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Books Every Architect Should Read: Seeing Things as You Have Never Seen Them Before
May 3, 2011

If you read a novel, you are connecting directly to the thing that interests you, but if you read an architecture book, you are not. What books about architecture have to offer is vicarious experience. Even the best architecture books, like museum exhibitions about architecture, leave us one layer removed from the reality of seeing a building, the experience of walking around it, the feeling of being inside it.

Still, for all that we like to believe that in architecture—as the great Latin phrase res ipsa loquitur has it—the thing itself speaks, not all buildings do. Some of them need help in speaking, in making us understand what they have to say. So the first role of books about architecture is to interpret and explain: to be, in effect, the label on the museum wall, or the note in the concert program.

This is why I have always had a certain weakness for architectural guidebooks, which proceed from the assumption that the subject matter is the buildings themselves, and that the role of the book is to offer intelligent discussion of the architecture that is in front of you, as if your meanderings were accompanied by a knowledgeable and cultivated friend. The best guidebooks, like the best friends, have points of view, and they are clear about what they like and what they dislike.

Many years ago, when I read the late Ian Nairn’s guides to London and Paris (called, with an endearing presumption, Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris), and carried them around the streets with me, I felt that I was getting to know a person as much as I was getting to know a city’s architecture. You could see that Nairn was made of equal parts of amiability and disagreeableness, that he could swoon, but only over the very finest things; that he could take joy in the most ordinary streetscape if it could be shown to make daily life better; and that he could always be counted on to prefer the work of an eccentric genius like Nicholas Hawksmoor over that of a sane and rational architect like Christopher Wren. He did more than guide me around the streets of London. He helped me understand the profundity of Hawksmoor and Sir John Soane, whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Nairn called “as deep as St. Paul’s dome is wide; an experience to be had in London as nowhere else, worth traveling across a continent to see in the same way as the Sistine Chapel”—a line I remember three decades after reading it. Nairn shaped my sensibility, and my sense of London is inextricably bound up in his.

Nairn’s books had no small degree of influence on my own first book, The City Observed: An Architectural Guide to Manhattan, and on the work of many other writers. Time passes, and things change, which makes architectural guidebooks more perishable than many other kinds of books; the London and Paris that Nairn described are no more present today than is the New York of the late 1970s that I wrote about. These books and others like it—Charles Moore’s The City Observed: Los Angeles comes particularly to mind—are out of date in the sense that they cannot function precisely as they once did, but they remain a great joy to read.

My point is that one or more architectural guides to treasured places, current or not, belong in every architect’s library, whether or not you ever intend to hold them in your hand as you walk around. The more personal, the better, and don’t be put off by generic-sounding titles: the AIA Guide to New York City, which just came out in a new edition, may look like a reference book, but it is filled with sharp observations, and there is a decent amount of wit among the encyclopedic listings. Some of the other guidebooks worth having: An Architectural Guide to Los Angeles, by David Gebhard and Robert Winter; Chicago’s Famous Buildings, by Franz Schulze and Kevin Harrington; and Venice for Pleasure, by J. G. Links.

If architectural guidebooks as a genre can bring you closer to the reality of architecture than most other kinds of books, they nonetheless make only the barest beginning of a basic reading list. Architecture, after all, is about everything—it is a product of culture and money and politics as well as aesthetics, and sometimes there is more insight about architecture to be found in books that are ostensibly about something else. Can any work of architectural history provoke you to think about the relationship between the physical form of the city and the social life that goes on within it as powerfully as The Age of Innocence does? Edith Wharton makes manifest the connections between the great houses of New York at the end of the 19th century and the human dramas that occurred inside and around them; you cannot read this great novel and emerge with a better feel for the brick and stone of 19th-century New York than you will get from almost any work of architectural history, and for me there is a special pleasure in sensing the intimate connection between the physical form of architecture and human interaction. Wharton makes you see architecture not as a simple catalyst—she is far too subtle for that—but as much more than a neutral setting.

