Rereading the Nineties

Some of the references consulted during the research phase of my 2021 book Buildings in Print: 100 Influential & Inspiring Illustrated Architecture Books, but not mentioned in the book's "selected bibliography," were old catalogs from the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, the beloved and still sorely missed architecture bookstore that first opened, appropriately, on Prairie Avenue on Chicago's Near South Side in 1974 and closed in 2009 in a grand two-story space on Wabash Avenue across from Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building. In between, the bookshop was located on South Dearborn Street in — again, appropriately enough — Printer's Row, when, according to the bookstore's own website (browsable via Wayback Machine), "the catalog for the bookshop grew into a tour de force of architectural bibliography, ultimately becoming the intellectual touchstone for professional architects and interested laypeople throughout the world" (my emphasis).

Those in-between years on Dearborn were when I made my first visits to Prairie Avenue Bookshop. I don't remember when my very first visit happened, but it was some time in the early 1990s, before proprietors Marilyn and Wilbert Hasbrouck moved the shop to the considerably larger space at 418 South Wabash ca. 1995. In my decade working as an architect in Chicago, from 1997, after graduating from architecture school, to 2006, when I left for grad school in New York City, I made many, many — many — trips to Prairie Avenue Bookshop, spending too much money there but always feeling when I walked out the door that I could have easily spent much, much more. Needless to say, Prairie Avenue Bookshop helped define the architecture-book side of the 1990s for me — both as a student and as a young architect.
When it came time to research and write Buildings in Print, I kicked myself for not keeping the old "tour de force" catalogs from Prairie Avenue. (Luckily, certain issues can be bought online, which I ended up doing a few times.) Although my survey of one hundred architecture books spans nearly a century, from the 1920s to the 2010s, and therefore is hardly restricted to the 1990s, when it came time to determine what books to include from my formative decade, Prairie Avenue was at the top of the list, just above Design Book Review, "the preeminent journal dedicated to reviewing architecture and design books in the United States" that was as valuable for its exhaustive coverage of books from much of the 1980s as well.

Flipping through the Prairie Avenue catalogs all these years later transports me mentally to their long-gone bricks-and-mortar locations but also, less personally, reveals the value judgments made by the store's proprietors and booksellers: which thousands of books from the thousands more books in stock to feature;  how to categorize and index the many pages of books; which drawings to include alongside the lists of books; and what descriptions to add about which titles ("We can't read them all," one of the catalogs proclaimed). Over time — at least between the 1993/94 catalog shown above and the catalog from 1999/2000 below — advertisements from publishers were added to the mix of words and images, most of them featuring covers and/or photos from new and forthcoming books; even with ads it still read like a catalog rather than a magazine. Their judgments, for the most part, were spot-on and prescient, if infrequent: John Hejduk's 1985 Mask of Medusa, now going for hundreds of dollars (cover price: $40), was "excellent"; Edward Ford's The Details of Modern Architecture was "superb"; and they were the only store that carried the Art Vandelay monograph, Buildings About Nothing. (Is that last one real? Take a look.)
From the early nineties to the end of the decade, the catalog doubled in page count and, given the small types and shorter descriptions, more than doubled in the number of books included (catalog #23 lists 5,000 titles in its 192 pages). But accompanying that growth was a shift to the internet and the listing of even more books on their website than the catalog pages could allow. Websites are obviously more flexible than printed matter, and one additional feature on the website was a bestseller list that could be updated fairly regularly and as needed. Those lists can still be seen, thanks to's Wayback Machine. Near the end of 1999, the Prairie Avenue Bookshop's four bestsellers were (links point to Amazon, not the old website, but cover prices are from the latter):
It's best to not read too much into this list, but two pairs jump out to me. The first two books are slim, inexpensive books on architects that I would label "architects' architects" (the first book scan be read online and the second, I contend, is a decent, still-affordable alternative to Robert Ivy's scarce monograph on Jones). They are followed by two relatively expensive monographs (cheap by the cover prices of today's monographs though) that combine architecture and urban projects with writings on buildings and cities. The latter are more indicative of the 1990s as a whole, a decade that saw the elevation of theory — the kind that looked to philosophy and other fields outside of architecture — within architectural discourse, to the consternation of many and the relief of nearly all when it subsided around the end of the decade. The integration of theory and criticism into monographs like Allen's and MVRDV's can be ascribed largely to Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau's S,M,L,XL, the large OMA monograph from 1995 whose influence still reverberates. (Its popularity not long after its release meant people ordering it from the Prairie Avenue print catalog were directed to "please phone for availability.")

Theory was entrenched well before the OMA tome, well before the decade it fell in the middle of. In the article linked in the preceding paragraph, Paulette Singley states, correctly I think, "If the 1990s began in 1988 with MoMA’s Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition, they died with the closing of the critical journal of architecture Assemblage, whose forty-one issues spanned from 1986 to 2000." The catalog to the first (PDF link), in typical MoMA fashion, put a dense text, by theoretician and co-curator Mark Wigley (two years earlier he had earned his PhD with a dissertation titled "The Deconstructive Possibilities of Architectural Discourse"), alongside a presentation of projects by architects selected by co-curator Philip Johnson, who did a similar thing in 1932 with the Modern Architecture exhibition alongside Henry-Russell Hitchcock. To put it simply, theory was used in the service of new architectural forms: white walls and pilotis in the 1930s, angled walls and splayed columns in the nineties. The same theoretical/formal dichotomy is evident in other publications around the time of the MoMA exhibition, namely Aaron Betsky's Violated Perfection (Rizzoli, 1990) and numerous issues of Architectural Design put out by Andreas Papadakis.

Am I suggesting that now, a quarter century into the millennium, when the pendulum has swung from formal and spatial considerations to environmental, social and other issues, that people dive into the Deconstructivist Architecture catalog, Violated Perfection, the AD issues devoted to Deconstruction, and other titles indicative of the nineties? Not necessarily (though I have a lot of those books and like to dip into them every now and then, for sentimental reasons as much as occasional practical ones); anyways, Joseph Giovannini did just that in his 2021 book, Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Disruptive Avant-Garde, so you don't have to, as the saying goes. I'm not advocating a blanket write-off of the decade either, nor a dismissal of the abstruse writings that littered architecture libraries in those years. Rather, as someone who believes it is important to know history, and who also sides with the idea of society as cyclical rather than linear, I think it's valuable to know where to look, book-wise, when it comes to understanding the nineties. Below are some recommendations: twenty books in a handful of categories, made with the assistance of the Prairie Avenue Bookshop catalogs, my own book-obsessed brain and personal library, Buildings in Print (including the sidebar lists generously contributed by architects and critics), and the reading list already on my blog. Since this "dose" has gotten a bit long, the list is provided without commentary — as an impetus for those unfamiliar with the decade to dive in.