erasing clouds

Book Review: New York Architecture: A History

by dave heaton

The title of Richard Berenholtz and Amanda Johnson's book New York Architecture: A History is so generic that you imagine it sitting on a bookstore shelf filled with other books with almost the exact same title. But the 9 pages of stunning photographs of the city which you see before you even get to the title page - photos that show sweeping views of the skyline and of a sunset-covered bridge, but also close in for an intimate visit with the fašade of a building - immediately mark the book as more than just a fact-filled history. The photographs are what make the difference here - photographer Richard Berenholtz, who had a background in architecture before devoting his life to photographing New York City, knows when to look at his subjects from afar, when to get in close, and when to look at things from an unusual perspective. He's taking pictures of buildings that are uniquely photograph-able (meaning even the laziest vacation snapshot can capture something amazing about them), but his photos, helped by the way in which they're presented on full pages of their own, tell stories and exude loads of atmosphere.

The text, written by Amanda Johnson, feels supplementary more than the central focus, yet does contain interesting facts and observations about the buildings, especially for someone not especially versed in the history of New York City and its buildings. The buildings selected for the book definitely represent what you would think of as the city's most famous buildings - you won't find many surprises here ("New York" here also refers to Manhattan alone). But Grand Central Terminal, the Flatiron Building, the Chrysler Building, etc. are world-famous for a reason, and this book does well to illuminate why, albeit in a somewhat cursory way. In architectural historian Carol Willis's introduction, she offers the notion that the book is less a history of the city's architecture (a weighty task) than an appreciation of the city itself as architecture. The key thought there is that New York Architecture is an appreciation, an act of taking pleasure in what these buildings, and their city, have to offer.

Universe Publishing:

Issue 20, February 2004

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