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Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: AIA Guide to New York City

AIA Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition by Norval White, Elliot Willensky and Fran Leadon
Oxford University Press, 2010
Paperback, 1,088 pages



 
Those familiar with previous editions of the indispensible AIA Guide to New York City will notice the similarities and differences present in the fifth edition, the first with Fran Leadon*. The book is still about the size (and weight) of a small brick, though surprisingly, with extra entries from the last ten years of architecture in the city, the book is about the same number of pages and slimmer than the fourth edition. Different paper, thinner but better quality, contributes to this slight difference. The change to a two-column layout from a single column allows for larger photos (the previous edition squeezed most into a narrow vertical sidebar) and more content on fewer pages. The three-color scheme (black and white with brown) is maintained, but graphically the new guide adds a layer of complexity with maps that include building footprints as well as historic district boundaries. "Necrologies" set off from the entries by brown type are the most overt addition, noting what has been demolished (and what is threatened with demolition) in the last ten years. Overall, the feeling is that one is holding something new, different, but its similarities with previous editions make it comfortable, even if it is a cumbersome book to carry around the city.
 
Much of the popularity of the previous guides can be attributed to the descriptions of White and Willensky. Brief, owing to the exhaustive nature of the guide (approx. 5,000 buildings with 3,000 photographs), they make up for in wit what they lack in depth. Obviously the fifth edition continues this tradition, with much attention directed to the authors' comments on bad architecture, the "snark" that is so popular today. But does the book's value lie in calling William Beaver House "the Post-It Note Building"? I would argue that the guide is important for being a resource to so much of the city's architecture, and in this regard it is indispensible but flawed.
 
Anything considered a resource -- and most people see the Guide in that regard -- should have its facts clear, but in my research** of recent architecture I found a number of errors, mostly dates but also addresses and attributions. One Amazon reviewer points out mistakes in the Roosevelt Island section that were not in the previous edition, so I'm curious about the overall accuracy of the information beyond the opinionated descriptions. The fifth edition is also flawed in omission, in what the authors chose to leave out. Flipping to my neighborhood of Astoria, I was surprised to see Daniel Goldner Architects's Ironworkers Local 40 & 361 (which the authors pan and also date incorrectly - by about eight years) but not the firm's later Local 580, a superior design worth seeing in person. As well the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts by Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership) across the street from the former does not make it into the book. Most glaring, in Lower Manhattan, is the missing New Amsterdam Plein and Pavilion by UNStudio; maybe the authors thought it was a temporary installation like the Dutch architect's piece in Chicago from the same time? These and other questionable entries and omissions certainly don't detract greatly from the massive bulk that is the AIA Guide to New York City. Nothing can displace the title from its pedestal above all other NYC guides, but I hope future editions are more careful with their information on new buildings. 
 
*Sadly Norval White passed away two weeks after the manuscript was delivered to the publishers in December 2009. Elliot Willensky died in 1990, a year or so after the publication of the third edition. Fran Leadon will, assuming future editions happen, carry on the torch without the Guide's two longtime contributors. Check out Leadon's blog posts at e-Oculus for insight into his work on the book and his tribute to Norval White.
 
**Disclosure: I'm writing a guidebook to 21st-century architecture in New York City, something that may make me overly critical of the AIA Guide, because it is such a helpful research tool and a precedent as a guidebook. Nevertheless I don't think this makes me biased in reviewing the book, one I greatly appreciate but has room for improvement.
 

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