Book List of the Week

True Companions After Others Have Faded into Oblivion: Diana Balmori’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter September 6, 2011

Diana Balmori

Landscape architect and urban designer Diana Balmori: Balmori Associates (New York)

book list

Diana Balmori sees landscape architecture as an art that balances formal precision with what she calls the “unfixity” of nature, saying that “there is an element of wildness that needs to enter into our lives.”* In her recent book A Landscape Manifesto,** she lays out her ideas—which include the philosophical and the poetic—in 25 precisely numbered points. (Three of our favorites, by the way, are #1, “Nostalgia for the past and utopian dreams for the future prevent us from looking at our present”; #23, “The edge between architecture and landscape can be porous”; and #24, “Landscape can be like poetry, highly suggestive and open to multiple interpretations.”)

That same embrace of complexity and contradiction—to borrow a phrase from Robert Venturi—is evident in the approach to the list of books that Balmori sent us. In her introduction she says her list is “not at all homogeneous—but it isn’t random, either.” The books she has selected are “true companions of mine” that have passed the test of time, while other books, “although they produced immediate pleasure, have faded into oblivion.”  

Bookshelf in Balmori’s office, with some of the books she likes to keep close at hand, 2011

Balmori’s original copy of Tacitus’s Agricola and Germania from the Allyn & Bacon College Latin Series (1900)

Balmori comments that the inclusion on her list of Germania (by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, in AD 98) could be seen as a “seemingly odd choice”—especially since she was just 13 when she first encountered it. She was given the book by her father, for a translating exercise in her Latin classes with him. (She still has that original copy.)  She explains, though, that it wasn’t the subject matter of the book that she found interesting (the beliefs and customs of the conquered Germans described through the eyes of the conquering Romans). Rather, what engaged her was the “incredibly taut,” “cutting as a knife” prose, “attaining a precision I had not imaged possible.”

She describes The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting—the most widely used handbook on landscape painting in China—as “a rare and valuable dictionary of landscape forms as well as a detailed portrayal of the discipline dealing with those forms.” She notes especially this “priceless observation”: “To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse. The end of all method is to seem to have no method.”

Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, 2011 (The Monacelli Press)

Her generous and eclectic list also includes fiction (she has read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels—in the order in which Woolf wrote them); a book about the bridges designed and engineered by Robert Maillart; a book about the Japanese tea ceremony that she has taught in undergraduate architecture seminars because it shows “a brilliant way of establishing rules without dictating a particular style”; and a book of illustrations of tree roots “for those in the field of landscape design and probably not of interest to those outside of it.”

Balmori the energetic and engaged reader is also Balmori the energetic and engaged writer. She has authored or co-authored more than ten books, with her next book, Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture (published by The Monacelli Press), scheduled for release on September 27. Written with Joel Sanders, it proposes the integration of landscape and architecture, dissolving traditional distinctions between building and environment.


* Stacked Up Videos interview, “Architect Diana Balmori on Art and Reading in Latin,” by Britta Conroy-Randall, WNYC Culture Desk, October 8, 2010.

 ** Also see this Tumblr version of A Landscape Manifesto.

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