At a size of 5.4 x 6.5 inches, How to Read New York: A Crash Course in Big Apple Architecture by Will Jones (Rizzoli, February 2012, 256 pages) conveniently slips into a purse or travel bag. For those who like to look at buildings while they walk, as opposed to looking down for the latest text message, this handy book helps sort out the complex features of our city's varied built environment. While out on walks I would enjoy consulting the fifth edition of the witty and comprehensive AIA Guide to New York City by White, Willensky, and Leadon (Oxford 2010, 1088 pages) but preferring an easier burden, I will enjoy the lightness of Mr. Jones's crash course.
New York City provides a great feast of historical architectural styles, and we all could brush up on our architectural literacy. The intention of the book is to provide a guide to identifying the key elements of Classical & Colonial, Renaissance, Deco styles, and the various eras of Modern. While the style overviews are at times muddied and anachronistic, the choice of buildings under discussion is fresh and enlightening. Jones gives attention to some of the well-known buildings in Manhattan such as Grand Central Terminal, Chrysler Building, the Flatiron, and the Seagram Building, but he also introduces the reader to places like the John Browne House, a Dutch Colonial house in Queens, and the Valentine-Varian House, a Georgian farmhouse in the Bronx. His inclusion of intriguing Staten Island buildings may have you jumping on the ferry.
A typical entry includes a paragraph on the background of the building, a photograph (of varying quality - some are too dark), and illustrations on specific style features accompanied by short descriptions. For example, we learn that the classical Low Memorial Library on the campus of Columbia University, built in 1895 and designed by the eminent firm of McKim, Mead & White, takes its inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. Inside the reading room, the arched windows show the influence of the Baths of Diocletian. As noted, the library takes the form of a Greek cross. An entry on the modern United Nations Secretariat building anchors the design origins in Le Corbusier's Pavillon Suisse in Paris and the ample outside public space in the same architect's plan for the Ville Radieuse.
While the background information and style guidelines may seem too elementary for some architecture fans, the strength of this "crash course" rests in the detailed information accompanying the small drawings. Here we find the fun stuff such as the Greek satyr candelabrum at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street, the six angels under the cornice of Louis Sullivan's Bayard-Condict Building on Bleecker, the bronze carved allegories on the American Radiator Building, and the true function of the interior water feature of the Hearst Magazine Building (the circulating filtered rainwater regulates the atmosphere). Any book that helps with appreciating the built environment is worth sticking in the pocketbook.