So You Want to Learn About: The Basics

The "So You Want to Learn About" series highlights books focused on a particular theme: think "socially responsible architecture" and "phenomenology," rather than broad themes like "housing" or "theory." Therefore the series aims to be a resource for finding decent reading materials on certain topics, born of a desire to further define noticeable areas of interest in the books I review. And while I haven't reviewed every title, I am familiar with each one; these are not blind recommendations.

It's late August, meaning that students are heading to architecture schools, either returning or going for the first time. The books collected below are geared to the latter, though it's a long enough list that all architecture students in their early years should find something of value. With sufficient interest, architecture can take hold of a person for a lifetime. Therefore it's beneficial to start off on the right foot with some quality books establishing architecture's basics.


Architecture: Form, Space, and Order
By Francis D.K. Ching
Wiley, 3rd edition 2007 (Amazon)
The form and layout (from landscape to portrait, and from handwritten to a Ching-like font) may have changed since the first edition in 1979, but the focus on "the basic elements, systems, and orders that constitute a physical work of architecture" remains. Like Ching's Building Construction Illustrated, this one is indispensable for beginning students in architecture.

Experiencing Architecture 
By Steen Eiler Rasmussen
MIT Press, 2nd edition 1964 (Amazon)
Ideally a good architecture book for students is intelligent and accessible. In the preface Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen states, "I have endeavored to write the present volume in such a way that even an interested teenager might understand it." With depth of history and clear prose, he ultimately promotes deriving pleasure form architecture, something all architects should try to achieve.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction 
By Christopher Alexander, et. al.
Oxford University Press, 1977 (Amazon)
When I was in undergrad architecture school in the early 1990s—the heyday of Deconstructivist architecture—Christopher Alexander's bible-like Pattern Language was out of fashion. Many architects still find the book overly prescriptive, but the methodical insight into people's use and appreciation of architecture at all scales is still influential, giving students an understanding of the impacts of design and space on people's emotions and actions.


Key Buildings of the 20th Century: Plans, Sections and Elevations 
By Richard Weston
W. W. Norton, 2010 (Amazon)
Considering that architects reappropriate rather than invent, it's important to learn as much as possible from historical and modern precedents. Norton's Key Architecture Series presents modern and contemporary buildings as photos but more importantly as the two-dimensional drawings architects still depend on for learning and for expressing their designs: plans, sections, and elevations. Each book also comes with a CD-ROM for looking at the drawings in PDF and CAD.

Precedents in Architecture: Analytic Diagrams, Formative Ideas, and Partis 
By Roger H. Clark
Wiley, 4th edition 2012 (Amazon / Review)
Early architecture studios teach analysis, not just rote redrawing of precedents. This book is like an analytical cheat sheet as it compares historical and modern buildings via circulation, hierarchy, symmetry, geometry, and so forth. It would be great if the diagrams were larger, but the breadth of buildings in one place makes up for that deficiency.

Buildings Without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture 
By John May
Rizzoli, 2010 (Amazon / Review)
Ideally architects are influenced by buildings that fall outside of the traditional confines of architectural culture—prehistorical buildings, vernacular architecture, aboriginal dwellings, what can be called buildings without architects. (Bernard Rudofsky's earlier, visually rich Architecture Without Architects is of course also valuable in this vein.) May's guide is set up like a dictionary or encyclopedia, with clear drawings highlighting the myriad of examples around the world we can learn from.


Understanding Architecture 
By Juhani Pallasmaa and Robert McCarter
Phaidon, 2012 (Amazon / Review)
Even though many schools of architecture have reduced history classes, learning about what became before us is crucial, as is learning about architectural history beyond authorship, dates, and other rote memorization. Pallasmaa and McCarter focus on a thematic approach to architecture rather than a chronological one, prioritizing experience over everything else; this is accentuated by the way the photos are keyed to plans, so readers can get a sense of how one moves through the buildings.

