What Are Some Essential Architecture Reference Books?

Books Every Architect and Architecture Student Should Know

Books on the shelves of the Ancient Library at Salisbury Cathedral in England
Ancient Library at Salisbury Cathedral in England. Photo by Matt Cardy / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Many architects and professors recommend these reference books for students, designers, and enthusiasts researching architecture and home design. Single-volume, one-stop learning experiences.

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A History of Architecture

The Byzantine Church of Panagia Chalkeon, 1028 AD, Thessaloniki, Greece
The Byzantine Church of Panagia Chalkeon, 1028 AD, Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo by Athanasios Gioumpasis / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The English architect Sir Banister F. Fletcher (1866-1953) published the first edition of A History of Architecture with his architect / scholar father in 1896. Many editions exist at various prices, from hundreds of dollars for the latest volume to free online for earlier public domain digital facsimiles. Every edition is a sweeping overview of architectural history, with floor plans, descriptions and 2,000+ illustrations for nearly every important building, up through and including the twentieth century. Since the authors' deaths, the book has been updated and edited periodically, so it still has practically everything you may be looking for, all in one volume. A history of architecture is a history of civilization.

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Architectural Graphic Standards

A crossview rendering of the Illinois Center showing the lower levels with the subway portion of the building
Architect Mies van der Rohe's Drawing of Chicago's Illinois Center. Photo by Chicago History Museum / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Since it was first published in 1932, Architectural Graphic Standards has become the essential desk reference for architects and engineers in the U.S. The reference work contains thousands of architectural illustrations, including construction-ready drawings. Also included are chapters on accessibility and security, plus additional information on new materials and environmental construction. This reference is available as a textbook hardcover, a CD-ROM, or a less expensive condensed paperback.

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The Encyclopedia of Housing

Line of White Homes in Suburbs
Line of White Homes in Suburbs. Photo by William Gottlieb / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

A one-stop resource with hundreds of essays on timeless topics, from Abandonment to Zoning. Appendices summarize historic federal US legislation and list organizations and journals. This is not the only multidisciplinary reference work related to the building trades, but it is possibly the most detailed and is regularly updated.

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Two Handy Books for the Lover of Houses

Time Lapse Photo of Neighborhood at Night
Time Lapse Photo of Neighborhood at Night. Photo by Bettmann / Bettmann / Gety Images (cropped)

A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester and Dictionary of Architecture and Construction Dr. Cyril M. Harris are two great reference books every homeowner and architecture enthusiast might want to own. A new edition of the Field Guide came out in 2013, and it completes what the McAlesters began in 1984. Clear, well-organized text and detailed illustrations describe American housing styles from the 17th century to the present. Another valuable research tool for home-shoppers, home-builders, and anyone who is fascinated by architectural history is Dr. Harris' Dictionary. Check it out in the Reference section of your library, then buy a used copy at the library book sale.

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Almanac of Architecture and Design

Modern Spiral Staircase Designed by WilkinsonEyre for the Wellcome Collection in London, England
Modern Spiral Staircase Designed by WilkinsonEyre for the Wellcome Collection in London, England. Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

An almanac is an annual calendar or handbook of what to expect in any given year, so you'll want the latest version of this book. From Design Intelligence, this fact-packed annual is a one-stop resource for architecture and design. It includes competition submission deadlines and conferences, major award programs with their history and speeches by winners, a listing of the major design organizations, a compilation of design records including the tallest buildings in the world, a listing of U.S. colleges and universities offering design degrees, an overview of registration laws, and much more. Sure, all of this information may be online somewhere, but it's all together in this reference book.

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The Poetics of Space

Installation exhibit of table, chair, and background with vanishing point
Time Space Existance by Ricardo Bofill at the 2014 Biennale Of Architecture. Photo by Marco Secchi / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

This book alone may take a lifetime to truly comprehend. It is not a reference book like the others on this list, but it's the type of philosophical discourse that is attractive to a thinking person. First published in 1957 by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), The Poetics of Space has been the stimulus of many erudite discussions in university lounges since its English translation appeared in 1964. Every generation seems to grab onto a new reason for being and doing, and phenomenological architecture or how built space is experienced is no exception. It gets you thinking.

And Then Some:

Architects and designers are always learning and many are writing about their own works and ideas. Some suggest reading architect Rem Koolhaas' 1978 Delirious New York or the Pamplet Architecture series founded by architect Steven Holl. Other people say to read the social criticism of Jane Jacobs or the contemporary writings of Geoff Manaugh, including The BLDGBLOG Book (2009) and A Burglar's Guide to the City (2016). It takes a lifetime to understand the larger ideas and concepts surrounding architecture—and then everything changes again.