8 Architecture Books That Shaped Our World: Part 2

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Gehry Walt Disney Concert Hall

In my last post I profiled the first 4 of 8 books which impacted the architecture profession. In this post I complete the list.


5. A Testament (Frank Lloyd Wright): 1957

By the time A Testament was published, Wright was well-known. This book is notable for collecting the key principles of Wright’s theory. Some of these principles were found in Towards a New Architecture and The International Style, probably influenced by Wright:

  • Rejection of classicism
  • The exterior form of a building should follow its interior logic
  • Aversion to applied ornament

However, A Testament provided a sort of Mid-Western modernism as opposed to the MoMA-sanctioned Manhattan modernism of the International Style.

An analogy may be made with the twin branches of jazz music once it left New Orleans. Following the two main routes of the northward Great Migration, two destinations – Chicago and New York City – became the meccas of postwar jazz. The former more raw, boisterous and visceral, the latter more sleek, abstract, intellectualized.

Similarly, Wright advocated for a more earthy and tactile architecture than the early European modernists. The “Books” of Wright’s (New? Old?) Testament laid out a different kind of religion for the faithful:

  • Inspired by indigenous American, ancient Eastern, African and Mid-Eastern builders
  • Rejection of the machine aesthetic
  • Rejection of the “flat-plane effects” desired by International Style architects
  • Inspired by nature and building with the natural characteristics of a site
  • Truth to materials 

Fallingwater (Wright)


6. Architecture without Architects (Bernard Rudofsky): 1964

Architecture without Architects is the second book on this list published in connection with a MoMA show.

Of the books on this list, Architecture is probably the least known. In contrast to the other books it doesn’t argue for an approach to design. Rather, it makes the case that “architecture without architects” – indigenous and vernacular buildings – should be included in the history of architecture alongside “high” buildings by great architects.

Intensive studies of vernacular buildings, such as the work of Fred Kniffen, had been mainly limited to anthropology until the 1960s. Rudofsky’s book help bring vernacular architecture the respect it deserved.

Architecture without Architects foreshadowed how vernacular architecture would influence many postmodern architects. This book came out in a time when artists, writers, musicians and film-makers were closing the gap between art and life. Lines blurred between “serious” culture and “popular” culture.

Architecture without Architects showed that vernacular architecture is, essentially, popular architecture, the common buildings of everyday people.



7. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Robert Venturi): 1966

Complexity hit the reset button on mid-20th century architecture.

Modernism held sway as the prominent architectural movement of the period. However, by the 1960s it was targeted by a growing body of critics within the profession and the general public. This was part of a broader critique of modernity for its:

  • Distance from life
  • Puritanical purity
  • Exclusiveness

Many critics called for Modernism to be rethought. One of the first was architect Robert Venturi. His Complexity and Contradiction is often cited as one of the founding texts of postmodernism.

In contrast to modernism, postmodernism doesn’t reject the past, it embraces it.

Most of the buildings in Venturi’s book were:

  • Pre-modern buildings, especially Baroque architecture
  • Venturi’s work, which quoted ideas from these pre-modern exemplars

Influenced by Venturi’s book, a dominant thrust of early postmodern architecture was historicism. Historicist buildings broke modernism’s longstanding taboos against:

  • Classicism and the use of the classical orders
  • The use of ornament

Complexity and Contradiction is the third book on this list published in connection with a MoMA show. Ironically, it attempted to essentially dismantle the arguments of its predecessor, The International Style.

Venturi’s notion of contradiction – putting oppositional elements into play – set the stage for architecture’s next wave: Deconstructivism. 

V Venturi House


8. Deconstructivist Architecture (Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley): 1988   

Just as Complexity had hit the reset button on modernism, Deconstructivist Architecture hit the reset button on postmodern historicism. Once again, a MoMA show and its companion book challenged architectural convention.

Mark Wigley’s introductory essay described the values of mainstream architecture: “pure form . . . from which all instability and disorder have been excluded . . . based on values of harmony, unity, and stability.”

Wigley then noted the “different sensibility” of Deconstructivism, “one in which the dream of pure form has been disturbed. Form has become contaminated. The dream has become a kind of nightmare.”

Wigley noted how deconstructivist buildings embody “formal strategies” from Russian Constructivism:

  • Imbalance
  • Skewed geometry
  • Non-hierarchical
  • “competing and conflicting axes”
  • Disturbed from the inside out

Deconstructivist presciently presented profiles of a set of architects whose works strongly influenced the direction of architecture:

These works stirred debate and some triggered controversy.

Gehry La Casa



And this is why these 8 books matter. Each unsettled comfortable assumptions of its time. Each drug building construction, an inherently reactive field, into the arena of criticism, the arena of change.

And for those of us who love books, it confirms our faith in the power of words to shape our world.


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013


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