It doesn’t have to be Edith Wharton, or Henry James in Washington Square, who shows you how architecture can affect the life that goes on within it, and, in turn, how much architecture is a product of social and cultural mores. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, by Eric Hodgins, makes the point even more directly, if in nearly farcical fashion, as the suburban ideal of the middle of the 20th century proves to be something of a nightmare. (It is light entertainment compared to Henry James, but it is a humbling book for architects, which is all the more reason they should read it.)

My belief that novels in which architecture plays a significant role should be high on any architect’s reading list—and there are many more than the three I have mentioned—does not extend to the most famous one of all, The Fountainhead, which purports to celebrate the architect but in fact turns him into a cartoon of an arrogant monster. In general, I am not particularly high on works of fiction in which an architect is the main character, since most of them tend to offer rather less insight into architecture than do so many works that are about other kinds of people, and which approach the subject of architecture more obliquely. Even as great a work as Ibsen’s play The Master Builder is not the place to go for insight into architecture.

Biographies of architects have not, by and large, been a particularly enlightening genre, with the ongoing exception of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose life of high drama has led Brendan Gill, Ada Louise Huxtable, and Meryle Secrest to be only the most recent of the many who have written a version of Wright’s life story. Huxtable in particular deftly ties Wright’s work and his life together without exaggerating the connections between the two. Wright was not immune to his own attraction as a subject, and his Autobiography, if wildly hyperbolic and free and loose in its use of facts, is one of the most exciting books about architecture that you can read. Franz Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography and Philip Johnson: Life and Work also rise above the limitations of the genre, as does Nicholas Fox Weber’s Le Corbusier: A Life, though in all of these cases one may wonder how much a chronicle of an architect’s bedmates will add to your understanding of his work.

A list of books that every architect ought to read cannot consist entirely of guidebooks, novels, and biographies, of course. But I’m not sure that it need include histories and standard reference books, either. There are plenty of excellent architectural dictionaries and the like, and when you need to know the difference between a pilaster and a pediment, or what the Queen Anne style was, there is nothing better. They are books every architect should have. But that is not the same as books every architect should read.

What every architect should read are the books that ruminate about what architecture is and how it works, the books that make you think about it in another way, the books that tell you how the world has shaped architecture, and how architecture, in turn, has affected the world. The greatest buildings, like art and music and literature, can be interpreted in multiple ways. They look different to you than they do to me, and they mean different things to you and me; they meant different things at different times in the past, and they will mean different things in the future. As there is no end to what can be said about Beethoven and Mozart, there is no end to what can be said about the work of Michelangelo and Palladio and Borromini and Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn.

The books every architect should read are the books that give you more than the information you can find in textbooks and dictionaries and style guides, useful (and even, on occasion, entertaining) as such books can be. The books I value most are the books that are personal, the books whose authors make you see things as you have never seen them before, the books whose prose strikes you as fresh no matter how many times you have read it before. As it is hard to turn away from the allure of a well-composed facade—and why should you—I find that elegant prose about architecture exerts an equal pull. If there is anything that ties together writers like John Summerson, Vincent Scully, Michael Sorkin, Charles Moore, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Geoffrey Scott, and Lewis Mumford, it is that they all use the English language with distinction and grace, sometimes even with majesty. Each of them loves words, and loves the connection between words and architecture. They have different things to say about architecture, and often don’t agree with one another. But they all teach us much about buildings and cities and community, and they do it in writing that is as appealing as the best of the architecture that they describe.

John Summerson’s Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture, first published in 1963, is a case in point. Summerson takes on Christopher Wren in “The Mind of Wren,” an essay that brilliantly dissects the architect in terms of his relationship to the intellectual and social currents of 17th-century England. “Wren carried empiricism into architecture just as Locke carried it into philosophy,” Summerson writes. “In his towers and spires we can see the triumphs—and the disasters—of a fancy controlled empirically, not intuitively. In St. Paul’s success and failure are inextricably woven, although the ultimate grandeur of the whole, as a sheer monument of intellectual self-reliance, is beyond all criticism or praise.” In his quest to set Wren in an intellectual and cultural context, Summerson does not ignore Wren’s buildings themselves; in fact, he describes them with utter clarity, often in phrases as evocative as the rest of his prose.

