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Architecture History in Ten Must-Read Books

  • architecture history
June 8, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

Whether you’re an architect, a student, or simply someone who wants to know architecture better, you must be at least peripherally aware that architecture goes beyond the purely visual. It may sound strange, but architecture is somehow closer to a story than an image, and history tells us how long the story is, explaining how far it can go and revealing the complexity of its nature. The architectural matter has been preoccupying architects and art historians for centuries, and it doesn’t spare today’s theorists and philosophers either. Both the great masters from the past and architects of today have been trying to answer what architecture really is, wondering what it should look like, feel like, sound like; only to find themselves trapped in the 20th century, trying to answer an even more difficult question: Why? Modern architecture tried to resolve the matter of ornamentation and decoration, dismissing it and wondering why it was relevant to architecture at all; ironically enough, a few decades later came postmodernism, wondering why not. Today, architecture seems to be reaching a point in which everything seems to blend, mix and blur, abandoning some of the most common questions, but also revisiting some of the forgotten ones. That is why architecture’s most recent history could be the most turbulent one, and correspondingly the books and essays from this period reflect on all of the past periods and anticipate the ones that are yet to come. Of course, that doesn’t mean that books from the earlier past don’t hold important places in the timeline of the discipline. In that sense, we bring you ten books which will give you a chance to see architecture from the angle of an architect – not through images and renders that serve as pretty illustrations, but through the power of language, which is able to interpret architecture more accurately than the deceptive, often misleading visual representation does.

  • architecture history

Vitruvius - Ten Books on Architecture

Firmitas, utilitas, venustas (solid, useful, beautiful) – that is what an architectural structure should be, at least according to the first man who dared to define these terms and to relate them to architecture. Vitruvius was a Roman author and architect, and he is known as one of the first “theorists” in architecture. Ten Books on Architecture were written more than 2000 years ago, and they are still interesting as a point of reference. Contemporary architecture has been challenging all of these features – especially the matter of solidity, but the matter of beauty and usefulness do not fall much behind. Why should architecture be beautiful, how beautiful is it allowed to be, in order to stay useful? What does “beautiful” mean – anyway? The book has been proclaimed the most important work of architectural history in the Western world, having shaped architecture and the image of the architect from the Renaissance to the present.

  • architecture history

Andrea Palladio - Four Books on Architecture

Andrea Palladio was one of the most important architects from the Renaissance, and the one whose name was used to define a recognizable architectural style, adherent to classical concepts. Four Books on Architecture is still one of the most influential pieces of writing from this period, as it reflects on the canons and the important moments from the past, but also speaks about the aesthetic and ethic components which Palladio believed should serve as a guideline for all the professionals to come. The book also gives a thorough description of Palladio’s own projects, and it is carefully illustrated, showcasing both the drawings of his original designs, and his reconstructions of classical ruins, including the architectural sketches of the Pantheon. This piece could be very engaging from today’s point of view, given that reflecting on the past – especially the Renaissance, could strongly affect the genesis of new concepts.

  • architecture history

Le Corbusier - Toward an Architecture

Toward an Architecture (often translated as Towards a New Architecture) used to be kind of a “manifesto” at the time of its publication, but also for years and decades later. In general – this book is your 101 if you want to understand the main concepts of modern architecture, especially if you’re not a professional in the field, and if you’re still unfamiliar with Modernism. It is simple, illustrative (and appropriately illustrated as well), plus it was written by the father of Modernism – Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. There probably isn’t a single architecture student who hasn’t read this book, so that should explain how important it is, and how its influence still remains, even in the 21st century. You will be able to find Le Corbusier’s most famous exclamations in this one, including his famous 5 points of architecture (five axioms which he used in order to define the main principles of modern design in architecture).

  • architecture history

Rem Koolhaas - Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan

Simultaneously a witty, humorous homage to Manhattan and an iconic book on architecture, Delirious New York is definitely a masterpiece that every modern man or woman should read. One of the most renowned architects from the 20th and 21st century, Rem Koolhaas, skilfully depicts the social, cultural and historical aspects of Manhattan, through a series of anecdotes, and ultimately reflecting on the nature of human behavior through an amusing tale about architecture. In a magically comprehensive way, Koolhaas manages to overlap details with the big picture, demonstrating how architects think in every scale. Finally, Delirious New York shows how architecture is an engaging discipline, one which is inseparable from life, which is probably its best, most true and most important quality.

