The best architecture books

16 authors have picked their favorite books about architecture and why they recommend each book.

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Architecture and Empire in Jamaica

By Louis P. Nelson,

Book cover of Architecture and Empire in Jamaica

Beautifully illustrated and persuasively argued, this survey of a variety of architectural forms in the eighteenth century, from merchant houses to enslaved yards to great houses shows how studying the built environment of early Jamaica gives insight into a society both rich and highly conflicted.


Who am I?

Trevor Burnard is Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and author of four books and many articles on eighteenth-century Jamaica. He has recently reviewed 34 books just published on Jamaica in “`Wi Lickle but Wi Tallawah’: Writing Jamaica into the Atlantic World, 1655-1834 Reviews in American History 49 (2021), 168-86.

I wrote...

Jamaica in the Age of Revolution

By Trevor Burnard,

Book cover of Jamaica in the Age of Revolution

What is my book about?

Between the start of the Seven Years' War in 1756 and the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, Jamaica was the richest and most important colony in British America. White Jamaican slaveowners presided over a highly productive economic system, a precursor to the modern factory in its management of labor, its harvesting of resources, and its scale of capital investment and ouput. Planters, supported by a dynamic merchant class in Kingston, created a plantation system in which short-term profit maximization was the main aim. Their slave system worked because the planters who ran it were extremely powerful.

In Jamaica in the Age of Revolution, Trevor Burnard analyzes the men and women who gained so much from the labor of enslaved people in Jamaica to expose the ways in which power was wielded in a period when the powerful were unconstrained by custom, law, or, for the most part, public approbation or disapproval. Burnard finds that the unremitting war by the powerful against the poor and powerless, evident in the day-to-day struggles slaves had with masters, is a crucial context for grasping what enslaved people had to endure.

Experiencing Architecture

By Steen Eiler Rasmussen,

Book cover of Experiencing Architecture

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.


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.

From a Cause to a Style

By Nathan Glazer,

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

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.


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.

Court and Garden

By Michael Dennis,

Book cover of Court and Garden: From the French Hôtel to the City of Modern Architecture

This book focuses on the role of modern architecture in Paris, and by “modern,” Dennis has in mind the architecture created during the reinvention of Paris in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dennis provides the best introduction to a crucial factor in Paris’s essence: the particular kind of residential architecture that became characteristic of the cityscape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the hôtel or townhouse. Great architecture helps make a city great, and in Paris in particular, much of the greatest modern architecture was originally residential – grand townhouses built for the wealthiest Parisians.

Today, most of these townhouses have become museums, government ministries, foreign embassies. With its focus on the relation between public and private space in the city and the ways in which residential architecture can and should function in relation to the streets and the public space in which it is embedded, Dennis’s work is essential…


Who am I?

I’ve lived in cities all my adult life and currently divide my time between Paris and Philadelphia. And while those two cities are strikingly different places, they have in common the fact that they are both great walking cities –- urban centers that can be explored on foot and easily enjoyed by pedestrians. Walking cities, I believe, provide not only an ideal context for today’s tourists but also a model for a future in which urban dwellers become less reliant on automobiles and urban centers more open to foot traffic than to vehicular pollution and congestion. The books I’ll recommend deal in various ways with the building and rebuilding of visionary cities, and of Paris in particular.


I wrote...

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

What is my book about?

What makes a city great?

To answer this, I explored the decades in the seventeenth century when French kings put visionary architects in charge of one of the most spectacular projects in the history of urban planning. These architects reimagined such basic urban building blocks as the street and the bridge. They also invented new ones – the boulevard in particular. As a result, they redefined the urban experience for both Paris’s inhabitants and visitors alike. Paris became a new kind of city, a blueprint for great cities to come. I believe that great architects and great architecture are essential to the making of any great city. 

Who am I?

I’ve lived in cities all my adult life and currently divide my time between Paris and Philadelphia. And while those two cities are strikingly different places, they have in common the fact that they are both great walking cities –- urban centers that can be explored on foot and easily enjoyed by pedestrians. Walking cities, I believe, provide not only an ideal context for today’s tourists but also a model for a future in which urban dwellers become less reliant on automobiles and urban centers more open to foot traffic than to vehicular pollution and congestion. The books I’ll recommend deal in various ways with the building and rebuilding of visionary cities, and of Paris in particular.


I wrote...

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

What is my book about?

What makes a city great?

