Are you looking to get a degree in architecture? Or have you recently graduated and feeling the disassociation from studio life (all about you and your ideas) and starting at the bottom of work life? Once in a while I get questions from people like you asking for advice and recommended reading. After responding to a hopeful architect on Dwell.com I decided to flesh out my answer and include more books.
Here is a list for you, broken down into categories. Naturally there is some overlap and some of these books could fit in multiple headings, this is architecture after all. I recommend getting a balanced reading from each of the categories, even if your current interest is learning about only one. Your future in architecture depends on your ability to learn and UN-learn – letting go of how things are and imagining new possibilities. Read on.
There is a reason I am starting here and not with design. Being a successful architect takes more than creating a wonderful idea and presenting it to your client. The work involved in setting up your design firm can be overwhelming and 99% of it was never taught to you in school. If you take away one thing here, let it be this: How you start is how you go. Now start on the right foot.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey – This is a universally loved book by people in every field. It is no surprise why. One great takeaway from this book that you can put into immediate action is his Time Management Matrix. Do you find yourself spending all your time on urgent and important matters? That is a result of neglecting not urgent and important work, which could have saved you. Learn and avoid repeating these mistakes.
I once had a phone call with an architecture student asking for advice. I was telling her something about carving her own path and her response led me to believe it wasn’t sinking in – instead of understanding that I was telling her to find her compass (an inner centering that guides you in ANY situation), as Stephen Covey would say, she thought I was giving her a map (directions for a particular situation). Perhaps I should have given her this book instead?
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber – Consider this essential reading. Most creative people will shirk at this book thinking that automation is a dirty word that removes creativity…wrong! It enables you to have the time and mental space to be MORE creative, since you are spending less time with the monotonous tasks. Take this book to heart and read it over and over till the lessons sink in. You have to work ON your business, not just IN your business.
How to Build and Maintain a Strong Client Base for Your A/E Firm by PSMJ – Several years ago I met PSMJ founder Frank Stasiowski at an AIA conference after he gave a presentation. I had never heard of PSMJ before then, but I am glad I did. They put out many publications and business resources specifically made for architects and engineers. This book is one of my favorites as it touches upon all reaches of a design practice and how to make your unique firm the best it can be. Side note, I emailed PSMJ with a question after buying one of their earlier books and soon after they set up a phone call with Frank to answer my question. Pretty remarkable service!
Architect + Entrepreneur: A Field Guide to Building, Branding, and Marketing Your Startup Design Business by Eric Reinholdt – I have many books on how to run an architecture business but chose this one in particular because it is up to date on contemporary marketing strategies. Eric Reinholdt is also a believer in the importance of systematizing your business, which I can’t stress enough.
The Interior Design Productivity Toolbox: Checklists and Best Practices to Manage Your Workflow by Phyllis Harbinger Once you read the e-myth you’ll understand this pick. There are infinite ways of “being an architect” and each firm runs its own way. That said, systematizing and automating your routine tasks is the number one way to freedom, clarity, organization, and more time and headspace for the fun stuff. It will also make your projects go smoother and who doesn’t want that? Enter the Id toolkit, which contains around fifty checklists for processes ranging from meetings and onboarding prospective clients to lists for designing wine cellars and home spas. This book is worth more than it’s weight in gold. It’s written and targeted to interior designers, but the vast majority of it applies to architects’ work too. Bonus, all the checklists are downloadable word files via a password in the book. This is the best immediately actionable book I can recommend for day to day design work operations.
Theory + Design Process
This would have been my favorite section when I was an architecture student.
Architecture and Disjunction by Bernard Tschumi – This is by far my most marked up, underlined, and starred architecture book. If you are feeling stuck this is the book to shake you up. In a way, it is a book of questions; questioning why things are the way they are, posing questions for the reader to ponder. His ten page chapter, “Questions of Space” reads like a trippy barrage that takes you from a room to outer space to consciousness, linguistics, and politics. And you thought architecture was just a floor plan.
Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier – One of my first architecture books. When it comes to “un-learning”, which I think is essential to becoming an architect, this book should be at the top of the pile. Corbu was living through the changes of the Machine Age and was drawn to the naked truth of machine design. He wanted to create architecture that was as truthful to its use as a machine is to its use. A classic that should be on every architect’s shelf.
Thinking Architecture by Peter Zumthor – Thinking architecture is a collection of essays and lectures that Zumthor gave, it feels like an intimate conversation. This book feels like fragments of a Tarkovsky movie, except you don’t need the attention span of a saint to follow. When you are in the weeds of construction documents, RFI’s, AFP’s, and need a mind refresher, pick up Thinking Architecture.
