Favorite Books on Architecture

September 15th, 2010

Every now and then I come across a book so enlightening, so thought-provoking, so intelligently written, it makes me want to toss out a score of others on my shelves lest I be tempted to waste time on them.  I’ve listed the best below.

What I’ve included should not be construed as anything near comprehensive.  It would be quite different had I simply haunted different bookstores.  Have I left out a favorite?  Let me know what I’ve been missing.

Note star ratings (1-5) are for degree of enlightenment/readability.


Paul-Alan Johnson, The Theory of Architecture, VNR.  Awesomely comprehensive, every imaginable facet of architectural thought is reflected on, and with impressive depth.  An omnibus, profound yet accessible; if I were allowed to keep only one book on architecture, this would be it.  (*****/***)

Fil Hearn, Ideas That Shaped Buildings, MIT.  A wonderfully easy to read primer on the history of theory.  Unexpectedly enlightening for such simply-presented ideas.  (****/*****)

Susannah Hagan, Taking Shape, A New Contract Between Architecture and Nature, Architectural Press.  This somewhat difficult read explores our relationship to nature, and its manifestation in architecture.  More than any other I’ve come across, the book gives voice to the latent, underlying themes of the contemporary green movement and places it in elucidating perspective.  (****/**)

Also well worthy of shelf space:

Bachelard, Poetics of Space
Chang, The Tao of Architecture
Collins, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture
Forty, Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture
Hubbard, Complicity and Conviction in Architecture
Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture
Rykwert, The Necessity of Artifice
Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture




Bill Risebero, Modern Architecture and Design, MIT.  Is it possible to take into account the importance of economics in a history without being labeled Marxist?  Regardless, this, and Risebero’s The Story of Western Architecture take a thoroughly fresh and mind-opening look at our past.  (****/****)

Lewis Mumford, Sticks and Stones, Dover.  You’ve seen it on used bookstore shelves so long you can’t imagine it’s worth a look.  Devour its short contents though, and you’ll find astonishing insight into the American attitude toward building.  (****/*****)

Donald Miller, ed., The Lewis Mumford Reader, Pantheon.  Mumford’s innate understanding of our built environment makes even Jane Jacobs look like a dilettante by comparison.  This sampler will help you see what a giant of 20th century critics he was. (*****/***)

Demetri Porphyrios, ed., On the Methodology of Architectural History, Architectural Design Profile.  A collection of essays on the way we look at our built history.  Slow going in parts, but it covers Hegelian, structuralist, Marxist and other approaches in depth.  (****/***)

David Watkin, The Rise of Architectural History, Architectural Press.  I wish this history of architectural history were longer. Puts Semper, Wittkower, Gideon, Hitchcock, Pevsner, and others in enlightening perspective.  (****/***)

Also worthy:

Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age
Frampton, Modern Architecture, A Critical History
Hersey, The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture
Jordan, Victorian Architecture
Summerson, Heavenly Mansions
Watkin, A History of Western Architecture


Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings and Plans, Dover.  A poor man’s abridged facsimile of Wright’s Wasmuth portfolio, which introduced his work to Europeans in 1910.  Spend half an hour on each page and understand how rich his work is, even just at plan level.  You’ll learn a few German words along the way.  (****/na)

Robert McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright, A Primer of Architectural Principles, Phaidon.  No biographical sensationalism, just pure, loving analysis of what makes his architecture so infuriatingly good.  By far the best book on Wright’s work I’ve seen.  (****/****)

Edward R. Ford, The Details of Modern Architecture, vol’s 1&2, MIT.  Indispensable to the serious architect, these books analyze the minutiae of buildings with profound insight.  They will surely snap you out of any misguided notion that architecture is something to be painted in only large strokes.  (*****/***)

Brookes & Grech, Connections, Studies in Building Assembly, Whitney.  Here’s all the technical detail you wish had accompanied the vacuous articles we all wasted time on in glossy magazines.  (****/***)

Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire, T&H.  The essays here don’t cover architecture per se, but the in-depth studies of how culture fosters design leaves you thinking about how you might transpose Forty’s lessons to you own work.  (*****/***)

Also worthy:

Banham, A Critic Writes
Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Suburban Nation
Norberg-Schulz, Architecture: Meaning and Place
Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci





Design Book Review.  It’s now defunct, but keep your eye out for back issues at used book stores.  It can broaden the mind more to see the whole of the architectural publishing world encapsulated in reviews than to mire one’s self in only a few choice volumes.  (****/****)

Environmental Building News.  Spend the 99 bucks.  Cancel all those subscriptions to glossy feel-good rags.  This is the only worthwhile periodical on green building.  (****/****)

Architectural Review.  Why is it only Brits have the guts to publish scathing architectural reviews when they’re deserved?  Rewarding text accompanies the photos, rare in the American glossies.  Even historic buildings are re-viewed.  (***/****)

4 Responses to “Favorite Books on Architecture”

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    October 2nd, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    One belated thought: Half of being in the right bookstore at the right time is being in the right bookstore. Here are a couple in which I’ve found more than one favorite:

    Point Reyes Books ptreyesbooks.com
    Adobe Books http://www.yelp.com/biz/adobe-bookshop-san-francisco

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