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Best Architecture Books of 2012

10 books reflect the changing climate - in every sense - of the profession.

By Norman Weinstein
December 14, 2012

Daniel Savoy, Venice from the Water: Architecture and Myth in an Early Modern City (Yale University Press, $65). Double dare you to read this meticulously researched, gorgeously illustrated, vigorously written history of the design of pre-modern Venice and not think of recently flood-damaged Lower Manhattan. Savoy’s thesis is that Venice’s design represented a triumph of creative urban thinking intended to mythologize and glorify its image through waterways as public spaces. Writes Savoy, “. . . the waterways were not merely utilitarian routes of transportation but integral components of a unified land and aquatic-based spatial network.” His preface is entitled “Water as Urban Space.” A reminder in our time of countering rising tides threatening cities that the best solutions need to be resolutely aesthetic as well as technical.


Architecture for Humanity, Editors, Design Like You Give a Damn [2]: Building Change from the Ground Up (Abrams, $35). Perhaps this urgently needed book of creative design solutions for the poorest and most vulnerable to climate change, economic exploitation, and political violence, can become an annual publication. Of particular beauty are the bamboo “butterfly houses” for Thai orphans that suggest how a playfully elegant modern minimalism can fuse with emergency-driven vernacular low-tech design. Inspirational ideas for those pushing for a more service-oriented view of architectural education and practice.


Bruce King Komiske, Editor, Designing the World’s Best Children’s Hospitals, Vol 3: The Future of Healing Environments (Images Publishing, $70). There’s little text in this spectacularly produced coffee-table book of photos (minus plans, alas) of snazzy new children’s hospitals. A brief paragraph by HDR’s Jim Hohenstein is spot-on in affirming the value of this volume of kid-oriented, therapeutically yet whimsically designed, explosively colorful hospitals: “The future will challenge us to create spaces that enhance the patient experience – where form not only challenges function, but feelings as well, and where laughter or a smile might just become a key measure of success.”


Victoria Newhouse, Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls (The Monacelli Press, $50). “I’m all ears” is an ironic idiom when spoken by most architects who work in a perpetual state of “all eyes” too much of the time. Newhouse has a comprehensive aural vision of sound architecture globally. And if that mixed metaphor of “aural vision” confounds, you’re strongly advised to read this history of music-driven architecture and a most cogent contemporary overview of notable (pun needed) structures.


Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, The Architecture of the Barnes Collection (Skira Rizzoli, $50). All prepared to hate this monograph by the architects responsible for (arguably) the most controversial building in Philadelphia’s history, there’s a persuasive clarity in how Williams and Tsien justify their design for a program dictated by that notable architectural critic, Judge Ott of Lower Merion. By keeping unsullied the art ensembles Barnes displayed at his original site, there were constraints that even a divine architect for this large a public museum could find maddening. Like the original divine architect, Williams and Tsien did variations on a blazing theme of “Let There Be Light.” The drawings, plans, photos, and straight-ahead text, along with a coyly seductive intro by Kenneth Frampton, dodge the ethical and art-inspired issues likely to be settled in the 25th century. You want good ethics or good museum design? Sorry. Done deal.


Francis D.K. Ching and James F. Eckler, Introduction to Architecture (Wiley, $55). This is literally a “Greatest Hits” compilation culled from Ching’s eight previously published graphics-intensive books that constitute a modest bookshelf of architectural primers salutary at any point in one’s career. Once you get over Ching’s sluggish writing style, there’s something totally charming and informative in his drawings, as if his pencils are his muses. His pencils can be verbose and wooden in every sense, but his splendid pencil drawings flooding this survey are elegantly to the point. A nice gift for your family member who wants to know what architects do in a studio – but finds Facebook too text-heavy for his or her attention span.


Jeanne Gang & Zoe Ryan, Editors, Building/Inside Studio Gang Architects (Yale University Press, $45). Try reading this carefully crafted overview of a (the?) great American architectural office starting from the back of the book to the front. There’s a dynamic interview between Sarah Whiting, Dean of Rice University’s Architecture School and Gang that suggests that the secret of Gang’s well-deserved popularity rests squarely on a love of materiality, a trans-disciplinary curiosity, and an extraordinary perceptivity in interpreting client wishes. And a community service ethos many a starchitect would do well to emulate.


