On a recent trip to New England, I was struck with how beautiful some of the historic buildings there are, particularly compared to many of the “McMansions” I see around the West Coast. So I started looking into architecture a bit. I took a few flights recently, so had plenty of time to get some reading in, and I had access to some great bookstores and Amazon.
I started with, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. This is a cute little book that can help get you thinking about architecture and design. It’s probably more meant a sort of mini-coffee table book than anything else, but there is some nice stuff in there. It was my entry point.
The next book was Francis D. K. Ching‘s Architecture: Form, Space, and Order.
It’s an absolutely beautiful book. It is a good way to get you thinking about space and arrangements of objects. It’s a way to create a vocabulary for architecture. The illustrations are great to look at, but overall it’s highly theoretical. It would be best for an architecture student or someone in design professionally. It’s highly illustrated, and it is maybe worth getting just to look at the draftsmanship.
The next book is different in that it is almost completely the opposite. It’s Christopher Alexander‘s A Pattern Language.
It’s opposite in that this book is much more text heavy. Most of the drawn illustrations are much more sketch-like, but most of the illustrations are photographs. Frankly, the black and white photographs are not reproduced so well, as it was done using technology from the early 70’s. However, the content is astoundingly good. It’s also almost the opposite in terms of content, as it is not really about design principles from aesthetic or artistic principles so much as all focused on human interactions and how humans interact with their environment and space. Frank Ching’s book does include some of that, and the Alexander book does have some artistic principles, but in either case the main focus is somewhat different.
The basic layout of A Pattern Language is around a series of vignettes about different design patterns for how humans interact with one another and objects, but most of the focus is on how humans interact with their spaces, particularly homes. For someone interested in architecture, it might be worth skipping around a bit, and the beginning sections on urban planning are not as immediately relevant. An example pattern would be the “Farmhouse Kitchen”, this is a large combined kitchen & dining & seating area. The book will discuss such a design pattern, its use and incorporation into a structure and how it would relate to other design patterns. There are also some refinements here, such as why this room should likely be placed on the southern side of a home. Another example design pattern or concept this is discussed is having an eclectic mix of chairs in a seating area. This goes against some interior design aesthetics, but Alexander and his authors describe is being more homey and welcoming as well as giving a range of options for different individuals and different moods. This book of full of interesting thoughts on these sorts of things.
I was originally introduced to Alexander by a data scientist who now works at Google, who thought of the design pattern work having a lot of relevance in software and user interface design, so I think the general principles are broadly relevant even beyond architecture.
The next book get’s a little outside of general design principles, and is very New England specific, but it is a book that I enjoyed a lot. Thomas Hubka’s Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England is half a scholarly treatise on this style of architecture and half just a panegyric in praise of this style of architecture. One of the central points of the book is that the connected farm style used in New England farm houses was not really about providing a path to barn so the farmer could feed the cows without going outside in the winter, so much as providing a whole series of building for providing cottage industrial space creating diverse economic opportunities for the farm family in the era just prior to the industrial revolution.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable read if you are interested in the New England fame house style of architecture. It gives a lot of history about the transformation of the style with things like the changing technology of the wood stove, and the use of the semi-enclose farm yard.
If you’re interested in American architecture in general there are two good options. The first is the beautifully illustrated American House Styles: A Concise Guide. It’s a very pretty book, and goes through the major house styles in a very quick and easy to understand way.
However, I wanted to go into much greater depth, and for that I found the more encyclopedic volume from Virginia McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses to cover a lot more ground.
The illustrations in A Field Guide are in some ways not as lovely. The black and white photographs aren’t great aesthetically, but they are helpful to have as examples, and the line drawing and draftsmanship introduce a lot of architectural theory to the uninitiated.
If you’re interested in going outside of the US for inspiration, I found a copy of the beautiful book What is Japanese Architecture in a used bookshop in Brookline, MA.
It has lovely line drawings, and I will definitely refer to it before I visit Japan again. It is also a good source for general material on the Japanese aesthetic.
The next book is an interesting one in that it is not just about a particular design principle and featuring that style, but directly tries to critique design choices as being unaesthetic. Marianne Cusato is an award winning US architect, who is known for producing relatively inexpensive simple homes which follow very classical design principles and are designed to fit in well with historic areas. Ben Pentreath is a British architect and interior designer who not only designs but also operates a shop selling furnishings. He has a few blogs which shows his design sense which mixes antiques and modern patterns.
Basically, the book is about all the little (and big) details which differentiate a “McMansion” from “Classical Design”. There are tons of particular details here, that when you look at bring attention to things that you didn’t think about before. For example, Cusato goes into columns for some length. That may seem a bit excessive for most homes (as you may associate columns with things like Southern plantation style architecture), but after reading this, I’ve been looking around and seeing the large number of homes which have some columns in them, particularly around the entry or just built into the walls as decorative structural looking elements. The book describes is all the details of columns which if misused make a building look funny or a bit off. One of the major critiques is that columns, even in early American homes, were important structural (load bearing) elements and are intended to look that way when used now. However, if things aren’t arranged properly, the structural elements don’t fit, and the buildings don’t look a nice. There are then scores of other details about how the columns should be arranged, diameters, fluting, etc. Stuff that I would never have thought of, but when displayed in the book side by side highlights the differences. Most of the examples are cast as a “Things to Avoid” and then “Things to Use” type format, much like those old Goofus and Gallant comics which contrasted the foolish child on the left and the kindly and wise child on the right. Obviously, the rules in this book don’t need to be slavishly followed, but it does help to see some of this stuff laid out so that you can keep it mind. Before reading this book, I would have had no opinions at all about things like roof venting, but now I am starting to notice things which look nice and things which don’t. I imagine some people might resist some of the suggestions, as they may find some of the design choices criticized might be something they like, but overall I think this is a very useful book for the details about what makes something more or less aesthetic. At the very least, it has me noticing a lot more fine detail now.
If you’re interested in the real nitty & gritty aspects of building design, then another Francis Ching book takes things to the next level. Building Construction Illustrated gets down to the details of things like soil composition, all different ways to make different kinds of building joints, etc. All the sorts of things you actually need to know. Frankly, this book was way beyond me at this point. If you are interested in being involved in building a house from scratch or being part of a major modeling effort, that this is probably a good book to learn about building methods.
So if you’re interested in architecture in general, these are all very good books. If you want to do some reading to help you think about your own (future) home, I think A Pattern Language and Get Your House Right are maybe the most useful pair. The first is very much about function and emotion and how people relate to homes and in many ways is quite broad. The latter is full of very precise design details, things like the spacing of railings or the exact way the eaves meet the siding that might be helpful, so each book would complement the other. The two books also come very different cultural perspectives. The first is very much inspired by the hippie zeitgeist of the Pacific Northwest in the 60’s and 70’s (Alexander was a professor at Berkeley in the 60’s). The latter book draws much more culturally from the fine homes of England, indeed the foreword is written by the Prince of Wales (architecture is one of his major interests). So maybe together they can both appeal to the average PBS supporter. A little bit of Downton Abbey on one side and some collectivist idealism on the other.
I hope you enjoy reading about architecture as much as I have.
This was was my first real foray into learning about architecture, so I’d be interested in any comments readers might have. The comment button is at your disposal.