A Short Guide To
Architectural Guidebooks

aia1 cover

The Motherlode

Relative to its early ilk, this is the American architectural guide which decisively broke from the pack, to attempt something which in scale and scope all but matched the Pevsner guides, but in a quite distinctly independent spirit --and it remains what a small circle of mine whimsically calls, "the Bible". Born in a whirlwind in preparation for the 1967 NYC AIA convention, under the editorship of Norval White and Elliot Willensky, it was, like the Pevsners, a monumental act of self-reflection; a phoenix from the ashes of Penn Station, the near-ashes of Soho and Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village, when architects and connoisseurs were spurred into beholding their surroundings with new, wide-ranging eyes. Typically, the early "Doric" American architectural guide was a stolid procession of single "prima donna" entries, usually sparing in content, accompanied by splashy page-dominating photos; the underrated "Ionic" New Haven/Cambridge model, meanwhile followed an even, logical, Brahmin matrix of capsule photos accompanied by capsule entries, one photo per entry. Next to this, AIA-NYC was all "Corinthian" flamboyance, as polyglot as the city it covered, an ecstatic horror vacuii of entries with random photos and illustrations tossed in as happy-go-lucky punctuation. (In this light, the decision to not illustrate every entry was critical --not only in liberating the creators to cover as much as they wanted, but in instilling a tempting see-for-yourself "surprise" element for the users.) Offering its idiosyncratic twist on the perambulating Pevsner spirit, AIA-NYC likewise did not arbitrarily discriminate on behalf of the hackneyed "tourist zones"; it covered all five boroughs more or less equally (an ideal situation to keep in mind in light of Toronto's amalgamation). Indeed, I've had fun motor-touring Staten Island with my copy in tow--or, on another non-motor visit, simply getting off the Staten Island Ferry and "perambulating" in what, for most tourists, might be time-wasting terra incognita! (It also may be the only architectural guide where "tourist gestures" like restaurant listings do not detract from or compromise the overall tone.)

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Yet in spite of its sheer density of material, AIA-NYC, with its superior key-entry format, mapping, and integration of text and illustration, was much more user-friendly than the Pevsner series. But best of all was the wry, irreverent, very 60s-New York spirit of the text, with just the right degree of breezy, hide-pricking, absurdity-deflating wit and jaundice and cynicism. Born out of a love of the city at large rather than a mere insulated love for architecture, AIA-NYC might be the most delightful architectural guidebook of them all --although, like the Pevsner guides, it is perhaps a bit too sui generis as a model, as irretrievably New Yorkian as a pastrami washed down with Cel-Ray.
        And much like the Pevsners (but unlike a great many guides, where additions/amendments seem curiously "tacked on" --including, unfortunately, the second edition of Toronto's McHugh), AIA-NYC was a book that grew bigger and better with each subsequent (1978, 1988) edition; as well, it became more of a White & Willensky (whose credits were reversed in 1988, reflective of Willensky's greater profile within the Landmarks Commission and as official Brooklyn historian) "two-man" operation. By 1988 the book was a staggering 1000-page gargantua, and the beloved ever-wryer W&W tone seemed an unwittingly natural fit within an au courant milieu of Spy Magazine waggishness. Unfortunately, Willensky died in 1990; I hear a new edition is promised by Norval White, but his too-jaundiced-for-its-own-good Paris guide of the early 90s may not bode well for the post-Willensky era... [Note to readers: the insulated state I've been in is such that I hadn't noted the new edition just being out when I originally wrote this in fall 2000; see my review...]

aia4 reviewed

Review of 4th edition!


Pevsner and WPA

America: the first wave

AIA Guide to New York City

David Gebhard: America's Pevsner

Goldberger, Banham, and Moore (and more).

Buffalo: Vindication

Chicago: Maturity

The Buildings of the United States series

London + Vienna + Berlin = Cartesian Europe

One Vancouver, many Montréals

Toronto: Opportunity

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