To answer this, I explored the decades in the seventeenth century when French kings put visionary architects in charge of one of the most spectacular projects in the history of urban planning. These architects reimagined such basic urban building blocks as the street and the bridge. They also invented new ones – the boulevard in particular. As a result, they redefined the urban experience for both Paris’s inhabitants and visitors alike. Paris became a new kind of city, a blueprint for great cities to come. I believe that great architects and great architecture are essential to the making of any great city. 

Elvis and the World as It Stands

By Lisa Frankel Riddiough, Olivia Chin Mueller (illustrator),

Book cover of Elvis and the World as It Stands

In this sweet and poignant story, Elvis is a shelter kitten adopted into a home with a girl whose parents recently separated, an eager hamster, a watchdog goldfish, and an older, ornery shelter cat. Elvis just wants to reunite with his sister Etta who was left behind at the shelter, and he must also adapt to his new home and friends. Even though Elvis can’t communicate with humans, he never stops trying. The story explores memory, family, and rebuilding things that are broken, and includes a light discussion of Sept. 11.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated with the natural world and our relationship with it since I was young. In my first career, as an environmental attorney, I worked to protect oceans and endangered species. Now, as a children’s author, I enjoy exploring environmental themes, as well as the unique bonds people have with animals, in my stories. The books I am recommending are recently published middle-grade novels that capture the magical connection between humans and animals, or animals with each other, whether in contemporary or fantasy settings. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and live in Virginia with my family and our adorable hypoallergenic cat.


I wrote...

Manatee's Best Friend

By Sylvia Liu,

Book cover of Manatee's Best Friend

What is my book about?

Becca is living the life. Sure, she has problems. She's so shy she can't bear to speak at school, and she's not doing so hot on the human friend front. But when she's home she gets to hang out with her friend Missy, the manatee who lives in the river in her backyard. One day Missy has a baby with her! But new developers upriver bring inconsiderate boaters to the river, putting Missy and her baby in danger. And the new girl next door is so loud that she might scare Missy away. When Becca captures a video of a dolphin diverting a boat away from Missy, the video goes viral!

Can Becca find a way to use her voice to stand up for her manatee friends?

Designing Your Natural House

By Charles G. Woods, Malcolm Wells,

Book cover of Designing Your Natural House

This is an outlier that maybe not many have heard about or read. It features two award-winning designers who define, and illustrate, some 200 “rules of good architecture”. The artwork and lettering are by Malcolm Wells—an architect well-known for his sharp wit and off-beat leanings (underground houses being one). The messaging is accurate and timeless. The tone is light, as is the author’s back-and-forth banter. Wells’s illustrations bring the message home with clarity and force. It is a book that is at the same time funny, useful, and beautiful. Good luck finding one! 


Who are we?

As the authors of 27 hand-illustrated books, we are acutely aware of the time and skill required for good rendering. We are old-schoolers ourselves, having cut our teeth on “how-to” books before computers came into vogue. Our readers often tell us that a computer drawing does not have the same appeal and clarity as hand drawing. We are able to ‘talk’ a reader through the process of building something with our drawings. We have also found that the best illustrated books often have the best content!


We wrote...

Cabin: A Guide to Building the Perfect Getaway

By Matthew D. Kirchhoff, David Stiles, Jeanie Stiles

Book cover of Cabin: A Guide to Building the Perfect Getaway

What is our book about?

David’s illustrations are both clarifying and enchanting. If a picture is worth a thousand words, he saves the reader hours of reading. Included are over 30 short stories, most less than a page, relating anecdotes and lessons learned over our years of cabin-building and cabin–living experience. You’ll read about Eagles that give and Ravens that take, bears that break in and canaries that break out, and any building project can go wrong – very wrong.

Cabin advances this shared philosophy: The value of a getaway is less about the cabin as a building, and more about the cabin as a portal to the outdoors—a way to slow the pace of life, live simply, enjoy nature, and build meaningful memories in the company of family and friends. In the end, that’s something most people desire.

Measure and Construction of the Japanese House

By Heino Engel,

Book cover of Measure and Construction of the Japanese House

This book is a classic and is a beautifully informative excerpt from the author’s longer and more extensive The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture which is long out of print. The drawings and plans are wonderful, and illuminate the Japanese House layout, modularity, proportions, and many structural and ornamental details. I particularly love the white-on-black visual treatment used for many of the plans. 


Who am I?