Henri Stierlin, Persian Art & Architecture (Thames & Hudson, $65). Stierlin, A French architectural historian, has penned many generously illustrated introductory books – maybe too many? – written for a mass audience to popularize traditional Islamic architecture. This isn’t a bad thing, since the uninitiated to this extraordinary architectural heritage shouldn’t have to read texts as felicitously written as most doctoral theses. Overwhelming photography of sites in Iran you won’t soon visit abound – plus a reference to the neglected Islamic scholar Henri Corbin that you should follow with grail-search intensity if this architecture speaks to you.


Siobhan Roberts, Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering (Princeton University Press, $29.95). How can one of the best architectural books of the year be a biography of a genius of wind engineering? If you have to ask such a query, you really need this book pronto. Davenport’s research into designing with wind in mind worked with the highest profile projects imaginable: the Sears Tower, Shanghai’s World Financial Center, the CN Tower, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Note the book’s titles fuses “art” and “engineering” in the service of designing for increasing turbulent atmospheres. And Roberts delightfully illuminates the humanity of the guy who summarized his life work by quoting Bob Dylan’s “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”


Eliot Weinberger, Editor, The Poems of Octavio Paz (New Directions, $39.95). This judiciously cherry-picked selection of the Nobel Prize-winning poet (who also wrote trenchant books on architecture and art) by his most famous translator is not simply for that miniscule band of architects who read poetry for pleasure off the job. Paz didn’t simply include images of great architecture in his poetry spanning six decades; he thought architecturally as he wrote lyrically about the aesthetic and political consequences of architecture. From experiences living in Mexico and India, and with a sensibility studied but not academic, there are lessons in thinking poetically while working architecturally in these sensual and intellectually meaty poems.


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at


More by Weinstein:


Albert Barnes Offers Critical Response to Placement of New "Barnes"
Barnes agrees to talk with fellow Central High School of Philadelphia alum after 61 years of silence, but only on the condition that his remarks remain unedited. This transcript respects his requirement.


A Meditation on the Beauty of Zaha Hadid's Door Handle

Hadid's design issues a challenge: define beauty by lyrically playing with illusion.


Why "Greatest Hits" Lists by Architecture's Stars Should Be Mocked 
Transferring the musical or cinematic "greatest hits" list mind-set to architecture is deleterious, and here's why.


Celebratory Meditations on SANAA Winning the Pritzker Prize


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism 
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.




The Pesky Persistence of Psychological Encounters with Home Design
Edwin Heathcote elegantly meditates on the symbols and myths infusing domestic design in "The Meaning of Home."


Tadao Ando's Thoughtful Heart
Two recent books track a trajectory of a spiritual engagement with Modernism.


"Just Trying to Do This Jig-Saw Puzzle"
How architecture's and urban design's practice can change through studying of a little-appreciated Renaissance art, intarsia.


Imperfect Health: Probing the Porous Interface between Architecture and Health
A new book and website linked to a recent Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibition offer a healthy tonic countering academically anemic architectural education.


Book Review: Advancing Windswept Design: Pointers from Art Nouveau, Zaha Hadid, and Charles Sowers
New books and installation art highlight breezy refinements in wind-inspired design.


Book Review: Laboratory Architecture for Observing Nature at Play
Books on Luis Barragan's house and BNIM's Omega Center for Sustainable Living reveal how transparently daring designs teach Nature's processes.


Book Review: Tracing a Hidden Track from Adolf Loos as Modernist Architect to Jennifer Post as Modernist Interior Designer
By considering this unlikely couple, we can air out that beleaguered term "architectural minimalism" and trace a trajectory of what might be better identified as "essentialist architecture."


Two Books to Accelerate the Translation of Ideas into Practical Forms
New books on design research and transformational ideas through architectural history have potent practical uses: "The Designer's Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design" Sally Augustin and Cindy Coleman; and "100 Ideas That Changed Architecture" by Richard Weston


Book Review: How to be a Useful Architectural Critic: Alexandra Lange's Perspicacious Primer Points the Way
"Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities" - use it often and you'll never think of the word "critic" pejoratively again.


Michael Sorkin: Architectural Critic as Scam Scanner and Urban(e) Design Sage
Sorkin's "All Over the Map," a sprawling miscellany of recent essays on buildings and cities, a triumph of enlightened nay-saying and affirmation.