  • architecture history

Bernard Tschumi - Architecture and Disjunction

Architecture and Disjunction is a collection of essays written by the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi from 1975 to 1990. Tschumi is one of the few world known architects to represent the concept of deconstructivism, and these essays reflect on the subject to a certain extent. Otherwise, they are set out to explain Tschumi’s extensive research on the (possibly non-existent) relationship between space and program, which could be one of the most radical answers to the traditional ways of rendering architecture. Tschumi’s writings, perhaps even more than his architecture, could be defined as provocative, perhaps even anarchistic, but always with regards to the spirit of time. Tschumi addresses the points of discontinuity and heterogenity, both of which could be said to characterize the Zeitgeist of the end of the 20th century.

  • architecture history

Kengo Kuma - Anti Object

Anti Object is one of the books from the Architecture Words series, dedicated to a thorough reassessment of contemporary architecture, through a selection of essays and writings by architects, critics and scholars. I would personally recommend each book from the series, and the one written by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma could serve as a representative, especially since Kuma’s practice is inherently different from the ones typical for the modern Western civilization. Kuma aims to ignore the legacy of modern architecture, striving to relate architecture to its environment. That is the idea behind an anti-object, and it will open your eyes in terms of seeing architecture as merely a part of man-made nature. Interestingly, this approach coexists with those of Koolhaas, Tschumi and Eisenman, but it differs so much that it seems to belong to another era.

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Gaston Bachelard - The Poetics of Space

So now that we’ve turned to a different approach to contemporary architecture, it seems like a good time to mention another important book that has been and continues to be a “muse” for numerous architects, critics and theorists. As you probably already know, Gaston Bachelard was not an architect but a philosopher, however his writings in The Poetics of Space explain architecture in a beautiful, affirmative and progressive way. Finding a relationship between space and poetry can only be praised by architects, and it is why they frequently refer to this book in order to explain, support or describe their intents and concepts. It serves both as a source of inspiration and an unpretentious architectural bible, equally interesting to architects and non-architects.

  • architecture history

Peter Zumthor - Thinking Architecture

In the light of the poetic aspects of space, here is a book you must have come across as an architecture student, especially if your faculty is fond of phenomeonology. Peter Zumthor explains his own point of view on architecture design, and if you know anything about his projects, you’re probably aware how much he thinks everything through. However, this “thinking” seems to appear in the most natural, authentic form, almost as if Zumthor thinks through space. That is exactly the essence of this book, which describes architecture that speaks to the senses, and it is therefore a subject to anticipating and predicting a feeling. In that sense, Zumthor thinks through images, imagining and designing different atmospheres and the way they affect human perception – thinking through the aspects of color and light, rather than deploying diagrammatic principles.

  • architecture history

Peter Eisenman - Diagram Diaries (Universe Architecture Series)

Amazon describes Eisenman’s architecture as a form of “shock therapy” – and this book coming after Zumthor’s Thinking Architecture could really be said to embody that shock. Zumthor and Eisenman are somehow like a yin and a yang in contemporary architecture, Zumthor being the one to consider the senses and the spiritual aspects of architecture, Eisenman the one to rely on the diagram. Diagram Diaries is an illustrated chronicle that showcases Eisenman’s work to date, from his earliest house designs to the heralded Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, including some of his most famous commissions such as the Memorial for the Victims of the Holocaust in Vienna. It is a comprehensive survey of the architect’s work, but what is more important it is an extensive exploration of a unique process of design. The appreciation of the diagram is Eisenman’s signature in a way, and it will bring the term closer to anyone who is confused about its strong relationship with architecture.

  • architecture history

Sylvia Lavin - Kissing Architecture

Architecture is in crisis – but it is a state in which it has been since who-knows-when. Still, there is an apparent need to revisit the role of architecture today, and Sylvia Lavin approaches the subject in a wonderful, positive and creative manner. She addresses the vague interrelation between architecture and art, mentioning architecture’s possibilities which lie in its openness to other disciplines. She calls this unique interdisciplinary relation a kiss – something more than a touch, and less than assimilation. “Bringing architecture and kissing together is [therefore] not only to reconsider architecture’s relation to other mediums but to think beyond prevailing models of the critical” says Lavin, and that is only one of the reasons why this book could be one of the best guides for the future of architecture. In addition, its illustrations and the examples that Lavin mentions could be interesting to any art lover, and not only to architects.