A Short Guide To
Architectural Guidebooks



Guide as Act of Vindication

One of the most remarkable demonstrations of the didactic clout a "lowly" architectural guidebook can wield happened only a short drive from Toronto, and in a city whose image was, by the 1980s, abysmal--either as an old, ugly, filthy sad-sack epitome of American-style rust belt urban decay, or, to Torontonians, as the unforgettably cheesy land of Irv Weinstein reporting on those eternal house fires in Cheektowaga. Architecture afficionados might have been aware there was something going on here besides houses-a-fire (much as fans of fine art knew of Albright-Knox); but the great works of Sullivan, Wright, and industrial architecture remained inert outside of the textbook illustration or slide projector. It was all begging to be contextualized, given an actual urban (or otherwise) setting--and incredibly, in 1981, seemingly right in the middle of the city's nadir, it was given that setting, through the publication of "Buffalo Architecture: A Guide".

buffalo guide

And what a splash it was. A book that bore the MIT Press mantle, with a primary introduction by Reyner Banham (who taught in Buffalo for a spell, and whose wife Mary Banham in fact helped coordinate the project under the "Buffalo Architectural Guidebook Corporation"), another introduction on the Olmsted park system by Charles Beveridge, a reprint of a fine 1940 essay by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, contributions by other scholars such as Francis Kowsky and Jack Quinan--it was, almost, too much for Buffalo to deserve. The provenance placed it on an implicitly higher level than the usual guidebook; it was clearly directed as much to a non-resident scholarly audience as to the resident Buffalonian or the simple interested tourist. Collecting the textbook architectural marvels and giving them a physical context, and answering many mysteries in the process, it turned Buffalo into a cult destination, an unlikely nexus for the curious architectural pilgrim; while Buffalonians could beam with pride at what they possessed, visitors and scholars got to see the buildings as something more than architectural prima donnas: as objects with neighbours or near-neighbours of passing--or more than passing--note. Most of all, the book gave readers a strange, haunting feel for the city, in its current physicality, and not without an undertone of heartbreak and elegaic melancholy; no matter what its current state, this was a place where great things happened and great architects passed, and which could still rally every once in a while. So successful was "Buffalo Architecture" at its didactic task that one barely notices that its actual guidebook function comes across as, almost, an afterthought (although the familiar white-space-heavy Modernist layout of MIT Press may be somewhat to blame).
          An architectural guide in and of itself cannot renew a city, of course, as the back-and-forth lurching of Buffalo over the past generation proves. But for those who know, Buffalo's now a much, much richer place; like all good architectural guidebooks, "Buffalo Architecture" gave its users a deep, visceral connectedness to the city, virtually turning them into honorary citizens. And nobody, perhaps, felt this sensual bridesmaid's draw more deeply than the handful of Torontonians who scored a copy --they fell in a quixotic kind of love with the city their own had lately left in the dust!


Pevsner and WPA

America: the first wave

AIA Guide to New York City

David Gebhard: America's Pevsner

Goldberger, Banham, and Moore (and more).

Buffalo: Vindication

Chicago: Maturity

The Buildings of the United States series

London + Vienna + Berlin = Cartesian Europe

One Vancouver, many Montréals

Toronto: Opportunity

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