Saturday, March 17, 2012

The #TopTenBooks Challenge

Top ten lists are a recurring meme on the Internet. I recently came across the #TopTenBooks Challenge on Twitter, orchestrated by writer K.D. Rush ( Rush is urging his followers to list their favorite books and explain why each one is special to them.

While a less-than-literary architect is probably the last person he’d expect to respond, his challenge did get me thinking. Could I identify ten books that I regard as my favorites on the subject of architecture?

The answer is yes. I had a tough time winnowing my list down to just ten books from the substantial library of volumes about architecture I’ve accumulated over the years; nevertheless, the following titles (in no particular order) do stand out: 

By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (1977) A Pattern Language is one of the most important texts on architecture ever written. It codifies a community-based approach to design, which points in the direction of what Christopher Alexander conceives of as an all-encompassing theory of life, one based upon notions of organic wholeness and scalable, self-sustaining systems.

By Michael Pollan (1997)
I have yet to discover as thoroughly enjoyable a book on the subject of architecture as Michael Pollan’s engaging account of his quest to build a writing hut for himself in the forest. It isn’t simply a joy to read; his reflections on the power of place and architecture’s “unique power to give our bodies, minds, and dreams a home in the world” are bookmark-worthy for even the most jaded and world-weary among us.

By John Lobell (1979)
Although several members of the University of Oregon faculty under whom I studied were former employees and disciples of Louis Kahn, Between Silence and Light served as my primary introduction to his architecture and teaching. As the back cover notes explain, Kahn regarded architecture as the study of human beings, their highest aspirations and most profound truths. He searched for forms and materials to express the subtlety and grandeur of life. The fundamental awe with which Kahn approached his work is why his buildings and words are so meaningful to me.  

By Robert Venturi (1966)
I purchased Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture during my freshman year in college. Venturi’s scholarly and pluralistic analysis was an essential and (at that time) provocative counterpoint to the prevailing Modernist dogma. In my opinion, his “gentle manifesto” for “non-straightforward” architecture and the “difficult whole” deserves renewed attention. Architectural literacy is too easily stunted by the overwhelming technical and societal demands architects confront today. This is an important book that reminds us of the theory base upon which architecture is founded.

By Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier, with Colin Rowe and Kenneth Frampton (1975)
Another one of the earliest books in my collection, Five Architects had an outsized impact upon my development as an architect. What a revelation: Here was a collection of (seemingly) like-minded designers for whom "form follows function" and envisioning a better world were hardly guiding credos. Instead, these five shared an obsessive fixation upon formalism betraying a bourgeois lack of conscience. For better or worse, the book presented me with a glimpse of a vastly broader architectural universe than I'd previously imagined.

By Moshe Safdie (1982)
Form and Purpose is a surpisingly breezy read. Safdie lambasts fad and fashion and the ego of arrogant architects who ignore the more basic and fundamental purposes of architecture. I read the book at a moment when I found myself in the thrall of trendy "starchitects." Form and Purpose was the antidote I needed to rid me of misguided cynicism and self-indulgence. 

By Kenzo Tange and Noboru Kawazoe (1965)
Ise is simultaneously perfect and primitive, at once both ancient and new. The elemental architecture stirs an instinctive response; one need not be of Japanese heritage (as I am) to grasp Ise’s sacredness upon seeing the beautiful black & white images in this book. Ise is re-built at enormous expense every 20 years as part of the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things. Ironically, Ise's perpetual regeneration is frozen in time by an immutably perfect book.

By Charles Jencks (1973)
Jencks' analytical biography of Le Corbusier exposes the Swiss master's tragic, Nietzchean view of the human condition, a "dark bitterness just barely balanced by joy and light." Corbu possessed an uncompromising belief in the necessity of struggle to the creative process. Why hasn't someone produced a dramatic motion picture about Le Corbusier? The story of his life and work begs for cinematic treatment.

By Alain de Botton (2006)
Should we be surprised it is a non-architect who most eloquently explains how the built environment influences who we are and conversely why it is a reflection of our values? No, not when that non-architect is the brilliant Alain de Botton. Enlisting philosophy, psychology, and everyday observations to introduce principles of architecture to a wide audience, de Botton has probably done more to honor and elucidate our profession’s aesthetic ideals than any architect has recently.

By Charles W. Moore, Gerald Allen, and Donlyn Lyndon (1974)
The Place of Houses is a book about people’s dreams and visions about home and how they are translated into personally meaningful and place-specific houses. It was an essential text during my undergraduate studies. The book would resonate again when I later had the good fortune to work professionally with Charles Moore as an employee of the Urban Innovations Group in Los Angeles. As accomplished and influential as Moore was as an architect, his lasting legacy may instead prove to be his books about architecture. He was an immensely talented writer.

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At first glance, this seems like a pretty disparate collection. Is there a common thread? I think it may be that in one way or another all address significant themes that underlie what we do as architects. Whether the topic is the history and meaning of human building, or the craft, care, and dreams people invest in the houses they build for themselves, every one of these books deals in profound truths.

What are your ten favorite books about architecture? 


KD Rush said...

Randy, I could not have been more surprised to see an architecture list in response to the TopTenBooks challenge! It was a nice break sir, and it reminds me that the beauty of design is no less a creative work of art than a classic literary tale.

Well done sir!


Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

Thanks KD!

The best literature is as beautifully structured, ordered, and nuanced as any outstanding piece of architecture. Artistry is common to both.

It'll be interesting to see your list of challengers grow and if there are other surprises in store.