Summerson’s “The Past in the Future,” also in Heavenly Mansions, is perhaps the finest essay on historic preservation ever written. He talks of the relative ease of keeping art, literature, and music alive, and then says: “But old buildings are different. Like divorced wives they cost money to maintain. They are often dreadfully in the way. And the protection of one may exact as much sacrifice from the community as the preservation of a thousand pictures, books or musical scores. In their case only, we are brought face to face with decisions on values. And these values are complicated."

Vincent Scully is as distinctive a stylist as Summerson, and his Modern Architecture and Other Essays contains a wide-ranging sampling of his work, including his memorable essay “The Death of the Street,” an analysis of postwar Park Avenue in New York City in which Scully first comes to terms with the anti-urbanism of orthodox modern architecture, and takes his first step back toward an embrace of traditional urban planning. The book makes a good introduction to Scully, although I admit to being partial to his American Architecture and Urbanism, published in 1969, which had an enormous influence on me as a student, perhaps because it is a single, long, unbroken cavalcade of words and images, the book that most closely echoes his charismatic lecture style. And I was deeply moved by Scully’s sense of urgency about the urban condition. He called the effort to rescue the American city a “labor . . . to which we are all drawn in agony and love for the whole of the American place and its people, as time runs out on us, while the curtains flap in the windows of the old brownstones, and the grasses bend in the water by the gray-shingled houses, and the neo begins to glow on the lifting plain under the darkening sky.”

Charles Moore’s essay “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” first published in 1965 in the Yale architecture journal Perspecta, and reprinted in a collection of Moore’s writing of the same title, was the first serious piece of architectural writing about Disneyland, which Moore viewed as “enormously important and successful just because it recreates all the chances to respond to a public environment, which Los Angeles particularly no longer has.” Forty-five years later, Moore’s analysis is still on point—and it all but predicted the gradual conflation of the city and the idea of the theme park. It remains one of the greatest essays written about the decline of the public realm in our time.

Lewis Mumford’s major books can be turgid, and their earnest tone now comes off more as self-important, but Mumford’s shorter essays in architecture, most of which ran in The New Yorker, are masterworks of clarity, with moments of sparkle that do not exist in his full-length books. The best collection is From the Ground Up, but The Highway and the City is worth reading as well. Both are reminders that Mumford saw architecture always as a social art before he saw it as an aesthetic one, however sharp his eye. He had a troubling dislike of the chaotic, random aspect of cities that we have learned, in the post-Jane Jacobs age, to value deeply, and he had an almost naïve belief in the power of rational thinking to solve urban problems. I disagree with much of what Mumford said about cities and I only sometimes share his judgments about individual works of architecture, but I think he is essential to read anyway. His stately prose is the best reminder we have that architecture exists for a noble cause.

Architects should read John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, Michael Bierut’s Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, and Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, each its own combination of clarity, warmth, wit, personal passion, and erudition. There is joy and modesty to all four of these books; these qualities take a different form in each, but their presence is unmistakable. These books teach you that architecture is more than the sum total of buildings; they explore the elusive idea of place, and the connections between the tiniest objects and the largest places. These books also remind us that common sense and serious writing are not mutually exclusive. I would say the same, I think, of a classic book from earlier in the 20th century, Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism, which architects should also read. And returning to our own time, an air of refined common sense also prevails in the work of Witold Rybcynzski, especially The Most Beautiful House in the World; and in Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s near-classic, Experiencing Architecture, a book which, along with The Architecture of Happiness, echoed in my own mind as I tried to explain architecture in the most basic way in Why Architecture Matters. Also in the category of Basic Books That Are Not Reference Books, no architect should be embarrassed to have on his or her bookshelf Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish, by Philip M. Isaacson, a little book, mainly of photographs, that was written for children but which is one of the best introductions to architecture that anyone could read.

For all of this, I don’t want to suggest that prose style is everything. Two of the most important books on architecture that I have ever read are more notable for the freshness of their thinking than the energy of their prose. Like many people, I did not see architecture the same way after reading Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and I did not see cities the same way after reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities—both truly seminal works that have helped millions of people understand the limits in the purism of orthodox modernism. They are books that every architect must read, no matter whether the words dance off the page.

View Paul Goldberger’s book list

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