Rebirth of Reason


Reading List: So You Want to Study Architecture?
by Peter Cresswell

So you want to study architecture? You want books and readings I might recommend for someone beginning architectural education? Here’s a ‘top twenty’ list to get you started:
  • Architecture: Form, Space & Order by Francis Ching is a great architectural primer. It introduces you to great architecture beautifully drawn, and to the vocabulary that architecture uses – of special interest are the many wonderful illustrations of how buildings affect the humans who occupy them.

  • Body, Memory and Architecture, by Kent Bloomer and architect Charles Moore is recommended, but with reservations. Bloomer and Moore argue that architecture works well when it realises that the basic spatial dimension in architecture is the human body and the sensual and physical interactions we have with the architecture around us – a great starting point. Unfortunately however, in arguing against the overt rationalism of much modernist architecture they do tend to ignore the crucial impact architecture makes on us intellectually. Nonetheless, they do a great job in setting the proper starting point for understanding architecture – the effect it has on those who occupy it.

  • The Symbolism of Habitat: An Interpretation of Landscape in the Arts,
    by geographer Jay Appleton offers a fascinating argument that the two chief values we look for in the built environment are prospect and refuge; his arguments are supported by numerous examples from the field of landscape painting. This book helps explain the essential meaning of the interaction between landscape and architecture and the human beings for whom the architecture is constructed.

  • Written to answer the claim by Louis Torres and Michell Marder Kamhi that architecture is not art, my own article What is Architecture? humbly offers a short, illustrated introduction to the essentials of what architecture is not, as well as what it actually is.

  • The previous four books and readings represent a ‘working outwards’ from inside to outside – from the human being in relation to his immediate (built) environment, and thence to his wider context. This book completes the process by discussing the wider context.  The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day explains clearly and graphically how the landscape of man inescapably expresses the philosophy of the civilization that produced it.

  • Louis Sullivan was Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor – his Henry Cameron. Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats was not as you might think a book about kindergartens, but a primer “for the young architect … who comes to the author for a post-graduate course” – one who seeks to unfold “those natural, spontaneous powers which had been submerged and ignored during his academic training.”   In prose that unfortunately hasn’t always aged well he argues that every building expresses its creator, and the creator of every building should seek to express its purpose – just as nature does “in her own creations.”

  • A History of Architecture: Settings & Rituals, by Spiro Kostof. Every architecture student needs at least one history of architecture to understand what has been built, and why. Unlike many similar surveys, Kostof’s book has the advantage that it understands first that architecture has a context that is difficult to explain in photos alone, and it is this context that helps gives meaning to the architecture; and second, that architecture is (as Ruskin suggested) built-in ritual. (“All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame.’ Ruskin. “Ritual may be said to be the poetry of function: insofar as a building is shaped by ritual it does not simply house function, it comments on it.” Kostof)

  • Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities began a revolution in thinking about cities when first published. Subtitled ‘The Failure of Town Planning’ it has ironically become a new mantra for the unthinking and the town planners (but I repeat myself), but that should not detract from its many important lessons about the “importance of pavement.” Those still in thrall to the planning profession might usefully accompany this reading with Bernard Siegan’s dry but direct Land Use Without Zoning.

  • For a clue to why great cities died and why Marxism and Philip Johnson helped to kill them, then Tom Wolfe’s hilarious From Bauhaus to Our House is a must. Unfortunately published too soon to skewer the currently popular deconstructionist shibboleth, for those in thrall to - or tempted by - either the empty rationalism of bourgeois-proofed modernism or the flaccid  confections of post-modernism then Bauhaus offers challenging prose, great laugh-out-loud reading, and the gleeful puncturing of posturing architectural blowhards. Auckland architect the late Claude Megson used to warn young architectural students about their work: “If it doesn’t have meaning then it’s just wanking” - Wolfe targets the wankers, and hits his mark.

  • For an introduction to the work of one architect who deservedly avoids Wolfe’s acid, two books featuring the work of Frank Lloyd Wright come highly recommended. Frank Lloyd Wright: In the Realm of Ideas offers excerpts of Wright’s own writing accompanied by photos and drawings of many of his buildings, together offering abundant evidence to support the claim that Wright was the greatest architectural genius of the twentieth-century.

    Underscoring that claim is Grant Hildebrand’s The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses. If you want to know how Wright’s structures express ideas, then Hildebrand’s book (which utilises the insights of Jay Appleton, above) is a good place to start. Personally, I enjoy almost everything on or by Wright, but amongst my other favourites are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: the Case for Organic Architecture and Wright’s own The Natural House , both of which document his Usonian period.   

  • If you want to be an architect, then you’ll need to understand why it is that things don’t fall down (or at least, not so often that when they do so it’s still news). Fortunately, there is a “splendid book” (you know it’s splendid because it says so on the cover) by Engineer J.E. Gordon called Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down that will help you integrate your structure with your architecture (as you should). Professor Gordon won’t tell you how structure expresses ideas (as Frank Lloyd Wright argued), but he will explain why birds have feathers and the science of dressmaking, as well as the strength of bridges, boats and aeroplanes. Essential.

  • Explaining Post-Modernism, by Stephen Hicks will give you an antidote to the post-modern poison with which every student is assailed at every quarter, on whichever campus you eventually choose to study. Essential self-defence against the bullshit by which you’ll otherwise be baffled.

  • And of course, every architectural student should read, or hopefully re-read, Ayn Rand’s magnificent novel of integrity in action, The Fountainhead.
    Howard Roark laughed. He certainly did, and so will you – with joy!

  • Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is like red wine - quite simply it is a delight that should not be missed.

  •  Even with the many CAD programmes on offer, an architect still needs to draw. Betty Edwards holds the view that drawing is a skill that can be taught simply rather than something one is either born with (or without), and her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain amply justifies her view, while the subtitle, A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence, does just what it promises.
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