Azby Brown is a widely published author and authority on Japanese architecture, design, and environment, whose groundbreaking writings on traditional Japanese carpentry, compact housing, and traditional sustainable practices are recognized as having brought these fields to the awareness of Western designers and the general public. His creative work spans many media and has been widely exhibited internationally. In 2003 he founded the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo, focussing on cognitive and cultural issues surrounding the human hand and its use in the creative process, conducting collaborative research with neuroscientists and perceptual psychologists. A native of New Orleans, he has lived in Japan since 1985 and is currently on the sculpture faculty of Musashino Art University in Tokyo. 


I wrote...

The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: Secrets of an Ancient Woodworking Craft

By Azby Brown,

Book cover of The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: Secrets of an Ancient Woodworking Craft

What is my book about?

On my first trip to Japan in 1983, I had the extremely good fortune to meet the late Tsunekazu Nishioka, last in a hereditary line of master temple carpenters, or miyadaiku, who had maintained Horyuji temple in Nara for centuries. He was then embarked on a decades-long restoration of Yakushiji Temple. I set out to write the most detailed and complete account possible, and my book is still the only one of its kind. It presents the documentation of the temple’s three-year-long construction process in the form of text, photos, and my own detailed drawings. Like many Westerners, I was initially drawn to the form of the many wood joints and their complexity, but Master Nishioka showed me that understanding trees as living beings is what is most essential.

Building the Japanese House Today

By Len Brackett, Peggy Landers Rao, Aya Brackett (photographer)

Book cover of Building the Japanese House Today

Len Brackett trained with superb carpenters in Japan and returned to the US West Coast to create exquisite Japanese-stye houses and other buildings. His work is in extremely high demand. This book shows how high-quality Japanese-style design and construction can be adapted to our current lifestyles without sacrificing either aesthetically or functionally. Brackett’s descriptions of his design and construction process, as well as of the wood material he uses, are enticing and provide a lot of technical and philosophical insight.


Who am I?

Azby Brown is a widely published author and authority on Japanese architecture, design, and environment, whose groundbreaking writings on traditional Japanese carpentry, compact housing, and traditional sustainable practices are recognized as having brought these fields to the awareness of Western designers and the general public. His creative work spans many media and has been widely exhibited internationally. In 2003 he founded the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo, focussing on cognitive and cultural issues surrounding the human hand and its use in the creative process, conducting collaborative research with neuroscientists and perceptual psychologists. A native of New Orleans, he has lived in Japan since 1985 and is currently on the sculpture faculty of Musashino Art University in Tokyo. 


I wrote...

The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: Secrets of an Ancient Woodworking Craft

By Azby Brown,

Book cover of The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: Secrets of an Ancient Woodworking Craft

What is my book about?

On my first trip to Japan in 1983, I had the extremely good fortune to meet the late Tsunekazu Nishioka, last in a hereditary line of master temple carpenters, or miyadaiku, who had maintained Horyuji temple in Nara for centuries. He was then embarked on a decades-long restoration of Yakushiji Temple. I set out to write the most detailed and complete account possible, and my book is still the only one of its kind. It presents the documentation of the temple’s three-year-long construction process in the form of text, photos, and my own detailed drawings. Like many Westerners, I was initially drawn to the form of the many wood joints and their complexity, but Master Nishioka showed me that understanding trees as living beings is what is most essential.

Home

By Witold Rybczynski,

Book cover of Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home discusses the complex series of factors that have generated the house as we understand it today. The chapters can be read independently as discussions on, for example, the evolution of comfort or the organisation of the different spaces. However, the book also builds into a fascinating argument for revisiting some of the pre-modern ideas of communal living, shared spaces, and live-work relationships. 


Who am I?

For more than thirty years I have been discussing, formulating ideas, and writing about Architecture, Building Reuse, and Interiors. I lead the MA Architecture and Adaptive Reuse programme and direct graduate atelier Continuity in Architecture at the Manchester School of Architecture. I am currently the Visiting Professor at the University IUAV of Venice where I am conducting research on the sustainable adaptation of existing buildings with particular emphasis on the environmental concerns within the inherently fragile city of Venice.


I wrote...

Inside Information: The Defining Concepts of Interior Design

By Sally Stone,

Book cover of Inside Information: The Defining Concepts of Interior Design

What is my book about?

Inside Information is a chatty and well-informed conversation about the theoretical ideas that inform the interior. Written as a collection of 26 conversations, from Ante to Zeitgeist, Inside Information explores the rich diversity of areas that inform the subject, and ideas that underpin it. This thesaurus of interiors transcends the boundaries and genres that often define interiors, providing a comprehensive view of the concepts and vocabulary of interior design. It is a practical introduction for the professional, a set of provocation for the scholar, a ‘good read’ filled with anecdote and speculation for the amateur, and primer for the students.

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