Architecture Books

I will post my own recommendations as a comment to Kai’s post about summer reading, but I thought it useful to make a post not just about architecture books, but how to think about architecture books. 

First, different strategies if you’re looking READ or looking to BUY books on architecture. We have a library on campus with a decent collection of art and architecture books, and we have bookstores that don’t stop you from sitting in a chair and perusing books all day long. In that vein, almost nothing is off limits for reading. Monographs, histories, manifestos, “themed” or “curated” books, techniques and technology–all is in play. Go for it. 

As for owning: you guys, for the most part, are on tight budgets, so shelling out $50 for a book is a special event, maybe Christmas, birthdays, etc. Try to think carefully about what you buy, looking to INVEST in a book that will be a book you can come back to again and again for years to come. What does that mean? Well, there are basic categories of books to consider:

A. Monographs. These are books dedicated to a single architect or artist, often a showcase of their best or most famous work. This can range from “coffee table” books, like “Richard Meier Architect”, or conceptual showcases, like “S,M,L,XL” (OMA/Rem Koolhaas). Pros: In-depth look at an architect’s work, usually lots of drawings and models and process. Cons: Usually expensive, and it’s only about that architect, without criticism.

B. Manifestos. These are books written by architects. These have been around a long time, and often tell people what architecture should be. From Vitruvius (De Architectura, aka The Ten Books of Architecture) to Le Corbusier (Vers Une Architecture) these are part monograph, part theory, part essay. Pros: Sometimes historically significant, usually provocative, things to think about. Cons: Singular in scope, and sometimes anachronistic (Venturi’s “Learning from Las Vegas”), not too many drawings or process. 

C. Histories. Books usually written by historians compiling important projects and theories in some context, usually chronologically or regionally, or culturally, or thematically. Lots of words, fewer images. These range from deep focus on a narrow field, such as Modernism, 1900-1945, or broad strokes, like Spiro Kostof’s “A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals”, covering the history of the built environment (My first architecture book from Arch. History 101 and still sits on my bookshelf). Pros: History (duh). Cons: The writer matters to make the subject come to life, some assume knowledge you may not have. 

D. Compilations. These are similar to Histories, but usually more images than words, showcasing themed projects. Recent examples of this are the popular “Architecture Now” series. Pros: Great survey, like a curated exhibit. Cons: Fluffy, usually only photographs, few drawings. 

E. Exhibition Catalogs. Books printed on the occasion of an exhibit, documenting the work exhibited, usually in some detail and reproducing the show works. Lots of images, usually accompanied by select essays by curators and outside guests. Pros: themed and good documentation. Cons: Finding good exhibits, usually thin books that leave you wanting more.

F. Essay Compilations. Lots of words, few images, and possibly by multiple authors, edited together to be themed. Pros: Like many manifestos in one place, good bang for your buck. Cons: Not many drawings or images, some essays will be duds.

G. Reference. Books that teach and detail how to do something, or how others have done things. This can be a “textbook” for structures or other technology, or guides on how to use equipment like woodworking or digital rendering. There are also excellent books on architecture technology like those by Francis Ching, or a series of books called “Details of Modern Architecture”, making new technical drawings of famous historical buildings. Pros: Will last a long time and be useful. Cons: Not to read, but usually to pull off the shelf on demand. 

H. Periodicals. Not technically books, but can be a wonderful reference for contemporary work. International editions (Abitare, A+U, Domus) are beautifully published, tons of images, many pages per issue, and as a result are expensive for subscriptions ($100s per year). You can, from time to time, find back issues sold cheap or even tossed out and available for free. Pros: New info every month. Cons: Heavy, take up lots of space, and expensive. Not always in english. 

So what to do with all this? My recommendations:

Know your limits. Not into reading? Don’t spend money on a book that you won’t be into or won’t get around to reading. Spend that money on a book of drawings or images that will inspire. Into reading? Find a book by a writer who really speaks to you. Not every writer can write well. 

Format. Softcover books are cheaper than hardcover editions. They are also lighter, which will matter as you acquire books and will be packing and unpacking books for the next four years (at least). Also, glossy image-heavy books are heavier than word books with black and white images. But softcover books will break their spine when you try to lay them on a flatbed scanner (not cool).

