SAH Blog

The Right Textbook

The Right Textbook

Aug 22, 2013

It wouldn't be late August, if I weren't gripped by the annual anxiety that I have chosen the wrong textbook for the imminent architectural survey starting in a few days. The year-long survey (ancient to medieval in the Fall, Renaissance to late modern in the Spring) is a staple of our teaching whether in departments of art, architecture, or art history. This year's anxiety comes with the realization that I have taught a version of this survey continuously for a decade and in a range of public, private, small, and large universities. But I also realize that I have never used the same textbook two years in a row. Every April an inevitable sense of disappointment with the current textbook throws me into a crisis that translates into a different choice for next year's bookstore order. As the new academic year lurks around the corner from summer's pedagogical distance and scholarly satisfaction, the text book choice of April (the cruelest month) comes with a dose of self doubt. My seasonal anxiety was heightened this August after finding a new package in my departmental mailbox, a review copy of Richard Ingersoll's revised Spiro Kostof in World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History (2013).

Teaching architectural history is a complex enterprise with competing narratives, methodological styles, and philosophies. Like our fellow art historians, we face a finite set of options 
(Gardner, Janson, Stokstad) established by publishing houses that contribute to our students' amassing of debt. Based on my own conflicted experiences, this is how I map out the textbook terrain for a general college-level introduction to architecture.

The High Road
. One classic approach to architectural history is to keep it elevated within the realm of high art. Educated in a Warburg School academic genealogy, Marvin Trachtenberg's Architecture: From Prehistory to Postmodernism (1986) was my point of entry. As a specialist in premodern architecture, in particular, I marveled at Trachtenberg's ability to animate the canon with the spirit of the liberal arts and the ideals of high culture. Although serving well advanced art history majors, Trachtenberg proved to become more and more unworkable with a general student pool. David Watkin's History of Western Architecture (1986) is another alternative, but its brevity on ancient architecture always discouraged me from adopting it. Built on the tradition of Nikolaus Pevsner's Outline of European Architecture (1943), the high road proudly asserts that architecture is a cultural expression superior to ordinary building, after all, "a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture." Thanks to the migration of Germany's prominent architectural historian, the high road flourished in the late 20th century, replacing older American models, such as Banister Fletcher's comparative method or the associationist tendencies of Ruskinian aestheticism.

The Social Edge
. For those trained in a more vernacular or anthropological approach, Spiro Kostof's A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (1985) has been an obvious choice. In spite of my scholarly anthropological affinities, I had always found Kostof more difficult to teach, as it failed to essentialize in ways that were expedient and necessary for the art-historical curriculum. Kostof seemed especially weak in Trachtenberg's periodic strengths and my own fields of interest in the Middle Ages. As Robert Ousterhout noted, Kostof's Byzantine chapter is one of the weakest, which is strange considering that he was a native Constantinopolitan. Ingersoll-Kostof's new World Architecture fills me with hope, although sadly the book came too late for this year's choices. Ingersoll has complemented Spirof's "democratic" approach with broad global strokes. Organized under 20 chronological periods that are defined by date alone, rather than by civilization, Ingersoll offers tackles three settings with its period. Although one fears that this might prove too complicated for a teleological schema, Ingersoll opens up the possibilities of selecting one's personal narrative from the 60 case-studies. So it is possible to tell the good old story of Romanesque begetting Gothic, the Renaissance begetting Baroque, etc.

World Architecture
. It has become increasingly difficult to teach western architecture in isolation. Nevertheless, western architecture is a tradition that, if diluted too much, fails to have a disciplinary force. Seeking to satisfy a global breadth, Building Across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture (2008) maintained the canonical western sequence but added substantive sections on Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Michael Fazio, Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse have made the shift from western to global as easy as it can be. I have enjoyed their approach very much, although the non-western chapters struggle to fit with the western story of prominence. Bridging the divide of cultural versus social expression, Fazio, Moffett, and Wodehouse seemed to have succeeded in producing a well illustrated textbook. I would have staid more loyal to the enterprise had the later chapters been as strong as the earlier ones. The last section on late modernism and beyond seems to have disintegrated into a list of options.

