Developing Architectural Appreciation

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How do you begin to understand and appreciate New York City’s architecture? What makes a beautiful building beautiful? How do you know whether others will share your admiration? What if you meet up with one of those snobby types, all in black, and say something stupid?

Like art appreciation, there are two approaches to architectural appreciation: You can judge it based on the standard elements of what makes for a good building—proportions, line, materials, color, massing, and so on. Or you can just go with your gut and like what you like.

As Russell Sturgis says in his 1903 book, The Appreciation of Architecture: How to Judge Architecture (The Baker & Taylor Company), “Rightness is relative.” Sturgis urges his readers to form their opinions slowly and with consideration. “Enjoy the sight, the memory, or the study of a noble structure without undue anxiety as to whether [you] are right or wrong.”

HSBC tower NYC, architecture nyc, the three tomatoes

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I love the 1983 Attia and Perkins’ HSBC Bank Tower at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, for example. It looks like the turn of a pleated skirt to me and I love its crisp simplicity. I’ve mentioned it to some of my design friends and, well, let’s just say that 1983 is not a popular architectural era just now.

hearst tower nyc, nyc architecture, the three tomatoesSo many people love the 2006 Hearst Tower by Foster + Partners. With apologies to all those who worked on the tower, it fails to inspire me. I appreciate it, but I don’t like it.

aia guide to nyc, nyc architecture, the three tomatoesEither way it can’t hurt to learn a little more about what’s widely appreciated and what isn’t. One of the best resources for honing your tastes is the classic AIA Guide to New York City, by Norval White, Elliot Willensky, and Fran Leadon (Oxford University Press, 1088 ppg). An updated version was released in 2010, but the book was originally published in 1967—a time when so many buildings were sacrificed for “urban renewal.” Progress is relative too.

There’s nothing like arming yourself with a copy and heading out for a long walk through an unappreciated neighborhood on a beautiful spring morning. You’ll learn a lot, get some exercise, and get to know a new area.

You can also take one of the many architectural tours available throughout the city. The Municipal Art Society of New York  offers some of the best on foot. The American Institute of Architects New York Chapter  offers a floating tour by 1920s yacht that is even more memorable.

And speaking of the AIA New York, the local chapter offers a range of exhibitions, activities and programs that are wonderful and informative for individuals or families. Their Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place, is a place you’ll want to get to know.


  • Wendy Talarico

    Wendy Talarico is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations consultant. Ms. Talarico was a senior editor at Architectural Record and This Old House. She was also the Web editor at Metropolis Magazine. She is the Architectural Services manager for W.R. Meadows, a manufacturing firm.

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