Tadao Ando Conversations With Students by Tadao Ando – Ando has always been one of my favorite architects since I “discovered” him at my undergrad architecture school library. His designs are so calm and clean that I expected a calm demeanor, but it was the opposite. Ando expressed a tenacity and persistence and explained in this book how that tenacity is essential in realizing your dreams. With some years under my belt, I’ve learned to understand this. It takes a strong willfulness to achieve that calm; otherwise it would be washed away by all the “necessities” of building and, to put it bluntly, corner cutting that could ensue with a less vigilant architect at the help. In a more unorthodox moment of vigilance, he punched a construction worker for throwing a cigarette into a concrete mix. Whatever it takes! I open this book whenever I need this kind of medicine.
S,M,L,XL by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau – This was a monumental, ground shifting book when it came out in 1995. Before then, architecture books were mainly stiff “portfolios” or theoretical treatises. The landscape is different now, see KM3 by MVRDV and more recently, Yes is More by Bjarke Ingels for example. This reads as a maniacal heart racing ride-along with renegade architects on the run. Diary entries, unashamed messy models and sketches, a dictionary running throughout the book in the margin, and construction photos all work together in a novel way to give the reader a front row seat in a fast moving and high profile architecture firm. Just get it and enjoy the ride. S,M,L,XL is one architecture book that could go in any category; because of the unique insight during the design process I put it here.
Informal by Cecil Balmond – I went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Architecture program for my master’s degree in no small part because Cecil Balmond was teaching there. At the time he was leading Arup, one of the largest engineering firms in the world, and the hands on collaborator with many famous architects, namely Rem Koolhaas, Alvaro Siza, Shigeru Ban, and Daniel Libeskind, to name very few. Informal is a unique companion book to S,M,L,XL in that Balmond was a frequent collaborator with Koolhaas, so you can get a glimpse of the same projects through a different lens. You follow a project and see the discarded ideas along the way. Seeing the design thinking from the engineer’s point of view who isn’t shackled by the obvious solution but the best one is a treat. Lest any architect think that all structural engineers are just calculators, show them Informal.
Architecture Workbook: Design Through Motive by Sir Peter Cook – Peter Cook was a main member of the neofuturist architecture group, “Archigram” in the 1960’s. He is basically an architecture superstar before “starchitects” existed. The Archigram projects were so out of this world you could call them instigations more than projects. Fortunately for us, he didn’t “grow out of this phase” and his built work is as exciting as his early sketches, see Kunsthaus Graz in Vienna for example. This book is divided into different motives, such as “Architecture as Theater” and “Can We Learn From Silliness?”. The former chapter includes a thorough analysis of food kiosks across Europe. Sir Cook’s writing reads as clear and conversation theory that is fun and engaging.
When you start working in an architecture firm and are tasked with drawing part of a building in design, you will invariably get stuck and have to look around the office for advice. In many firms, there is a technical “guru” who will be the go-to. You will find yourself asking what you think is a simple question, only to get an thirty minute answer that is the culmination of a life working in the field. Do not let your iPhone attention span ruin this teaching moment. If you are lucky enough to work with someone like this, ask them many questions! In the meantime, here are a couple easy to understand technical books to help you get started.
Building Construction Illustrated by Francis Ching – the gold standard for simple to understand yet buildable diagrams. Clear and discrete details in varying situations with explanations, what more could you ask for?
Graphic Guide to Frame Construction by Rob Thallon – If you find yourself working on wood frame construction, this is an excellent starter book to help you understand how framing works and how to start detailing under many different conditions. When you know how carpenters frame, you set yourself up for success because you can speak their language. It will also help you when you are creating unusual designs, because you will understand WHY typical details are the way they are. When you understand the rules on this level, it makes breaking the rules that much easier.
Even through a translator, the funniest architecture lecture I ever experienced was Tadao Ando’s talk at Cooper Union. Before the talk I got him to sign his book, Ando: Complete Works 1975-2014. His signature is a sketch of one of my favorite Ando works, the Church of The Light.
This list tripled from what I originally thought it would be. Hopefully this list helps inspire, educate, and set you on your way to a life of learning and UN-learning.
Question: What are the top 3 books you would recommend to a future architect?
Originally published at AndrewMikhael.com, this article was written by Andrew Mikhael, owner and architect at Andrew Mikhael Architect.
Andrew Mikhael is an architect focused on creating a luxury that is measured by the senses. He believes in the power of relationships. The success of every architectural project comes down to relationships. The relationship of one space to another, of one material to another, and most importantly, the relationships between people. Andrew works one on one with his clients to create spaces of calm and delight.
Andrew holds a Master’s of Architecture: Post Professional degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor’s of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is a licensed architect registered in New York and New Jersey. Andrew and his wife live in New York City. He is an active member of New York City Ballet’s Young Patron’s Circle and is constantly inspired and refreshed at performances throughout the city.
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