If you haven’t read any Herbert Muschamp (the late architecture critic of the New York Times and elsewhere) consider it. And Jane Jacobs, too. And Lewis Mumford. These are a few of the best writers on urbanism this nation has ever produced. Through their assessments of cities, buildings, and landscapes they illuminate not only the stories behind specific works, but also the broader context. They ask big questions. What does design mean? Why does design matter? How can we see our surroundings more vividly.
So they’re great reads for design professionals—part of the canon, if you will, beside Design With Nature and Gardens Are for People. But don‘t necessarily rush out and buy Muschamp’s collected works, or Jacobs’s Death and Life. Instead buy this book: Writing About Architecture by Alexandra Lange. Lange, who blogs for Design Observer and teaches at NYU, has collected six critical essays ranging across about a hundred years of American design history. Joining the three mentioned above are Michael Sorkin, Charles W. Moore, and Frederick Law Olmsted (who was a journalist before plunking some little park down in Manhattan).
These six masterworks alone would be worth the price of admission, but Lange accompanies each with a stunning essays of her own. The purpose of the book, as she puts it in the introduction, is to educate a new wave of citizen critics “equipped with the desire and the vocabulary to remake the city.” To that end, she takes apart each essay (referencing others on the same subject) and tries to discover why the piece works and how we might apply those lessons—to our writing, yes, but more importantly to our seeing.
The book grew from Lange’s architecture criticism classes, so each chapter also includes a few simple exercises. This is hardly a textbook, however. It is an historical slideshow of excellent design writing coupled with fun and enlightening critiques of the criticism. There is nothing out there like this book. It seems a specialized subject, but think of it not as a primer on actually writing design criticism, but on understanding design. Lange concludes with: “The ability to write about architecture…is relevant to more than criticism.” This book both inspires and teaches the use of the critical eye, a useful tool for any designer.
by Alexandra Lange
ISBN 978-1-61689-053-7Published in