Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (#2 on our list) is currently being adapted into a film.
Quick! What was the last book you read? No, Graphic Standards doesn’t count.
1) Piranesi’s Dream by Gerhard Kopf.
Hailed by critics as a successful use of a pre-Modern figure to articulate the tensions of the Modern age, Piranesi’s Dream follows the famously-failed architect (and famously successful engraver) through time and space. Piranesi visits wildly disparate ages, the book is “not only a fictional autobiography but a compelling psychological novel.”
2) Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
This piece of historical non-fiction — which takes the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as its backdrop — was a New York Times bestseller and exposed many to the names Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead for the first time. The book follows the construction of the White City in parrallel to the escalation crimes of infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, drawing comparisons between the American drive towards progress (personified by Chicago, “City of Broad Shoulders”) and Holmes’ descent into madness. It’s currently being made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which means we’ll soon get to see Burnham on the big screen.
3) A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy.
We haven’t read this one ourselves, but apparently it features a love triangle between a woman, an architect, and an aristocrat. The 1881 novel comes highly recommended from a one-time AIA president, Thomas E. Penney, who says the story includes “a design competition, plagiarism, and inadequate fees. Sound familiar?” Check out Penney’s exhaustive personal list of architect-centric novels here.
4) The Cloud Sketcher by Richard Rayner.
Pilvenpiirtaja is the Finnish word for skyscraper, meaning literally “cloud sketcher.” Reyner’s book follows a young Finnish architect living during the invention of the elevator. Writes one reviewer, “this transatlantic Great Expectations of the jazz-age ’20s spins a captivating, if somewhat improbable, tale of a disfigured Finnish boy’s life quest for fame as an architect and his elusive true love.”
5) From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe.
Though it’s not a novel per se, From Bauhaus to Our House is a narrative “explanation” of the failures of modern architecture, written in Wolfe’s characteristically biting voice. Anyone who’s ever been frustrated by the stale rhetorical arguments of academic architects will enjoy Wolfe’s pithy commentary… At one moment, a young couple buys a Barcelona Chair for their first home, and are forced into poverty-stricken asceticism because of the cost.
6) The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Odds are you’ve probably already read (or pretended to read) this literary apotheosis of objectivism and rape fantasies, so we won’t bother with a synopsis. Suffice to say, architects are such tools sometimes! Amiright?
7) The Grey Cloth by Paul Scheerbart.
You’ll know Scheerbart from his famous manifesto on glass architecture, which (he claimed) could be used by architects to affect positive emotions and global cooperation. The Grey Cloth is based on the treatise, with a main character who worries his architecture will be overshadowed by his wife’s fashions (now that sounds familiar!):
The novel is set forward in time to the mid-twentieth century. The protagonist, a Swiss architect named Edgar Krug circumnavigates the globe by airship with his wife, constructing wildly varied, colored-glass buildings. His projects include a high-rise and exhibition/concert hall in Chicago, a retirement complex for air pilots on the Fiji Islands, the structure for an elevated train across a zoological park in northern India, and a suspended residential villa on the Kuria Muria Islands off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. Fearing that his architecture is challenged by the colorfulness of women’s clothing, Krug insists that his wife wear all gray clothing with the addition of ten percent white. This odd demand brings him notoriety and sensationalizes his international building campaign.
8) A Burnt Out Case by Graham Greene.
This 1992 book follows the transformation of a famous architect who, realizing he’s incapable of love, goes into exile to work in a small Congo leper colony. According to reviewers, Greene deals with the cognitive dissonance between the experience of fame and human love, using the architect as a symbol of failed humanity amidst great material success.
9) Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.
America’s eternal architect laureate is the subject of this wildly popular piece of historical fiction. Wright left a legacy of marital scandal in his wake, and author Nancy Horan imagines the details of one famously scandalous entanglement in Loving Frank. The leader character, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, hired Wright to build a house for her family in the early years of the 20th century. According to reviewers, a “powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.” Beach read?
10) No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept by Peter Blake.
Another non-fictional book that still stands as a literary narrative, No Place Like Utopia is Blake’s reminiscence upon the golden era of Modernism (and his meditation on some of its biggest failings). Mies, Le Corb, Saarinen, Venturi, and Johnson all feature prominently – the realness of the characters gives the book gravity. Blake himself, who passed away a few years ago, played a huge role in the sociogram of this era, and is deserving of much attention.