New AIA Guide to New York City Exceeds Expectations

by Randy Shaw on June 3, 2010

The AIA Guide to New York City is an indispensable book that new readers will cherish. Initially published in 1968, the book immediately became the most thorough guide to the city’s architecture ever produced. In fact, it is likely the most comprehensive guide to any city’s buildings. The sheer volume of pictures and capsule discussions of building design and histories is one of the great publishing achievements of our time. Yet despite producing revised editions in 1978 and 1988 to keep up with New York City’s constant wave of new construction and demolitions, until this week the most recent edition was published in 2000. This preceded both 9/11 and the dramatic changes to many New York City neighborhoods over the past decade. Now a new edition is available, adding new descriptions, 2000 new photos and 300 new maps. Nobody should leave home for NYC without this book.

When I started a two-month stay in New York City last fall, I soon headed to the Strand Bookstore to get a copy of the AIA Guide to NYC. I was surprised that the most recent version was from 2000, which left it a bit outdated since perhaps no city in the United States has seen more construction and neighborhood transformations in the past decade.

Fortunately, we now have a version so hot off the press that its lead author, Norval White, died at age 83 two weeks after turning in the final manuscript on December 15, 2009. White was the last remaining original author, with former co-author Elliot Willensky having died in 1990. I strongly urge readers to review the biographies of both men which appear at the book’s opening, as we all owe a tremendous debt to them for creating this unprecedented guide to New York City architecture (Fran Leadon is a co-author of the new edition).

The Book’s Structure

Incredible as it seems, this Guide includes discussions of virtually every structure of architectural distinction (as well as many adjudged to lack distinction) in the five boroughs of New York City. It even has “necrology” sections describing valued buildings that have been demolished, and alerts for at-risk properties.

Aided by students from the Spitzer School of Architecture of the City College of New York, the book reflects personal visits to all of the structures described in the 955-page text. It is a labor of love, and reflects a dedication toward ensuring that all the details and descriptions were correct.

It does not provide a photo or extensive description of every building, which can be frustrating. But that would require a book the size of an atlas. As it stands, the book is well organized by neighborhood and borough, and is helped by comprehensive subject and address indexes.

Wit and Humor Abound

White and Willensky combined contagious enthusiasm with a great wit and sense of humor. That’s why what could have been a weighty, dry tome instead allows readers to feel as if they are walking through city neighborhoods with leading architects describing what they are seeing.

For example, here’s White’s take on DUMBO, a neighborhood whose acronym was invented by the real estate industry (it stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). DUMBO has dramatically changed since the book’s prior edition, as industrial buildings have been converted to very high-priced lofts. As the authors’ put it, “Dumbo was desolate and often dangerous: a no man’s land in the shadows of the bridges, perfect for Robert DeNiro films (fake) and mafia battles (real).”

Today, “Dumbo is now just like any other expensive neighborhood in New York, but it has managed to preserve some of its uniqueness.” Yet the authors note the construction and planned development of several new buildings “that would rather tower above the bridges than hunker in-between. ‘Down Under’ now seems to be aspiring to ‘Rising Above.’ (‘RAMBO’ anyone?)”

The above snippet captures the basic tone of the book. While the authors are longtime preservation advocates, they are not anti-development and appreciate new quality architecture. However, they do not hesitate to call out bad architecture when they see it. Here’s their take on artist Julian Schnabel’s pink monstrosity at 360 West 11th Street:

This 12-story eruption is a mess of competing balconies, arched windows, faux-Venetian details and hot pink stucco. At a smaller scale it might be funny, but it’s too big to be a good joke.

There are hundreds of such perceptive comments, as the authors say in a few sentences what might require many paragraphs for less handy writers. And while they can talk architectural detail to expert readers, the book is clearly designed for the non-expert walking city streets.

Portable … Barely

A 955- page book is heavy, even if only four by ten inches. While the authors’ claim that it can readily be carried around in a backpack, I felt it burdensome to carry it during the typical long walks people take in New York City.

Ideally, the book would be in a binder so that pages could be removed for the areas where people are going on a certain day. But that would have further raised production costs. As it stands, the Oxford University Press is offering the monumental work for a retail price of only $39.95, which can hardly meet the costs of producing thousands of photographs, hundreds of maps, and an extraordinarily detailed text.

I decided to read sections of the book after returning from the day’s journeys, and found that worked fine. This method also prevents the real fan from annoying their comrades by continually stopping on sidewalks to read text, which one is guaranteed to do if the book is readily available.

If you care about architecture and will be visiting NYC, you absolutely must have the AIA guide. It is unparalleled, unprecedented, and a great gift to all those interested in experiencing one of the world’s great cities.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, which will be out in paperback in July.

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