The bookshelf: architecture

Author: Jane Devine

“Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.” These words by French priest Ernest Dimnet in his 1932 book What We Live By invite us to consider the place of architecture in our own lives and how it defines the spaces in which we live, work, study, worship, meet our fellow citizens and entertain ourselves. We often have strong emotions and opinions about these places, expressed, for example, by attachment to the family home or our affection for certain streets. As we move through life, architecture creates the setting for each stage of our passage, from the grade school where we start our education to the place where we eventually retire. Books are one way of contemplating and sometimes recapturing those significant places. With words and images, they prompt us to consider the pervasive presence of architecture in our lives and to recognize the architect’s role in creating the stage for our experiences.

The Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) by Akiko Busch of Metropolis Magazine, gathers a series of essays on the parts of a house. Starting with her old New England farmhouse, Busch roams the landscape of domestic life, from front porch to kitchen, astutely observing each room’s particular history and identity.

Best-selling author Sarah Susanka wrote Creating the Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 2000) for “people who are eager for an alternative to the bigger-is-better approach to home design.” She focuses on 25 projects that demonstrate the principles of quality, substance and beauty. Styles range from traditional southern to New Mexican adobe, with modern floor plans to suit the needs of contemporary homeowners. Beautiful color photographs illustrate the interior and exterior of each house, showing how less can be just as satisfying as more.

Who can build a home without an architect, a budget or even construction materials? In Fragile Dwelling (Aperture, 2000), Margaret Morton presents a poignant collection of photographs and interviews with homeless New Yorkers who create their shelters out of scavenged debris. Although these homes last only a brief while, their inhabitants have the same desire to design and ornament their dwellings as conventional residents.

In City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (Scribner, 1995), urbanism professor Witold Rybczynski offers an engaging review of how North American cities evolved and the forces that have shaped them. From colonial settlements to suburbia, he explores the character of urban life on the cusp of this new century, noting that, regardless of architects and planners, “[T]he city of the future, whatever form it takes, will depend on the goodwill of its citizens for its well-being.”

Round Buildings, Square Buildings & Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish (Knopf, 1988) by Philip M. Isaacson is a wonderful book to share with children who are curious about architecture. The author’s infectious enthusiasm for understanding how and why buildings are made takes us on a fascinating journey from the ancient world to the present day.

Jane Devine is the University Libraries’ Architecture and Art Librarian and the editor of 100 Years of Architecture at Notre Dame: A History of the School of Architecture 1898-1998.