The 12 Best Architecture Books read in 2012, plus…

The Architecture of the Barnes Foundation
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien / Skira Rizzoli Publications, 2012; $50

Regardless of what you may know or feel about the relocation of the Barnes Foundation art collection from Merion to Philadelphia, put it aside to read this book. The new Barnes Foundation is truly a world-class piece of architecture. Beyond the sublime success of the building itself is the marvel that architects Tod Williams and Bille Tsien were, in a scant six months’ time period after completion of the building, able to provide a highly readable overview of the project. My only wish, having served as the project architect for Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates renovation of the original Barnes Foundation, is that greater depth of documentation be given to the evolution of the design of the new facilities. But then again, leaving the reader thirsting for more perhaps isn’t a bad thing.

The Barnes Foundation – Two Buildings, One Mission
David B. Brownlee / Skira Rizzoli Publications, 2012; $12.95

While we’re on the subject of the Barnes Foundation, this little book really packs a lot in! Even though I felt already highly knowledgeable on the subject, the presentation on the original Paul Cret designed complex in Merion is particularly well told and provides fresh insights. The overview of the new Philadelphia Barnes Foundation is less compellingly rendered, probably owing to the rush to have the book on hand for the opening of the facilities, but still provides a worthy read. This book delivers the best bang for the buck of any on my list.

The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems
Christopher Alexander et. al. / Oxford University Press, 2012; $45

Ever since originally reading the Timeless Way of Building by this author decades ago, I’ve been intrigued with Christopher Alexander’s search for a more soul-nourishing means of creating buildings. While his ideas are somewhat related to “Design-Build” practices, they go much further. This book chronicles the evolution of an educational campus in Japan, utilizing his precepts from design through completion. Although written a full 25 years after work ended on the project, its emotional triumphs and tragedies are rendered as though they only just occurred yesterday.

Thomas Heatherwick: Making
Thomas Heatherwick / Monacelli Press, 2012; $75

I initially got this book for the shear visual delight of the work. The projects are fresh and compelling – a virtuoso blend of materials used in inventive ways and propelled by interesting conceptual propositions. The real payoff though is the writing. You swear Mr. Heartwick is sitting in front of you, having a matter-of-fact conversation about how simply following his instincts produced some rather delightful stuff. It makes you wish everyone were seemingly this accessible and extraordinary at the same time. Be forewarned though, this hefty tome is for desktop use only!

Wang Shu: Imagining The House
Wang Shu / Lars Muller Publishers, 2012; $65

This book is the sleeper of the crowd. Were it not for his being awarded the 2012 Pritzker Prize, most architects would never have heard of Wang Shu, and this book would likely not have been produced. Its formatting is a bit off-putting and not for a casual reader. Pages are single-side printed and most are folded in on themselves, resulting in almost nothing being visible without unfolding. Most pages are reproductions of portions of the architect’s sketch books, with little or no explanatory text other than an introduction to the project as a whole. That having been said, for architects having the patience of an archaeologist and comparable willingness to dig, the reward is a bountiful journey of discovery. And, despite the small amount of text given, the imagery conveyed and apparent candor are delightful.

Tenryu-Ji: Life and Spirit of a Kyoto Garden
Norrris Brock Johnson /Stone Bridge Press, 2012; $39.95

This book is also one of discovery. It describes the author’s journey – one of great reverence and fascination in seeking to understand and convey the delights of one of the great Japanese gardens of pre-Modern times. The narrative, highly readable despite its shear scholarly density, skillfully weaves back and forth between historical research and present-day, first-hand observations. This duality creates a very rich portrait of the subject. One of the few regrets about the book is that many of the accompanying black and white photographs, which make up the majority of the illustrations, are reproduced in very low contrast, making them appear faded and less than a joy to contemplate.

