For an architect there are some indispensable books, tomes that absolutely have to be read, and at least vaguely remembered, to be worthy of the history of the profession. These are instructive or inspirational, historical and occassionaly hysterical. I have found that most arch-folk read these in school as part of a course, but quickly forget them. I have put together a reading list of sorts, for myself, to go back and look again at these works and, with the filter of some 20 years of practice experience, see what these books hold for me. To be honest, some of these I have read often over the years, others have sat on the shelf like unloved, dusty little tchotkes.
So, here is my very subjective list for essential reading for students and re-reading for long-in-the-tooth architects like me. (Although I am in general opposed to crappy list-a-mania web posts, I really don’t know a better way to do this). I know I will probably forget something that is really important as I have only my bookshelf and memory to serve as guideposts (and please excuse the rather poor quality of the covers of the books scanned below, many of them have been around a long time). And to be clear, this is not going include all of the really practical works on structure, safety, etc. Worthy topics, but hopefully, of a nature that they don’t need to be revisited as they are part of the absolutely essential, everyday work of what we do.
Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture
This is the granddaddy of architecture books. Every architect in the Western tradition has read this. As there is so much bad architecture, maybe it is the catalyst to all this crap but I don’t think so. Reading this book connects us all to a tradition of architects from Ancient Rome to Dubai. You can skip the chapters on how to make bricks or the quality of lime, but you probably shouldn’t. This is not of practical interest, but it drives home the message that along with knowing which way to site a building to take advantage of amenable winds, an architect’s range of necessary knowledge and hopefully curiosity is both wide and deep.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Natural House
FLW is maybe the only real architectural genius of the last couple centuries. His list of great works is long and varied, his inclusion and invention of technologies is staggering, his formal and practical inventiveness is greater than a dozen star-itects combined. His writing however is not so good. But seriously you can’t possibly be an architect, and certainly not an American architect, without at least cracking this book open. For that matter you can probably substitute a number of other works by Wright: The Future of Architecture, The Living City, or the wonderfully-dated Genius and Mobocracy. Wright always felt slightly overlooked by the East Coast architecture luminaries, many of whom were European exiles like Gropius and Mies. If you can get your hands on a copy, take a look at Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio, the book that established his genius and that so strongly influence those same European architects that later shunned him. (I say “shunned” because Wright was such a prick to these guys that they didn’t want to have anything else to do with him.)
LeCorbusier’s Towards a New Architecture
This is probably the best primer in what is Modernism and LeCorbusier, in his stridently ego-maniac way, meant it to be so. He sets out some rules, describes some influences, shows some lessons. He doesn’t not so much teach as scolds and this burns with the absolute assuredness and righteousness that makes this a book-long manifesto. If architecture in the twentieth century has a relentless, avenging angel it is LeCorbusier and it is raw here in the book, much more so than in the frankly more humane buildings he managed to get built. There is a relatively more recent translation by John Goodman, actually titled Toward An Architecture, that is much better than the older version I read in school and chock full of better notes.
Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows
If you haven’t read this or if it has been a long time, you really should take a look at it. For us trained in basically the American/European world, just Tanizaki’s insights into his own culture are illuminating. But it is his humanity, his humble observations of the qualities of man-made spaces and objects that hold the deepest lessons. If nothing else, re-read the chapter on the Japanese toilet – a far cry from the high-tech, spectacles of modern Japanese toilets.
Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space
This is as more about literature than architecture, but Bachelard’s thoughts about the memories of spaces and how they effect us have lingered longer in my memory than anything else I have ever read. In my quest to make a poetic architecture, this is the foundational text.
and a couple of well-worn essays:
Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Benjamin is at his best here in this thoughtful, complex study of what makes a work of art, or architecture, worthy of appreciation. The writing is a bit stiff and you owe it to yourself to not stop here in your reading of his works. Both collections of essays, Illuminations (with the intro by Hannah Arendt) and Reflections are great starters. I highly recommend Hashish in Marsailles in Reflections as a wonderful and humorous insight into one of the most interesting intellectual characters of the twentieth century. Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project may be the world’s most influential, not-completed, work to fascinate architects.
Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime
Absolutely essential reading and absolutely hilarious. Okay, maybe not in a laugh-out-loud, milk-out-the-nose way, but this may be the funniest painfully-serious essay about architecture ever written. Especially noteworthy are Loos’ thoughts about tattoos and criminals – take note before you get inked – this is what your grandmother will think.
Next week: Part 2, with some guest commentary.
If you have any suggestions and thoughts, send them in and we’ll see how they parallel.