drawing of the palace garden by Terry Ball. From The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, courtesy of Oxford University Press

The book is full of major surprises, such as that—several centuries before Archimedes was born—bronze Archimedean screws served to raise water to the top of the terraced garden. Learning about the water engineering is in itself a reason to read this book, particularly in an age in which water engineering has become a priority in cities menaced by rising seas.

Dalley’s descriptions of the terraced garden, the collection of plants from many distant places, the semicircular plan that later Greek writers described as similar to their amphitheaters, the shaded columned walk that connected the upper level of the garden with the palace, and finally the two bronze Archimedean screws carrying water to the top of the garden, all provide a picture of delight.

For the first time, we are on solid ground with regard to where the hanging garden stood. New discoveries will perhaps lead to some changes here and there in our knowledge, but they can only add richness to this superb discovery.

Tod Williams
Billie Tsien

By Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
Yale University Press (December 2013)
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Reviewer: Book Board member John Hill (

Wunderkammer, by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, 2013 (Yale University Press)

One of the most lasting impressions from last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale was the Wunderkammer installation, curated by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Specifically it was the smell of incense pulling me into the ivy-covered Casa Scaffali, the “House of Shelves” that housed seeds and gardening equipment at the far corner of the Arsenale. Inside I discovered the source of the incense: one of the thirty-four boxes arrayed on the shelves and in the middle of the small space, each one a personal collection of artifacts that exhibited their maker’s personalities and priorities.

A book of the same name documents the Wunderkammer installation, which started with Williams and Tsien soliciting friends, family, former employees, former employers, and others (architects mainly, but also artists and critics) to fill a sturdy gray box made by cabinetmaker Stephen Iino with “objects that inspire them.” Importantly, the objects were not to be architecture. Like Valerio Olgiati’s The Images of Architects, the boxes responded to Biennale curator David Chipperfield’s theme of “Common Ground.” Yet in the case of Wunderkammer the things that inspired and connected were tangible and real rather than images of real things or places.

Christoff + Finio. From Wunderkammer, courtesy of Yale University Press. Photo: © Michael Moran

While visitors to the Biennale saw only the boxes staged in a particular manner in the Casa Scaffali, readers of the small book (the same size and format as Yale University Press’s Unpacking My Library books) can read statements from the contributors and see sketches and additional photos about what went into each box. The extra documentation becomes a replacement for the act of seeing the artifacts in person, but it also extends the life of the project, important since each box was returned to its maker.

To give a sense of what was inside the boxes, a few of my favorites include: the three layers of Sheila O’Donnell’s and John Tuomey’s Joseph Cornell-esque memory box; the box Francis Kéré filled with dirt and a tool from Burkina Faso; Chen Chen & Kai Williams’s deconstructed box fitted with a magic eight ball filled with the brackish water of Venice’s lagoon; and Claudy Jongstra’s 600 balls made from 10,000 meters of wool and silk dyed with 30 kilos of onion. And let’s not forget Marwan Al-Sayed, who turned the gray box into a gold “Shrine to the Shimmering Inversions of Form and Space,” where incense wafted from a black iron vase to pull visitors into Casa Scaffali’s wonderful cabinet of curiosities.

Toyo Ito. From Wunderkammer, courtesy of Yale University Press. Photo: © Michael Moran


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