What We're Reading-shawn

Works about large-scale buildings and small-scale living

On Architecture
Walker & Company, $27

Reading the columns of Ada Louise Huxtable is a little like sitting next to the most interesting guest at a dinner party. You linger over each witty phrase, every strongly held opinion, because (you think to yourself) "Holy cow, this lady knows what she's talking about."

The first architecture critic of The New York Times, and current critic for The Wall Street Journal, Huxtable practically wrote the book on contemporary architectural criticism.

Leaf through the table of contents, then dip into the chapters that pique your curiosity. I went right for "The Way We Built," and her columns on the Pan Am Building ("second-rate") and the General Motors Building ("a mixed marble bag"). Then I turned to "Strictly Personal," savoring her memories of the Beaux-Arts monuments she'd known as a young New Yorker.

Huxtable writes with a candor and sense of passion that I find thoroughly irresistible. She adored and retains her admiration for the masters of Modernism, "gigantically talented architects who pioneered a totally new kind of building." She also enthuses over the technological advances that made many of their buildings possible. She gushes over delicacy, precision, and monumentality. And she scorns solutions that are dull, faux, or the product of design-by-committee.

I don't always agree with Huxtable's opinions. I, too, grew up in New York, but nurtured a fondness for Huntington Hartford's gallery on Columbus Circle. She, on the other hand, lashed out against preservationists intent on saving its facade. Conversely, Huxtable had kind words for the Time Warner Center that stands to the west. I still view it as an unimaginative behemoth. But, as with a scintillating dinner companion, you don't have to share all of her opinions to consider the evening—or this fascinating book—a grand success.  —James H. Schwartz

Who Will Love It: Building buffs

Where to Keep It: In your library

How to Describe It: Deliciously opinionated


Tiny Houses
Rizzoli, $29.95

There was a time, not long ago, when the average family made do with fairly cozy living quarters. As Mimi Zeigler writes in Tiny Houses, the typical American house of 40 years ago took up only about 1,400 square feet. (As a resident of a house just that size, I can tell you that the space is more than adequate for my wife, my son, my books, my records, and me.) Then came sprawl, and the great pilgrimages to the exurbs, and the building of mansions so hefty and imposing, their media rooms alone could seemingly accommodate a village.

But is living on such a large scale consistent with a green ethic? Definitely not, Zeigler writes. The suburban McMansion consumes substantial amounts of building materials, fuel, utilities, and land. Add in the costs of commuting great distances, and you begin to wonder, Is that three-car garage worth it after all?

The houses on display in this handsome volume, all beautifully and vividly photographed, point to more sustainable, less expensive ways to live. Many of the residences are vertical rather than horizontal, such as the Lowerline Residence in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood, its three stories of stacked rectangular blocks conveying the impression of an urban aerie. Or the Delta Shelter in eastern Washington, which fits beautifully into the surrounding landscape of mountains and birch trees.

Proponents of the McMansion are probably shuddering by now. They often argue that massive houses on massive lots represent nothing less than the fulfillment of the American Dream. Zeigler would counter that the old American Dream turned into a grand nightmare with the collapse of the housing market and economy. "The recent subprime mortgage crisis," she writes, "revealed the dark side of three bedrooms and a two-car garage." But scaling back just might offer a way out of turbulent times. Downsizing, it turns out, might never have been so appealing a concept.  —Sudip Bose

Who Will Love It: Fans of elegant spaces

Where to Keep It: On the coffee table

How to Describe It: Refreshingly startling


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