The best books on timeless architectural principles

Why am I passionate about this?

As a practicing architect, and an avid reader—in a variety of subjects and genres, not just architecture—I love finding patterns and connections between seemingly dissimilar phenomena. Patterns conform to principles, and principles are the fountainhead of wisdom that never runs dry. I will be the first to admit that, even after forty years of absorbing these and other kindred principles, I’m still far from consistent in applying them. And, like the others I cite, my own work suffers from that inconsistency. I commiserate with all architects who are similarly struggling to design buildings that exemplify even a few of the principles in these books. And that is why I chose them.


I wrote...

Simple Rules: What the Oldtime Builders Knew

By Shannon Taylor Scarlett,

Book cover of Simple Rules: What the Oldtime Builders Knew

What is my book about?

Designed for both layman and professionals, this 120-page, fully illustrated book includes 25 key design principles that apply to architecture, art, and buildings.

Inspired by long-forgotten sources, this builder handbook includes timeless composition guidelines, elegant proportional systems, building techniques, and formulas for making buildings more beautiful. It is intended as a design guide for the architect or modern builder who cares about aesthetics and meaning, as much or more than the bottom line. In this small guide, a few select concepts and techniques, salvaged mostly from 18th, 19th, and early 20th-century builder pocket references and architectural guides, have been resurrected and abridged—or interpreted where possible—for practical use by the 21st-century architect and homebuilder.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Beautiful Necessity

Shannon Taylor Scarlett Why did I love this book?

One of my favorite books, this hidden gem was, unfortunately, for the world—as the author feared it might—spurned because of his association with Theosophy. When I accidentally discovered it a few years ago I was floored by the deep historical and philosophical connections he makes throughout his essays on architecture. In the first short essay, he sketches two-line symbols in a progression, with tight little summaries epitomizing each of the past ages of architecture, that surprisingly paralleled Spengler’s chapters on architecture in Decline of the West. His grasp of mathematics and his novel thoughts on its application in architecture are equally concise and mind-bending. In one essay he offers an elegant proposal for a modern style of ornamentation based on a four-dimensional hyper-space model. Beautiful necessity, a phrase taken from an essay by Emerson, was for Bragdon the essence and purpose of architecture itself. 

By Claude Fayette Bragdon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Beautiful Necessity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Beautiful Necessity-Seven Essays on Theosophy and Architecture is an art history classic by Claude Fayette Bragdon. One of the advantages of a thorough assimilation of what may be called the theosophic idea is that it can be applied with advantage to every department of knowledge and of human activity: like the key to a cryptogram it renders clear and simple that which before seemed intricate and obscure. Let us apply this key to the subject of art, and to the art of architecture in particular, and see if by so doing we may not learn more of art than…


Book cover of The Process of Creating Life: The Nature of Order, Book 2: An Essay of the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe

Shannon Taylor Scarlett Why did I love this book?

Over his lifetime, Alexander’s controversial approach to architecture incited widespread criticism, yet it is precisely these unique and thought-provoking ideas that make The Nature of Order an essential read. Beyond his sometimes obscure writing style and lackluster built examples, Alexander's deep commitment to architecture as a complex layered system of patterns—an idea he first popularized in his hippy-architects bible, A Pattern Language—is still palpable in this four-volume magnum opus. 

I found the second volume, where he offers a guide for how to “create life” through patterns, most pertinent to this list. Here he distills his earlier work down to fifteen essential patterns that lead to architecture as a living structure. There is gold to be mined here, for those in search of some semblance of order in the chaotic current of modern architecture. 

By Christopher Alexander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Process of Creating Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Christopher Alexander's masterwork, the result of 27 years of research, considers three vital perspectives: a scientific perspective; a perspective based on beauty and grace; a commonsense perspective based on our intuitions and everyday life.


Book cover of The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Shannon Taylor Scarlett Why did I love this book?

Whenever I’m reading Ruskin, I feel like I’m overhearing a crusty old man’s rant. Some rants I love—when he talks about honesty in materials, or his in-depth thoughts on nature and light; some I question—demonizing cast iron facades; and others I disagree with—the necessity for obedience to God as an architect. And some of his ideas are so outdated, they’ve almost come back full circle. But the reason I included this older volume, is simply because Ruskin’s seven principles on architecture have withstood the test of time.

By John Ruskin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Seven Lamps of Architecture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I believe architecture must be the beginning of arts, and that the others must follow her in their time and order; and I think the prosperity of our schools of painting and sculpture, in which no one will deny the life, though many the health, depends upon that of our architecture." — John Ruskin.
In August of 1848, John Ruskin and his new bride visited northern France, for the gifted young critic wished to write a work that would examine the essence of Gothic architecture. By the following April, the book was finished. Titled The Seven Lamps of Architecture, it…


Book cover of Architecture: Form, Space, & Order

Shannon Taylor Scarlett Why did I love this book?

Both as a student, and now as a practitioner in the field of architecture, I found Ching's beautifully illustrated volume on architectural composition to be an indispensable resource. It offers a detailed guide to universal and timeless principles of architecture and environmental design. There are again similarities with A Pattern Language, but his prose is more pragmatic and his illustrations more elegant.

Ching’s diagrams are exquisitely simple and clear. There is just enough text, all tightly hand-lettered, to flesh out each concept. The range of modern and historical examples on adjacent pages—an ancient Japanese temple, a Wright house, and a steel structure at IIT Chicago—are rendered to appear as if they went together naturally. 

Pulling out my copy for this review I thought, maybe it’s time to buy a new one—the spine is broken, several pages are loose, and the softbound cover is creased and grubby—but, then again, its sad condition is a sign of the value it has provided over the decades. How do I replace something that well-loved?

By Francis D. K. Ching,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Architecture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The revered architectural reference, updated with contemporary examples and interactive 3D models The Interactive Resource Center is an online learning environment where instructors and students can access the tools they need to make efficient use of their time, while reinforcing and assessing their understanding of key concepts for successful understanding of the course. An access card with redemption code for the online Interactive Resource Center is included with all new, print copies or can be purchased separately. (***If you rent or purchase a used book with an access code, the access code may have been redeemed previously and you may…


Book cover of The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live

Shannon Taylor Scarlett Why did I love this book?

When Susanka’s book first came out in the 90s, I felt like she had hit on something that many architects were being challenged by—the expanding popularity of the McMansion. Now with Tiny Houses bookmarking her work at the other end, and with all the at-home needs and complications that came with the pandemic, I still think she has got the formula right: Build better, not bigger. Her chapters include many principles on how to build smaller eloquent, gem houses, and to get away from the clunky, gaudy costume jewelry architecture ruining the American suburbs.

When I realized Alexander’s Pattern Language had also influenced Susanka’s work, I began to question why it was not on my list. But, I couldn't decide which book it would replace. Maybe it will make it onto the list for a future book, but that’s for another day. 

By Sarah Susanka, Kira Obolensky,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Not So Big House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This title offers an inspiration for homeowners and builders from a leading architect. "The Not So Big House" has sold over 500,000 copies since 1998. It features clear guidance that emphasises the use of quality not quantity. This anniversary edition includes 32 extra pages and a new introduction. Now available in paperback, the expanded 10th anniversary edition of Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House" is ready to inspire a whole new generation of homeowners and builders. Though a decade has passed, her deceptively simple message remains as powerful as ever: when it comes to our homes, quality should always…


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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


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