The Best Illustrated Architecture Books: An Interview with John Hill

Courtesy of Prestel Publishing

The cover of John Hill's new book, Buildings in Print.

Today we’re talking with John Hill, author of the elegant new book, Buildings in Print: 100 Influential & Inspiring Illustrated Architecture Books (Prestel, 2021). This the seventh book by the influential architecture blogger (see: A Weekly Dose of Architecture Books), and in it Hill delivers a visual tour through 100 groundbreaking architecture books. It’s very book-collector adjacent, particularly if you’re also an architecture buff, so I asked Hill to tell us more about it.

RB: What was the impetus or inspiration for this book, and what were the parameters for inclusion?

JH: Buildings in Print is a visual survey of one hundred important architecture books starting with Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture—first published in 1923 and then translated into English, as Towards a New Architecture, in 1927—and extending close to the present. It features short descriptions of the books across nine thematic chapters (monographs, education, history, etc.), accompanied by photographs of their covers and selected interior spreads. Basically, I wanted to draw attention to the ways architects have used words and images to present buildings and make arguments about how buildings should be designed, and I also wanted to argue for the continued relevance of printed books in our digital age.
    In terms of inspiration, a few years before making Buildings in Print I came across a book called Bibliographic, in which author and graphic designer Jason Godfrey presented 100 classic books on graphic design. It’s a colorful book that traces the history of modern graphic design through notable monographs and books on typography and other aspects of graphic design. I figured such a book already existed for architecture books, but not finding one I pitched the idea to my editor at Prestel, who was excited about doing a similar book focused on seminal architecture books.
    The books I selected had to, first and foremost, be illustrated, since I photographed them and provided captions about the covers and spreads. Second, I wanted to include books that were influential on the education and practice of architects, hence starting with Le Corbusier, whose Towards a New Architecture is arguably the most influential architecture book in modern times. Third, I wanted books that inspire architects and future architects through their presentations of words and images, since architects are very visual people.

RB: It seems like a perfect guide for anyone eager to start a collection of architecture books. Do you collect?

JH: I would love it if people used Buildings in Print as a guide for assembling their own libraries of architecture books. Accordingly, I included many books that are easy to find and can be bought for reasonable prices, though some of the 100 books are quite rare. For me, many of the selected books were already in my own personal library when I started writing, but making the book gave me the opportunity to look beyond titles I was familiar with and grow my collection in the process. That’s one reason I included some “Top 10” lists from architects, critics, and educators as sidebars in my book: they helped me consider books I was not aware of.
    Since graduating from architecture school 25 years ago, I’ve amassed many architecture books, a good number of them from reviews on my book blog. But the process of writing Buildings in Print also pushed me to condense my library so it is much more about quality over quantity—a must living in a small NYC apartment! Since my book came out, I’ve been finding hardcover first editions of paperback editions that were already in my library, for instance, and gravitating to rare books I come across online and in used bookstores. Building my library is an ongoing process that I love working on.

Courtesy of John Hill

The Manhattan Transcripts by Bernard Tschumi, first published in 1981.

RB: Can you tell us about a favorite (or two) from your collection?

JH: Two books that impacted my development as an architect and someone who writes about architecture come to mind. The one that’s in Buildings in Print is The Manhattan Transcripts by Bernard Tschumi, first published in 1981 and then expanded a decade later. Originally a series of gallery shows, the book uses illustrations that are more cinematic than architectural to argue for the divorcing of function from form, upending Louis Sullivan's famous dictum that "form ever follows function." The book's arguments and innovative methods of notation have influenced many architects since, myself included.
     The second book, which isn’t in Buildings in Print because it doesn’t have any illustrations, is File Under Architecture by Herbert Muschamp, published by MIT Press in 1974. I read the book—an enthusiastic, freewheeling critique of architecture from the future New York Times architecture critic—after checking it out at the public library during my senior year in high school (I've since found a copy for my library). The book's unique design, with corrugated cardboard covers, yellow-taped spine, brown paper, and Courier font, is what led me to pull it off the shelf and check it out, but it was Muschamp's words that entranced me. While the book didn't single-handedly push me to go to architecture school, it definitely played a part in getting me interested in writing about architecture.

RB: What is the “holy grail” of illustrated architecture books?

JH: Alvin Boyarsky, head of the Architectural Association in London from 1971 until his death in 1990, put out a number of publication series that served to promote the efforts of the school but also, more importantly, made publishing an integral part of architecture. None are more desirable than the “Folio” series, which consisted of fourteen boxed sets, each with around two-dozen, 12-inch-square loose prints of drawings by an architect exhibiting at the school. Though not bound, these catalogs—as much art as architecture and suitable for framing—are extremely rare and expensive, especially those by architects who would eventually gain international fame, including Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Peter Eisenman.
    For bound architecture books, one such “holy grail” is the monograph on Swiss architect Peter Zumthor published by Lars Müller in 1998. Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings and Projects 1979–1997 features black linen-wrapped boards without a dust jacket, primarily black-and-white photographs by Hélène Binet, and drawings and brief descriptions by the architect—a minimalist expression aligned with Zumthor’s minimalist designs. Many books on Zumthor have been published since, but they have not satiated the desire of architects to get ahold of this early book, one that, unlike the AA Folios, has a cherished place on my bookshelf.