Best Architecture Books of 2011
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Book Review: Pencils that Refuse to Die: Meditations about New Books on Architectural Drawing 
Three recent books dealing with architectural drawing by pencil you need to read: "Eleven Exercises in the Art of Architectural Drawing: Slow Food for the Architect's Imagination" by Marco Frascari; "The Architect's Sketchbook" by Will Jones; and "Robbie Cornelissen: The Capacious Memory" by Lex ter Braak and Edwin Jacobs


Book Review: "One Million Acres & No Zoning": Lars Lerup's Outrageous Encomium to Houston Instructs and Infuriates 
This isn't some dryly academic reconfiguration of trendy urban planning theory. I recommend it for the intrepid.


Book Review: Talkin' 'Bout (Not) My Generation: Uplifting Gen X Architects Showcase Pragmatic Optimism 
In "New York Dozen: Gen X Architects" by architect Michael J. Crosbie, the framing of each architectural firm is extraordinary.


"Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum": Bravura Example of an Architectural Documentary - Wright's Guggenheim Done Right 
A look at great architecture as the product of the dance of the designer's intellect in an architectural film that doesn't miss a beat.


Book Review: A Shout Out for Leers Weinzapfel Associates: "Made to Measure" - Some Meditations on Rejuvenating Campus Architecture


Book Review: Diving into Architecture from Every New Angle: Reading Guillevic's "Geometries" 
Why an obscure book of French poetry in a flashy translation goes to the heart of every architectural practice.


Book Review: "Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture": Marc Kristal crystallizes increasingly complex notions of transparency with a light touch. 
Although most of the 25 projects discussed are well-known, they take on additional meaning in this sensitively curated selection. 


Book Review: "Visual Planning and the Picuresque" by Nikolaus Pevsner. Edited by Mathew Aitchison 
A rediscovered manuscript unveils a portrait of the famed architectural historian as neglected urban designer. His commitment to the picturesque aesthetic for buildings and towns is as urgently needed as ever.


Book Review: How New Urbanism's Case Triumphs Best Through "The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary" by Dhiru A. Thadani 
Thadani's oversized reference charms, infuriates, and enlightens.


Best Architecture Books of 2010 
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Book Review: "Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship": Yael Reisner exuberantly interviews architects about beauty 
Any of you architects seen Mr. Keats Lately?


Book Review: Shedding Light on Concrete: Tadao Ando: Complete Works 1975-2010 by Philip Jodidio 
Photographic presentation of a poet of light and concrete triumphs over lackluster commentary.


Book Review: Sage Architectural Reflections from Architecture's "Athena": Denise Scott Brown's "Having Words" distills a lifetime of theorizing and practice into practical and succinct guidance for thriving through difficult times 
Brown's occasional papers trace a trenchant trajectory of learning from Las Vegas to learning from everything.


Book Review: Keeping the Architectural Profession Professional: "Architecture from the Outside In: Selected Essays by Robert Gutman" celebrates Gutman's legacy as invaluable outsider
Selected essays by a penetrating sociologist of architecture pose the kinds of tough-minded questions needed now to keep architectural professional on-track.


Book Review: "Design through Dialogue: A Guide for Clients and Architects," by Karen A. Franck and Teresa von Sommaruga Howard 
A helpful communications primer offers case studies of winning collaborations between clients and architects, but as useful as this book proves, it leaves some uncomfortable questions about communication unaddressed.


Twilight Visions: Vintage Surrealist Photography Sheds New Light on Architecture 
An exhibition and book of photographs of Paris between the wars might just be the necessary correctives to the virtual sterility of digital imagery


Best Architecture Books of 2009 
10 crucial volumes from the classic to the iconoclastic


Book Review: "Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist" by Sven Birkerts and Martin Schwartz

A major architect in the history of Modernism finally receives recognition – and sundry asides about why Modernism never exited.


Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham 
To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis.


Book Review: "Everything Must Move: 15 Years at Rice School of Architecture 1994-2009" 
There’s a Texas flood of architectural ideas that gives ample evidence of an architecture school that unsettles pat assumptions. Who could ask for anything more?


Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz 
Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.


Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.


Best Architecture Books of 2008 
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Venice from the Water

Design Like You Give a Damn [2]: Building Change from the Ground Up

Designing the World’s Best Children’s Hospitals 3: The Future of Healing Environments

Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls

The Architecture of the Barnes Collection

Introduction to Architecture

Building/Inside Studio Gang Architects

Persian Art & Architecture

Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering

The Poems of Octavio Paz