Architecture: A Crash Course in One Book

A Handy Pocket Reference Book by Hilary French

Illustration of Chrysler Building and other buildings in Manhattan, New York
Illustration of Chrysler Building and other buildings in Manhattan, New York. Artist Michael Kelly/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

The first time I opened Hilary French's book, I was skeptical. A crash course in architecture? Absurd! I didn't think that five thousand years of architectural history could be crammed into a thin, 144-page paperback.

And it can't. Still, there's lots to love about Architecture: A Crash Course by Hilary French.

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Speedy Architecture Facts

Packed with photos, shaded blocks of type, and colorful drawings, Architecture: A Crash Course has the look and feel of a comic book.

Cartoon figures illustrate the timeline of historic periods, from the "Pyramid Power" of the Egyptians to "Building in Cyberspace" and the virtual worlds of the present day. Indeed, French's book is a crash course that may appeal to distracted teens as well as the ostentatious name-dropper at your next social gathering.

Architectural facts are presented in visual blocks that surround the text itself:

  • a timeline across the top
  • a brown box "Names on the Wall" of architects associated with the era being described. For example, Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, and Michael Graves are on the wall of International Style of modernity moving into Postmodernism, which isn't described for another dozen pages. Author Hilary French is thinking like a Web content creator here, where a link would work just fine.
  • a blue box of need-to-know architects
  • a green box for asides when the author just can't control herself
  • a gray box of that day's important technology, such as "Together with concrete the exciting new material at the beginning of the twentieth century was glass."
  • and a blue-gray box, topped with a ziggurat, that she sprinkles throughout to warn you about what some might consider architectural certainties. For example, French writes, "The meaning of Romanesque depends on where you come from."

    Architectural movements are crowded under zippy headlines like "Adam Family Values" that describes Georgian architecture and "Et Tu Brute" that describes Brutalism. She may be dating herself when she makes allusions to Graham Nash's "Our House Is a Very Very Very Bauhaus,"Paul Simon's "So Long Frank Lloyd Wright," and Dylan's "Everybody Must get Domed," but I appreciate the multi-generational writing.

    The Packaging

    My 1998 paperback copy of A Crash Course is 0.5 x 5 x 7 inches, 144 pages printed on heavy stock paper, and—best of all possible worlds—the binding is stitched. My edition from Watson-Guptill Publishers has all of its pages, with none of my paper clips or rubber bands holding it together. Like my old old Chevy Suburban, this book has just not fallen apart over the years and years of use and misuse.

    The Value of History in a Nutshell

    This little text has earned a place on my desk alongside reference books I refer to nearly every week. I discovered its value when one of my readers asked a question about "formalism." Flipping through the index, I found clear, concise answers along with photographs, a description of relevant buildings, and a chart that placed the concept in historic context.

    French gives quick answers to complex concepts. She cuts through the hooey.

    Serious scholars of architecture may be offended by the quick, punchy definitions and the sweeping scope of A Crash Course. Lovers of ancient and early architecture might resent that fifty percent of the small book focuses on twentieth century trends. But for quick answers and a general overview of architectural history, Architecture: A Crash Course fits the bill.

    About the Author

    Author Hilary French is a British architect, researcher, and commentator who lectures primarily in schools throughout England, including the Royal College of Art, Kingston University, and Ravensbourne. "My main research interest," she writes, "is in the architecture of the everyday, primarily in housing design." Her grasp of architectural history and her talent as a teacher are evident in the engaging style and the punchy format of this handy pocket-sized book.

    Books by Hilary French:

    Source: Hilary French, LinkedIn [accessed March 24, 2016]