Building Language
. What teachers of architectural history confront is an utter illiteracy among the students on how to read visual form in the built environment. Whether western, global, or sociological, the standard textbooks had assumed some kind of foundation in the virtual world. Since the survey of architectural history is commonly the only architecture class that students may take, building a linguistic basis for understanding the constructed world becomes an increasing need. This challenge had already been clear to historians teaching in schools of architecture, where the past offered the linguistic foundation for design. Francis Ching's Architecture: Space, Form, Order (1975), Steen Eiler Rasmussen's Experiencing Architecture (1959), and Christian Norberg-Schultz's Meaning in Western Architecture (1975) have all been wonderful primers to the phenomenology of architecture, but have not made good substitutes to the historian's discipline. Leland Roth's Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning (2007) is the best alternative for an integrative linguistic approach. Roughly a third of this compact book is devoted to the Vitruvian architectural basics (utilitas, firmitas, venustas) before tackling the albeit short chronological sequence. I know that a few other architectural historians invested in "understanding" buildings have abandoned textbooks altogether. Others use Carol Strickland's sparse Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture (2001) that complements with original sources material and hands-on exercises.

Thematic Entanglements
. When the Oxford History of Art series adopted a thematic approach to its textbooks, I was very excited. Dell Upton's Architecture in the United States (1998) truly rocked my world and gave me countless hours of productive discussions in seminars geared to the American scene. Similarly, Barry Bergdoll's European Architecture 1750-1890 (2000) remains my favorite primer to that complicated century-and-a-half of proto-modernity. Unfortunately, the thematic approach is inconsistent in both chronological coverage and quality. Even in times where I have succeeded in weaving a tapestry of thematic readings, the students have become frustrated with the different voices confronting them with every turn. I have found it impossible to string along enough thematic textbooks for an extensive survey. The verdict is not out, of course, but  it seems that the students flounder in a thematic framework because most lack the rudimentary chronological foundation. I find that many students love architectural history because it gives them a primer in the sequential dialectic of cultural and social expression. Their architectural history might be their only college level history and they crave a coherent textbook.

Perhaps I'm restless. Perhaps I expect wonders from a textbook. Perhaps I put too much value to these choices. But I don't find myself alone in lacking confidence when asked, "What is your standard textbook?" Even after ten years of trying, I am still searching for a stable textbook to partner with for the next decade. I need a book whose exorbitant cost I can at least justify to the students in good faith. By testing different books each year, I make my job harder, needing new images, new dates (which range wildly from textbook to textbook), and new assignments. At the same time, switching textbooks keeps me focused on some pedagogical concerns. I would like to think that one day, we'll have enough digital resources to make this nagging choice go away. Most likely, the choices will multiply and in their cheapness become more burdening. 

I thank my students over the years for test-driving all these expensive choices. I am sure that they are all well served considering the chaotic alternatives. If you have a favorite textbook in your survey, please, tell us about it. I look forward to a permanent relationship. 

"The Tree of Architecture" above, comes from Banister Fletcher's old classic, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method for Students, Craftsmen & Amateurs (1st ed. 1896; last ed. 1986)