Thinking about Architecture: An Introduction to Architectural Theory 
By Colin Davies
Laurence King, 2011 (Amazon / Review)
Architectural theory (or what has come be known by that phrase) can be incredibly dense, often to the discouragement of students and professionals interested in architectural ideas. By focusing on the ideas rather than the people expressing them, Davies made a highly accessible introduction to different ways of thinking about architecture's relationship to people and the earth we occupy.

What Is Architecture? An Essay on Landscapes, Buildings, and Machines
By Paul Shepheard
Museum of Modern Art, 1994 (Amazon)
What follows from the apparently simple question of "What is architecture?" is typically more questions. It is the type of philosophical question that prompts discussion more than a definitive answer. Shepheard wrote the book when the prevailing answer to the question was, "everything," but he opts for an alternative through a fresh and intriguing narrative.

The Elements of Architecture:

Chambers for a Memory Palace 
By Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore
MIT Press, 1996 (Amazon)
One way of understanding architecture is through elements—physical constructions that exhibit similar formal and spatial tendencies. This book explores architecture through the correspondences of Lyndon and Moore, as they discuss how architectural elements make places memorable, and how we use our imagination to structure our own environments for remembering.

How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit 
By Witold Rybczynski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013 (Amazon)
In this forthcoming book, Rybczynski (pronounced Rib-chin-skee) presents a layperson's guide to architecture, moving from the general (ideas and the setting) to the specific (details and taste). The author embraces all types of architecture, though his favored positions can be hinted throughout and are made clear in the last two chapters. Regardless, he gives readers a toolkit for understanding and appreciating the buildings around us.

Opening Spaces: Design as Landscape Architecture
By Hans Loidl and Stefan Bernard
Birkhauser, 2003 (Amazon / Review)
Defining space through elements is hardly the sole purview of buildings, and this graphically rich guide to landscape architecture is particularly helpful in explaining how space is abstractly defined both inside and out. It's a hard to find, out-of-print book worth searching for, but one that the publisher should really consider publishing again, 10 years after its release.


Architectural Drawing 
By David Dernie
Laurence King, 2010 (Amazon)
Many publishers gear books specifically to students, presenting them in series that tap into various practical areas. Laurence King's Portfolio Skills series touches on modelmaking, CAD, landscape architecture, and drawing. The titles benefit from clarity, helpful step-by-step illustrations, and a variety of examples illustrating how to do this or that.

Model Making 
By Megan Werner
Princeton Architectural Press, 2011 (Amazon / Review)
PAPress's Architecture Briefs series runs the gamut from philosopy and writing to sustainable design and material strategies. Megan Werner's title on making models is particularly good example, highlighting how different materials can be shaped to achieve different ends. Computer renderings be damned! Architectural models are still an integral part of architectural education and expression.

The Fundamentals of Architecture 
By Lorraine Farrelly
AVA Publishing, 2007 (Amazon / Review)
AVA's Fundamentals series focuses on the process of architecture, how a project moves from concept to design development and beyond to completion. The books look at architecture but also landscape architecture and urban design. Since spring 2013 AVA's books are published under Fairchild Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury Press.


  1. You left out a great new book by Robert Geddes, FIT: An Architect's Manifesto (Princeton University Press)

  2. Two basic books that should be on every architect's shelf:

    Problem Seeking: An Architectural Programming Primer
    by William M. Peña and Steven A. Parshall

    The Five Orders of Architecture
    by Giacomo Baruzzi Da Vignola

  3. Where is Edouard Jaenneret and "Towards New Architectue"? It's just unbelievable how you could forget about him.

    1. Didn't forget. Wrote about Corb in a previous "So You Want to Learn" installment on Le Corbusier. And I'd argue that his book doesn't explain "the basics"; it explains a position that is theoretical, polemical.

  4. Thanks for the reading suggestions! I'm an architecture novice but would like to apply some of my artistic skills to a new area. I like your "socially responsible" focus. I will definitely be hunting down these books! I'm excited to get readin g!

  5. Out of all these, what's your recommendation for a real estate developer to read to help shape the initial conversation about architecture for multifamily and residential homes?? Thanks.

    1. Pattern Language is most relevant for that, if at all.


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