Essential Books: 7 Canonical Books on Architecture

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“Architecture is reaching out for the truth.” So said Louis Kahn, one of the field’s admitted masters, and while you could quibble with him—all art reaches out for the truth, after all—it is the case that no cultural expression shapes daily life like architecture. Its presence is unavoidable since we constantly interact with buildings (including our homes). We enter them, pass by them, admire them and even ignore them, which only proves how emmeshed they are with our environment. The best buildings usually avoid the latter reaction because they force us to consider new and often revolutionary notions about structure and the space it encloses. And of course, no other discipline projects political power—and outlasts whatever regime is attached to it—like architecture. It’s fairer so say, then, that if architecture reaches out for the truth, it does so in many ways, as you’ll see in our recommendations for books on the subject. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Rem Koolhaas, “Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan”
A classic treatise from 1978 and Rem Koolhaas’s introduction to a public beyond his professional circle, Delirious New York is a history of the city through its architecture and urban design. Focusing on Manhattan, Koolhaas makes the case that New York is unique because it evolved along a gridiron of north-south avenues and east-west streets that was aspirational in design. Laid out in the Commissioner’s Map of 1811, the plan, stretching river to river from Houston Street to 155th Street, was conceived at a time when the city stopped below 14th Street and the island was covered with forests. The grid divided the city into easy-to-develop blocks situated on parcels flattened to a level grade. Trees and hills were to be plowed under, and ponds filled in, to make way for a landscape of commerce. Koolhaas calls this audacious thinking Manhattanism, comparing the city’s eventual march northward to a thermometer rising—an apt metaphor for the city’s feverish pace.
Purchase: “Delirious New York”  from $14.00 (used) on

2. Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown, “Learning from Las Vegas”
The ur-text of postmodern architecture, Learning from Las Vegas extolls the virtues of vernacular design. Published in 1972, it sought an alternative to the austerity of modernism, which had calcified into an “International Style” that reflected the corporate ethos of postwar capitalism. Sin City, with its gaudy terrain of casinos, hotels, and strip malls populated by liquor stores and drive-through wedding chapels, became the inspiration for an architectural form that the authors dubbed “the decorated shed,” in which structural concerns took a back seat to neon signage and brightly lit marquees. The concept envisioned the possibilities for a new kind of ornamentation based on popular culture, one that rejected modern architecture’s less-is-more philosophy for a more populist approach. Revolutionary in its time, Learning from Las Vegas anticipated the postmodern building explosion of the 1980s typified by the likes of Phillip Johnson’s “Chippendale” tower in midtown Manhattan.
Purchase: “Learning from Las Vegas”  $23.75 (new) on Amazon

3. Lebbeus Woods, “The New City”
Lebbeus Woods was a visionary architect, meaning his designs were realized on paper with only one built project to his credit—a permanent light installation for a tower facade in Chengdu, China. It’s easy to see why: His drawings comprise twisting, accreted buildings splintering in space, often cutting themselves free of gravity to float above the street—resembling, to use a description of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, explosions in a shingle factory. To call his ideas science fiction would be an understatement (in fact, he once filed a lawsuit against the producers of the postapocalyptic film 12 Monkeys for using one of his designs for a set; he won). Nonetheless, they became a huge influence on a generation of deconstructivist architects such as Thom Mayne and Steven Holl. Published in 1992, The New City lays out Woods’s vision of a futuristic urban landscape in which chaos and order coexist in a way that defies the logic of physics.
Purchase: “The New City”  $109.95 (used) on Amazon

4. Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”
In her landmark cri de coeur from 1961, Jane Jacobs advocated for the preservation of traditional city neighborhoods at a time when they faced the twin threats of urban flight and urban renewal. Back then, “slum clearance” was a euphemism for tearing down old tenements in favor of highway construction and modernist tower blocks that effectively isolated residents from the daily give and take of street life. New York’s imperious public works commissioner, Robert Moses, was the chief proponent of this approach, which saw thriving communities disappear under the bulldozer. (Jacobs stopped Moses on one such project, an expressway that would have plowed through downtown.) Opposing such thinking, Jacobs called for mixed-use development that retained the walkability of neighborhoods and the security of its “eyes on the street”— residents watching from stoops and windows. Ironically, Jacobs’s ideas became the blueprint for gentrification, even as they provided a model for city life that contrasted with Moses’s sterile vision.
Purchase: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”  $14.99 (new) on Amazon

5. Peter Cook, “Archigram”
Archigram was the name for an association of young London architects (Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb) during the 1960s, and in keeping with the U.K.’s “swinging England” brand of the era, the group proposed theoretical, neo-futuristic designs inspired by pop culture and space-age technology. As this 2018 book makes clear, their designs were as unworkable as they were outrageous. One scheme involved transforming small towns into “instant” cities by using balloons to air-drop cultural programs (performances, exhibitions, etc.) usually found in cosmopolitan hubs. Another imagined “walking cities,” propelled on spindly legs like giant insects, that could move from place to place whenever the mood struck. Still another conceived of biomorphically shaped “living pods” that would replace conventional housing. However impractical, these designs were illustrated in eye-popping, lysergic drawings that were part Yellow Submarine, part Monty Python, and part Fillmore poster.
Purchase: “Archigram”  $40.00 (new) on Amazon

6. Vitruvius “The Ten Books on Architecture”
With this series of tracts from first-century B.C. Rome, the writer, architect, and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio established the principles of classical architecture that would become the foundations for the Renaissance and beyond. Vitruvius opined that buildings should share three qualities now known as the Vitruvian Triad: stability (firmitas), utility (utilitas), and beauty (venustas). He also argued that the human body represented the ne plus ultra of proportionality, which he illustrated with the diagram of a figure standing with his outstretched arms touching the sides of a circle within a square of equal area. The Vitruvian Man, as it came to called, was most famously depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci and became an icon of Western art. Vitruvius’s ideas were borrowed from the Greeks, but as his writings were the only ones of their type to have survived from antiquity, it’s doubtful that without them, classicism as we know it would exist.
Purchase: “The Ten Books on Architecture”  $14.95 (new) on Amazon

7. Le Corbusier, “Toward an Architecture”
This canonical collection of nine essays published in 1927 by Le Corbusier (nom de guerre of Swiss–French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) created the template for modernist architecture. Calling for a rebirth of the field, Le Corbusier advocated the elimination of all superfluous details in building design to focus instead on functionality and pure form. The book made him a giant of 20th-century architecture whose theories continue to shape the discipline to this day. His impact on mid-century urban development was especially pronounced thanks to his “Radiant City” plan, a utopian scheme that would have massed enormous residential high-rises on a grid divided by parks and highways. One of Le Corbusier’s most zealous devotees was New York City’s buildings and parks commissioner Robert Moses, who ruthlessly imposed his version of the Radiant City on large parts of New York, essentially discrediting the idea in the process. Nonetheless, Le Corbusier’s own role as a seminal figure has never diminished.
Purchase: “Toward an Architecture”  $22.45 (new) on Amazon


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