  1. 1 David Brownlee 22 Sep
    Fazio, Moffett, and Wodehouse is better than the competition in all the parts I've read, although I've not actually used it in class.  I would shy away from trying to teach the whole world, because I'm not qualified to do it.  
  2. 2 Patrick J. Quinn 19 Sep
     I had a soft spot for Spiro's book ever since I sat in on the lectures that formed it. I still have my original copy, the cover of which was pprinted backwards/upside down. However I found that it was more appropriate for architectural students than for those studying art history. Architects need the broader contextual/ cultural thinking that Kostof pushed. Their later practice values it. It is far different for one planning an academic career in art history, or any other discipline, for that matter.
    I sympathize profoundly with Kourelis and my advice is....don't look for the panacea among other authors. Write your own text from your perspective, and update it year to year. The great thing is that you can modify it every time you have a new insight. You don't need to cover everything. The deliberatively selective strategy you develop will offer keys that can urge a student to seek laterally for further possibilities.
    I am disappointed in the Ingersoll- Kostof work because it smacks just too much of the more glossy, hyper-illustrated websites of the digital world, easily appealing to those who want an easy fix, not so good for those who are interested in thoughtful depth.
  3. 3 Carol Krinsky 18 Sep
    When Prof. Kourelis's comments first appeared, I sent commentsthat have disappeared so here's a summary:
    For a year-long survey of western architecture, Hyman-Trachtenberg is still very good but it needs updating---not hard to do with selected articles and photos from the internet.  Kostof in any edition, brilliant, is hard for students to deal with, as it is less strictly chronological. The edition I used had most American material at the end, and it mixed architecture and urbanism. The idea of mixing them is fine, but the execution was confusing to students. Maybe the latest edition has improved the arrangement.
    For a one-semester western survey, Roth's book is excellent. It's clearly written and clearly organized. The illustrations aren't thrilling in the 2nd edition but a new 3rd edition promises more photos and some in color. I hope the price isn't very high as a result; the lower price of Roth's book has been an added attraction. 
    I think it impossible to teach a coherent course in world architecture and our department has refused to do it. We are large enough to have separate courses in the architecture and arts of Islamic peoples, south Asians, East Asians, the west,  etc.  This gives each group its own history, although lectures can make appropriate connections.  I looked carefully at the huge MIT book in both its editions and couldn't imagine my students coping with it, although it is a valuable addition to any bookshelf.
              Kathleen James-Chakraborty's forthcoming book may solve many problems for those who are obliged to teach world architecture. She has found a way to make sense of international, inter-cultural parallels or connections since the Renaissance.  If you have to teach earlier material, her book won't help with that, but it will be very useful for Renaissance onward. It will also be useful for a western survey.
  4. 4 Daniela 26 Aug
    Thank you for this--your comments resonate with my anxieties, too! I am no fan of textbooks in general, and this semester I gave up on them and put together a list of readings from specialized books and journal articles. It was more work than assigning a textbook, and also tricky because I had to find articles on topics on which I'm no expert, but at the end I think it will make for a better teaching/learning experience. My issue with textbooks is their descriptive tone, not to mention the all-encompassing and cursory pace. Having said this, I have a soft spot for Kostof. I find that he models a way to talk about architecture that inspires students who otherwise find the subject hermetic.

    I'd be curious to know your opinion on A Global History of Architecture by Ching, Prakash, and Jarzombek. I guess it falls under the "World Architecture" category. I used it last year, but had some reservations. It has a very strict chronological approach that attempts to avoid valuations/judgments among different cultures, but which I must confess was a bit cumbersome pedagogically. 
  5. 5 Eileen Manning Michels 26 Aug
    Dear Kostos Kourelis, I have said this before, and, in response to your thoughtful assessments of possible texts, I will say it again: have you ever considered producing your own introductory textbook specifically tailored to your students? Facing problems similar to yours, I did that in the 1980s and 1990s for an undergraduate introduction to 19th and 20th century Western architecture. I decided what information would be offered during each class and summarized it usually in one-page or less -- very few architects or movements got more than one explanatory page. Sounds simple enough, but it was a demanding test of my knowledge of that part of architectural history. I also provided the tedious stuff: a list of architects with birth and death dates, a list of buildings, with locations and dates, seen during the class, a bibliography pertaining to the day's subject, along with assigned reserve readings and study suggestions Tailoring the bibliography to my particular students and library offered many choices. It was indeed a lot of work the first year -- particularly because a typewriter and Kinkos were my initial technology. I wrote the next day's material in the evening, arose at 3 or 4am to type it and get it to Kinkos to be printed in time for class, which was at 8:15 as I recall. Revisions, additions, and excisions, done during the summer, became easier as I shifted to a computer and my own printer. The weakness was providing illustrations for study outside of the classroom, although they were to a decent extent present in the readings. Today internet visual resources seem almost limitless -- think SAH for starters. During the first year I handed out the day's written material at the beginning of each class. After that it was printed in-house at my university in a spiral bound book that was sold to students at cost -- probably the cheapest text in their undergraduate years.     
  6. 6 Meredith L. Clausen 26 Aug
    Kathleen James-Chakraborty has a new text coming out next year. It promises to be excellent, rivaling what is standardly used.
  7. 7 Julia Walker 23 Aug
    Kostis, what a timely post. I'm trying Ingersoll and Kostof's World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History for my semester-long survey of architecture this fall and am excited to see how students respond.