Content. I say look for books that have drawings, no matter the subject. You are young architects, and you will spend a lot of time drawing and figuring out how to draw what you see and what you imagine. So aim at books that contain drawings, process work, models, and even unbuilt projects. Find books that don’t just act as portfolios for architects, showing the pretty built work, but also the messy underbelly of what it takes to make architecture. 

Some specific recommendations to come…


2 Responses to “Architecture Books”

  1. 1 dburdz
    2009/05/14 at 5:34 pm

    As far as buying and reading goes, don’t forget about interlibrary loans. If your local library or library system doesn’t have a very comprehensive collection, ask them about this system! they can search for your books in libraries across the country and have them sent to a library near year for an allotted amount of time. Just make sure you don’t take out too many at once, because they usually can’t be renewed like a normal library loan.

  2. 2 gutschow
    2009/05/14 at 7:25 pm

    I agree completely with Pablo. No need to buy too many books now, especially not big new ones. Though “investing” can be good, both financially and intellectually, trying to “make something your own,” and committing to something that you are interested in. Or perhaps a book about something you experienced in person: a great building you saw or did a study of, or a book about an architect who came to lecture at CMU. On the web, I find, it’s often difficult to focus and “keep” the info for as long and in the same depth as in a good book, everything seems equally interesting (or not), and one thing replaces another.

    One other distinction in books is how and what you use them for. Some people buy books to read, but treat them like precious objects: they don’t open the spine far, never write in them, etc. This is especially with older books and brand new books, because many books do increase in value as they get older and harder to find (a Peter Zumthor book that was $40 a bunch of years ago, now lists for $6,000 on Amazon used). These people are “book collectors.” I myself use books as “tools”: I write in them, I take notes in the margins, I underline, etc. Then when I go back to a book ten years later, I can see how my thinking has changed. Some people think it’s sacrosanct: I know Mies, Corb, and FLW all wrote in their books. I know they won’t sell for as much used, but I don’t plan on selling them while I am living :).

    As Pablo mentioned, there are cheaper ways of getting books and reading material than buying the new books or journals: used books, and paperbacks, old editions, and things like Dover reprints that are often just a few $$. Check out used book stores next time you walk buy one: it often takes just a few minutes, and there are gems to be had. And serendipity can lead you to the most amazing subjects. Also, do take advantage of the library, here at CMU, and in your home town. And use the “Interlibrary Loan” system to get books that are not at your library. I get hundreds of books brought from Germany, from the Library of Congress, and from all over the US to Pittsburgh all year for my research. Here in Pittsburgh, don’t forget to use the arts library at Pitt (which has a much bigger and better collection of art and architecture books, and the collection is “non-circulating,” so the books are never checked out), and the Carnegie Library (they have some AMAZING older books in their collection).

    Also, don’t underestimate the value of xerox copies and printouts. Many journals are now available online through databases like JSTOR and LEXIS (especially history and theory journals; see library website). Some contemporary magazines make some of their articles available as pdfs (e.g. Harvard Design magazine). Many book chapters were once available as articles in journals. And finally the old-fashioned xerox machine. Your money goes a lot farther at a copy machine (or even better a scanner then printing) than on the actual book. $50 will buy 500 pages of copies or more, which can be 1000 pages of books if you get two pages on a side (copy your work neatly, use the reduction button wisely, it pays). In college and grad school I spent way more money making xerox copies than on books. I wanted hard copies of everything I read, and I still have them. For really good books, I often copied (and still do) the whole book (it takes 1/2 hour, and $10, but then you have a book that might cost $50-100, and you can take notes, write on it, etc), and even spend the money to tape-bind it cheaply at Kinkos. I still have literally many linear feet of xerox copies on my shelves at home. I know: I am an extreme case…

    I also agree about drawings: all good architecture books ought to have good illustrations, particularly arch’l drawings. The web is notoriously bad about displaying plans, sections, detail drawings, sketches, etc., it is often too “image heavy.” By “reading” I did not mean to imply only words were worthwhile. Architects are visual people, we rely on a combination of words, drawings, photos, layout, etc. to get the most thorough “reading” of a subject, a building, an idea.

    Happy reading!

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