The best books on architecture for non-architects

Witold Rybczynski Author Of Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City
By Witold Rybczynski

Who am I?

I am professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I’ve written more than twenty books on a variety of subjects, I was trained as an architect and I’ve designed and built houses, researched low cost housing, and taught budding architects for four decades. I was architecture critic for Wigwag and Slate and I’ve written for numerous national magazines and newspapers. Perhaps more important, my wife and I built our own house, mixing concrete, sawing wood, and hammering nails. I wrote a book about that, too.

I wrote...

Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City

By Witold Rybczynski,

Book cover of Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City

What is my book about?

This story is set in the colonial city of Charleston and brings together two of my interests: architecture and urbanism. Beginning in the 1980s, a motley crew of builders—a lover of Byzantine architecture, an Air Force pilot, a fledgling architect, and a bluegrass mandolin player—undertake a variety of unusual projects: a domed Orthodox church, a fanciful medieval castle, a restored freedman’s cottage, a miniature Palladian villa, and a new street based on Porgy and Bess. And in the process of remaking an old city, they invent a new one.

The books I picked & why

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Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

By Ross King,

Book cover of Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

Why this book?

Buildings are a product of the artistic imagination and building technology, but they also depend on political will and cultural capital. Ross King, a skillful storyteller, describes how all these played a role in the construction of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in fifteenth-century Florence. Its maker, the great Filippo Brunelleschi, was the first architect in the modern sense, and in many ways the story of Western architecture begins here.

Experiencing Architecture

By Steen Eiler Rasmussen,

Book cover of Experiencing Architecture

Why this book?

Many books about architecture are like cookbooks, that is, they are written for the cook—the architect—and are concerned with how to make the stuff. But for the lay person, the joy of architecture lies in the actual experience of buildings; good architecture makes you feel good. This classic, written in 1962 by a wise old Dane, is a wonderful guide to the many sensory ways in which we experience buildings, old and new.

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

By Nathan Glazer,

Book cover of From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

Why this book?

If you’ve ever wondered why modern buildings look the way they do—and look so different from say, the buildings of our grandparents’ generation—you cannot do better than read this collection of essays that examines the current state of modern architecture. Glazer, a sociologist who was a noted public intellectual, brings a down-to-earth intelligence and a sharp eye to his subject.


By Tracy Kidder,

Book cover of House

Why this book?

Architecture is always a collaboration between the architect who conceives the project, the builder who must realize it, and the client who starts it—and pays for it The protracted building process, which is often stressful, is always a complicated pas de trois. No one has written about this better than Tracy Kidder, who describes the complex choreography by following (in real-time and in detail) the construction of a family home in New England.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

By Eric Hodgins, William Steig,

Book cover of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Why this book?

Kidder’s book is non-fiction, but Eric Hodgins’s 1946 architectural account, although influenced by his own experience of building a house, is fictional; the novel was later made into a hit movie starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. It’s a very funny story that exaggerates—but only slightly—the travails faced by anyone undertaking this challenging task. Weathering the challenge, as Mr. Blandings discovers, requires fortitude, patience, and yes, a sense of humor.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in architecture, urban planning, and Japan?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about architecture, urban planning, and Japan.

Architecture Explore 35 books about architecture
Urban Planning Explore 23 books about urban planning
Japan Explore 291 books about Japan

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Measure and Construction of the Japanese House, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, and On Altering Architecture if you like this list.