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 VOL. 23, NO. 13JANUARY 30, 1998 

Book of Treasures Marks Avery’s 100th


At a reception marking the book’s publication were, from left: Paul Boger, Macmillan Publishing; Fred Olsen, G.K. Hall; Adolf F. Placzek, Avery Librarian Emeritus; Angela Giral, Avery Librarian, and John Andrews, Macmillan Publishing. Record Photo by Joe Pineiro.
Commodity, firmness and delight, one definition of architecture, could as well describe a handsome new book about architectural literature at Columbia: Avery’s Choice: Five Centuries of Great Architectural Books; One Hundred Years of an Architectural Library, 1890-1990.

  Nearly 300 pages long, durable as history and sumptuously illustrated, the book presents the treasures of Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library to mark its centennial. The library is the largest of its kind in the United States and renowned worldwide.

  More than 400 books on architecture, from the first, a 15th century work on theory and practice, to a postmodern manifesto of 1966, are described and annotated, with scores of drawings, photographs and color renderings. The editors are Adolf K. Placzek, the well-known architectural historian and Avery Librarian Emeritus, and Angela Giral, current Avery Librarian. Other scholars, all Columbia faculty or former students, contributed. It was published last month by G.K. Hall & Co., an imprint of Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

  “It is ever amazing what a huge literature accompanied or stimulated the pursuit of architecture through the centuries,” Placzek said recently, “and how huge an architectural library must be and how continuously it must grow.”

  Avery contains 300,000 books and 400,000 drawings and other archival materials. Avery’s Choice describes in short essays 427 of the most important, influential and otherwise significant volumes, from the first books on architecture ever published with moveable type by Leon Battista Alberti in 1485 and Vitruvius the following year, to Robert Venturi’s controversial Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966.

  They were chosen, Placzek explains, for such characteristics as originality, literary genius, usefulness, rarity, forward view, influence and beauty.

  An architectural book can be called great “because it was the right book for the particular historic moment,” he writes in an introduction. “And indeed, many of these books remained the right book for posterity.”

  Among the better known authors and subjects are Palladio, Piranesi, Viollet-le-Duc, Louis Sullivan, Gropius, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

  Full essays by architectural historians introduce chapters on the literature of successive periods of European and American architecture, from the rise of the Italian Renaissance to 20th-century currents and breakthroughs. The authors, besides Placzek, include Columbia scholars Hilary Ballon, Barry G. Bergdoll, Joseph Connors, Kenneth Frampton, Robin Middleton, John H. Stubbs and Gwendolyn Wright, as well as Rosemarie Bletter, now of CUNY, Zeynep Celik of New Jersey Institute of Technology, Sylvia Lavin of UCLA, Narciso Garcia Menocal of the University of Wisconsin, Herbert Mitchell, retired Avery rare books bibliographer, Helen Searing of Smith College and Damie Stillman of the University of Delaware.

  Giral, Avery Librarian, notes in a preface that access to the library’s books and drawings today is increasingly electronic and that Avery has pioneered the use of images in a computerized cataloging system. But “this thrust toward 21st-century technology is not meant to detract from the pride that all Avery librarians feel in our classics,” she writes.

  “Avery is unique in the world for its holdings in rare and ancient books, its extraordinary 19th-century American collections and the Avery Index to Periodical Literature,” said Placzek. “We believe Avery’s Choice itself to be a great book, meaning a potentially useful book.”