“As a native-New Yorker, the more I know about New York, the more I marvel at and question the city’s diverse built environments,” says Brooklyn Public Library librarian Valerie Livingston. “Some buildings, even if I never go inside them, have become like members of my family. New York is a tough town and the lives of architects who have managed to build here are filled with struggle, compromise, messy personal drama—as well as soaring achievement. The books I’ve selected here highlight the quest for beauty; creative ambitions mixed with politics and money, and a certain civic-mindedness and idealism that are at play. I’ve tried to include books about the skyline—perhaps the most distinguishing feature of what makes New York, New York—with the city’s parks, what was never built as much as what was, and what is no longer, and some of the individuals behind these stories. There are so many new buildings going up all the time; New York is never finished, always a work-in-progress and I hope some of these books keep the story alive.”
Try your hand at The Brooklyn Public Library’s Book Match service. They’ll team you up with your own personal librarian and a custom list of books to match your tastes!
Beaux Arts New York
by David Garrard Lowe
A delightful tour through the exuberant splendor of the many architectural gems belonging to the style known as Beaux Arts. The book offers a concise narrative with archival photographs, drawings and detailed descriptions chronicling buildings constructed between the 1880s through the First World War when Paris’s Ecole de Beaux Arts was the center for aspiring American designers. Many of the buildings embraced Renaissance and the Baroque styles and this period produced The Plaza Hotel, Grand Central Station and The Brooklyn Museum, and one of my personal favorites, the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in Lower Manhattan. The book brings together some of the inimitable design elements evident in Beaux Arts theaters, apartments, libraries and urban monuments. So many of these buildings have not survived, but in reading this lovely and accessible book, they live on in the imagination.
Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York
by Paul Goldberger
Published in 2004, this is a bewilderingly lucid account of the first few years of architectural designs after the attacks of 9/11. It includes the story of Daniel Libeskind and his winning proposal, along with the other architects who were all competing for a place in the skyline. We are privy to the urban planning, commercial interests, power brokers and public debate, with regards to the sixteen acres of land on which the Twin Towers once stood. The book offers many unique insights, including glimpses into what would become the exorbitantly expensive Ground Zero transit station designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. How to memorialize and how or whether to rebuild: this book bears the imprint of that moment and the keen intelligence of New Yorker architectural critic Goldberger shines through as he reflects upon what had been and what could emerge and the individuals involved in the imagining and the decision-making.
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City
by Neal Bascomb
This is the story of the two signature skyscrapers of Manhattan. It was a race to build the tallest building in the world and initially began between William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building, and Craig Severance’s Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street; and then in waltzed the Empire State Building. It’s so New York! The book entertainingly weaves together the feats of engineering with the colorful characters taking part in this sprint to be the highest, in a way that might shift the way you see the skyline.
Art Deco Architecture in New York: 1920-1940
by Don Vlack
Who doesn’t love a good gargoyle? And did you know that the calla lily and the gladiolus are the most common Deco floral motifs? Art Deco marked a period of intense building in NY between the World Wars: it was ornamental and it was widespread. This book traces the origins of the style and the New York examples of it: offices, apartment buildings, schools, theaters and hospitals, its varied materials and how this style fits into the ever-changing architectural landscape in New York.
For a time Philip Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright co-existed on the architectural scene. Though Johnson’s work was never quite the equal of Wright’s contemplative genius – both were exemplars of the Modern. In New York we have the supreme work of art that is the Guggenheim Museum and we have the sleekly elegant Seagram building which Philip Johnson helped Mies Van Der Rohe to build. Wright and Johnson had disdain for one another and yet still in many respects admired and urged forward the other’s work. In Hugh Howard’s dual portrait, we encounter a corner where the two lives overlapped.
They were the go-to architectural firm of 19th Century New York. Responsible for treasures like the New York Public Library, the tragically demolished old Penn Station, private clubs and houses for the rich, insurance buildings, churches and the triumphal arch at Washington Square. Each of the three partners served the firm in a specific way and together they brought distinct elements of the architecture of Europe to buildings that would become indelibly American. The affair between lead designer Stanford White and the beautiful showgirl Evelyn Nesbit which resulted in White’s murder by her husband, and the scandalous trial that ensued, remains a fascinating snapshot of the era and marked the end of the firm’s prolific partnership.
You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn
by Wendy Lesser
Across the river from the United Nations, at the tip of Roosevelt Island, is an intimate and beautiful space called the FDR Four Freedoms Park. It was the only thing designed by visionary architect Louis Kahn in New York, and built almost 40 years after his death. For Kahn it was an example of what he termed “the room” – an essential element of architecture – while also being like the prow of “the boat” that is the island. This biography draws on new interviews with colleagues and family – he was married to one woman, while he maintained simultaneous relationships with two other women, fathering children with all three. Author and cultural critic Wendy Lesser brings an original perspective on the shape and feel and significance of Kahn’s creative output, exploring his National Assembly in Bangladesh, for example, and considers Kahn’s work in the context of what it means to be a “public architect.”
Never Built New York
by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell
This book is like the Ghost of Christmas Future of architecture books. A vivid rendering of buildings that were proposed for New York but never found their way from drawing board to actuality. Many are magnificent, like Daniel Libeskind’s tower of terraced gardens at Madison Square Park. Yet some come across as being potentially disastrous for the city, like the paisley park of formal French gardens that was proposed for Central Park or Marcel Breuer’s design of a tower over Grand Central. There is plenty of might-have-been awesomeness in this book, but oddly enough, some of the pleasure of poring over these glossy pages, and imagining the city altered in different ways, is simply appreciating what is.
Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas
by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
If you love quirky and cool maps, this beautifully designed “guide book” to New York City offers maps galore and essays written by its die-hard residents: writers, artists, cartographers and data-crunchers. This is an atlas that creatively shows New York City broken down in various ways and doesn’t shy away from some of the uglier and crueler aspects of the city. The maps are accompanied by essays discussing the history of a specific sliver of cultural life. The Wu-Tang Clan’s Staten Island as the “Mysterious Land of Shaolin” map is accompanied by an interview with RZA. Another chapter maps “Singing the City” with its long list of New York songs, and there is also “Carboniferous: Climate Change in the City” to warn and prepare. Less about architecture per se, and more an idiosyncratic work of city planning/conjuring, this “atlas” without a doubt encourages various pilgrimages.
Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture
by John Hill
Triggering actual walking as much as armchair traveling, with this book Architect John Hill has considered the numerous buildings constructed throughout the five boroughs during the real estate boom of the first decade of the 21st Century. There was a lot of mediocrity: so many glass buildings. However, there are some real jewels, too. Fit for carrying around in your bag as you walk or bike along, Hill’s book includes illuminating photography and architectural observations that make for compulsive reading and trip-planning. From Jean Nouvel’s apartments, Zucotti Park, the Bronx Museum of Art and the “green” architecture of the Hearst Building, there is a lot to check out in the work of starchitects and newbies alike.
Prospect Park: Olmsted & Vaux ‘s Brooklyn Masterpiece
by David P. Colley
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux need no introduction: they invented landscape architecture in America. There are several reasons why they considered Prospect Park their true masterpiece over Central Park. Colley’s book is a broad mixture of historical narrative, archival materials and new photographic portraits of various corners of the park. He doesn’t overstate the comparison between the two parks but illustrates how exceptional, for example, is the way that water flows in Prospect Park.
Valerie Livingston is a librarian at the Flatbush Library where she leads a weekly creative writing group at the library’s Caribbean Literary and Cultural Center. A lifelong cinephile, bibliophile, Francophile and ocean lover, her favorite piece of New York architecture is the Chrysler Building.