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What is Home? 10 Books on Architecture for Non-Architects

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Before the pandemic trapped me in my apartment, I liked looking at houses. I wouldn’t call it a passion for architecture by any means. In practice, it was just me absorbing HGTV from the gym TV while running on the elliptical. This turned into an obsession with scrolling through pictures of homes on Instagram. I wasn’t in the market, but I couldn’t stop looking at houses. When the gyms closed, I started running outside. That came with a harsh discovery that I had no vocabulary for architecture. In New Orleans, you hear about Creole cottages and shotgun houses. But what were those window things called? I realized what I’d been looking at was real estate, and what I wanted to know about was architecture. This breakthrough arrived at a pivotal time. I dove into my new interest in architecture with a frenzy fueled by anxiety about e v e r y t h i n g. Finding the best books was overwhelming. Search results turned up thousands of results from technical to coffee table. Here is a wide-ranging list of the standout books about architecture I came across, from children’s books to philosophy. 

Fiction and Nonfiction Books About Architecture

A Visual Dictionary of Architecture by Francis D.K. Ching

Francis D.K. Ching’s books are a staple on architecture school syllabi. That said, this book is not just for students. It’s a gorgeous reference book that covers over 5,000 terms, valuable to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the buildings that surround them. This book is why I can now point to those window things and call them roof dormers—a personal victory.

A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester

If you check out Zillow listings for fun, McAlester’s book will teach you the history behind those haunted Gothic Revivals. This book is an accessible introduction for anyone, with a specific focus on American homes. Reading it felt like a field guide. Afterward, I wanted to walk around new neighborhoods to hunt edifices. 

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt 

True, this isn’t an architecture book proper. It’s on the list because if learning about the hidden knowledge of buildings made you want to seek out more hidden knowledge on the municipality around you, then this is perfect for you. Yes, The 99% Invisible City is in the spirit of the podcast. No, it’s not simply a podcast bound up into a thing with pages. Think of it as being in the genre of those almanacs full of illustrations and fun facts you loved so much as a kid. Adults deserve to be overwhelmed by weird facts and wonder, too.

Writing About Architecture by Alexandra Lange 

Books of criticism bring to mind the character Tom in the movie Metropolitan. He infamously said: “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.” It’s an enraging line, but I gotta admit that I love this scheme of absorbing double the thinking. Lange introduces writing that looks at the biggest names in 20th century architecture. Read this if you’re interested in the cultural history of architecture and enjoy the reward of an in-depth essay.

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak 

If that Tom from Metropolitan quote made you want to double down on reading novels, may I suggest novels with characters who are architects? This pick is lesser-known than Where’d You Go Bernadette but just as delightful. Historical fiction with adventure in the Ottoman Empire? Um, yes, please. 

Yes is More by Bjarke Ingles 

That’s right, a full-on graphic novel about the Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingles Group. This book contains so many revelations on method, concept, and what it means to be avant-garde in architecture today. Read if you’re looking for an inside look at how an innovative architecture group makes it happen.

Zaha Hadid by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Asun Amar

Being a parent means getting to show your babies the coolest things. Here’s a children’s book that is an absolutely adorable way to teach your kids about the brilliant architect Zaha Hadid. 

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

Remember this book getting referenced, repeatedly, in the movie 500 Days of Summer? No? Just me? Okay. Part philosophy, part sociology, part architecture 101, there’s nothing else like this book. Fans should look out for de Botton’s forthcoming children’s book on architecture, What Adults Don’t Know About Architecture, due out in May 2021.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

No, this is not an architecture book. It’s on this list because if I’ve learned one thing from studying architecture, it’s that architecture isn’t just about the house itself. It’s about the environments we create and the lives that play out within those spaces. The House on Mango Street does exactly that. Even if you’ve already read Cisneros’s classic novel in vignettes, it’s worth revisiting. This book is beloved by readers of all ages, but keep in mind the content warning for abuse, racism, and sexual assault. 

The Rent Trap by Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker

So, maybe 2020 caught up with you while you were walking around, looking at architecture, and you remembered there was no rent relief in this pandemic. The Rent Trap is specifically about the reality of renting in the UK, but it’s an insightful look at how deregulation and political corruption happens worldwide, with damaging effects on everyday people. It’s not a lighthearted read, but it does offer up ideas on how we can make changes.

From HGTV to Planning a Better World?

Mindlessly gazing at houses turned into educating myself on architecture. That turned into a passion for urban planning guided by the question: How we can make better homes and societies to live within?

Note: This list is by no means comprehensive. Additionally, it slants towards western architecture. Architecture (like nearly everything else) has a diversity problem. For more info, check out Curbed for stories about why race matters in architecture. If you’re craving more on urban planning, we’ve got you covered.

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