A Visual Inventory: John Pawson
John Pawson / Phaidon Press Limited, 2012; $49.95

In contrast to the preceding book, the images of John Pawson’s book nearly pop off the pages. Many of them exemplify the best of minimalism, namely that with the editing and framing, what remains can only be described as richness. The book features a single image per page, top and outer edge justified. Within that simple rigor, surprisingly I found there to be a refreshing casualness to “parings” of facing images. Sometimes there were overt similarities, sometimes clear contrast, but plenty offering an invitation to sit a while and ponder – amidst the beauty.

20th Century World Architecture: The Phaidon Atlas
Lindsey M. Roberts / Phaidon, 2012; $200

This book qualifies as a guilty pleasure. It’s not just a box of candy, it’s an entire candy store of architecture between two covers. (Warning: It may break both your spending budget and your coffee table.) The scope of the work is rather breathtaking, trying as it does to fairly encircle the globe. Needless to say, with that much breadth of subject, it is impossible to present with any justice the depth and intimacy of any single work. The result is akin to a sugar-crash after a 750-piece candy orgy. The best cure: store it away and get back to focusing on the particulars of a project you can dig into.

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky
Joshua David and Robert Hammond / FSG Originals, 2011; $29.95

By now, the transformation of a derelict elevated rail line on Manhattan’s West Side into a unique urban park, is a well-known success story. Less well known is how the project grew, from an isolated idea shared by two young men with no prior planning experience, into a broadly shared urban renewal vision. The story is told, largely sequentially, in a conversational style of recollections, alternating between the two primary instigators and collaborators on the project. The weaving in of personal stories, thwarted efforts and shear serendipity at times makes for a very engaging read.

Michael VanValkenburgh Associates: Reconstructing Urban Landscapes
Anita Berrizbeitia / Yale University Press, 2009; $65

Changes in our environment is a topic on everyone’s mind these days. As we shift our gaze away from moving to the” next frontier” of unspoiled landscape and instead look to renovating, and restoring already spoiled landscapes, our jobs as designers becomes increasingly complex. This book presents a selected portfolio of projects illustrating the ideas and approaches used by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates in doing such reclamation work. What stands out is their ability to work with sites whose native qualities were erased long ago – and yet be able to instill a deep sense of inspired belonging – to a time and a place that, while entirely new, feels timeless.

Philosophy for Architects
Branko Mitrovic, Princeton Architectural Press, 2011; $24.95

As someone who has been out of architecture school for a good many years, it was with some degree of trepidation that I approached a book sounding like Philosophy 101. (I’m still feeling a bit scarred from my college (re)readings of Derrida.) To my surprise I found a highly compelling read, grounded in terms of design ideas and human experience and perception. The net result was gaining insights about why we look at things the way we do and why it matters. Probably more than anything else though, the book served to provide me with a better understanding of history itself, not just philosophy.

100 Ideas That Changed Architecture
Richard Weston / Laurence King Publishing, 2011; $29.95

What do “Elevator” and “Phenomenology” have in common? Well, as it turns out, the pie of architectural history can be sliced in some pretty inventive ways. In this fresh approach, 100 topics are strung together in a generally chronological order of when they were created or started having an important role in architecture. Topics range from spatial forms (wall, dome), to materials (brick, glass), to technology (air conditioning, computer-aided design), on to theory (genius loci, complexity and contradiction), and practice (sustainability, parametric design). Each topic is presented as a two-page illustrated spread and can be savored easily in piecemeal fashion – presenting a delightful smorgasbord indeed.

And, although I can’t give an as-read report on this one yet, near the top of my pile to read in 2013 is:
The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change
James S. Russell / Island Press, 2012; $17.95

The author and I, near the start of our careers were colleagues at the same design firm. As my own work seems increasingly to be about finding the essence of time and place for specific projects, Jim’s perspective has become increasingly large in its purview, and engaging broader policy discourse. He is presently the architecture columnist for Bloomberg News. In his present book he makes the case that the war on global warming can best tackled by retrofitting cities, suburbs, and towns. I’m looking forward to a good sustainable read.

Ed Barnhart, AIA

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