Bigger and glossier doesn't always mean best book

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When you buy books on architecture, it's the big, glossy and expensive picture books that tempt you the most. And it's possible that these make the best gifts, if you're at all inclined to architecture-related giving for the coming holidays.

But, while they may be enjoyable and make a great display on the coffee table, it's important to know that these books are, by far, the least useful way to learn about architecture.

Buildings are often not what they seem in pictures.

Consider Fallingwater, the most famous modern house in the world. The iconic images of Fallingwater are all from below the falls, with the dramatic cantilevered balconies of the house soaring overhead. But that's not, of course, the way you experience that house at all.

As readers who have been there know, you actually first view that house from the other side, and from a path that descends toward the house. You are initially unaware of the falls except for the sound. And that view from below would not normally be experienced by anyone living there.

The simple fact is, you have to experience buildings to understand and evaluate them. The dramatic photos most often used to illustrate architecture will never do the trick alone.

So, in a sort of contrarian pre-holiday spirit, I've compiled a list of books that can help readers better understand how architecture is experienced. Some of these books are very well-illustrated. Some don't have any pictures at all. They enlighten by words alone. They are not necessarily recent, but they are still in print and still easily available online.

• For broad overviews of architecture and planning from a public-interest point of view, I'd recommend just about any book by the late Ada Louise Huxtable, for many years the architecture critic for the New York Times, or by Witold Rybczynski (pronounced rib-chin-ski), an architecture and planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Huxtable, who continued writing until her death this year at 91, was famous for her precise, pithy language and sometimes-stinging criticism. No one else recently has explained the art and trends of architecture as well as she. Huxtable never varied, though, from taking the perspective of her readers: considering what would be pleasing to them, what abhorrent, and how a building is experienced in the public realm. One of her books I like best is “The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered.” Several collections of her critical essays are in print, as well.

Rybczynski is a rarity — an architect and professor who writes in a beautifully engaging style. He can chart for you the history of houses or of cities, taking a long view of humanity's adventures with structures and places. Of his many books, I especially like “City Life,” which documents the artistic, cultural and technological changes that have shaped American cities from Colonial times on.

• For architecture and planning books on Pittsburgh, the bookshelf is rich with possibilities. Indispensible are the two major surveys of local architecture, “Pittsburgh a New Portrait” by Frank Toker, and “Pittsburgh's Landmark Architecture” by Walter Kidney.

Kidney is precise and detailed, while Toker, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, sweeps through a broad catalog of neighborhoods, buildings and people — clients, developers, industrialists and bankers among them — who did the most to build our city. Kidney, who died in 2005, was the longtime historian for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, and the foundation has published posthumously two engaging books that illustrate his thinking about Pittsburgh and architecture, “Life's Riches” and “Beyond the Surface.”

To view Pittsburgh in ways you've never thought about before, try Martin Aurand's book “The Spectator and the Topographical City,” which explores how Pittsburgh and surrounding neighborhoods were shaped by the fact of terrain. Aurand is the architectural librarian and archivist at Carnegie Mellon University.

• If you are involved or about to be involved in an architectural project of your own, then seek out books by Sarah Susanka, but especially “Home by Design.” Susanka is an architect who can explain why a step up or down into a room, or a change in ceiling height from one room to another, or the placing of a window at the end of a hallway can dramatically change the way you feel in your home and the ways you use it. She deals with the techniques that good home architects have always used, but explains them well for non-professionals.

And before you embark on a building project, I recommend you read “How to Work With an Architect” by local architect Gerald Lee Morosco. The title speaks for itself. The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Ed Massery, also a Pittsburgher.

All of these books — far better in most cases than the lavish photo books — will acquaint you well with what architecture is all about.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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