New York, Guided By Voices

New York, Guided By Voices


AIA Guide to New York City
Norval White and Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon
Oxford, $39.95

About every ten years, a new edition of the AIA Guide to New York City arrives. Published in 1968, 1978, 1988, 2000, and now in 2010, it has grown to more than 1,500 densely packed pages, chronicling the city from the days of Mayor John V. Lindsay, who contributed a “message” to the first edition, to the present.

In the first four editions, Norval White and Elliot Willensky, both architects, received credits as editors and writers, working with a team of architects, critics, and historians to research and write the text. Now, with the death of Willensky in 1990 and White in 2009, the baton has passed to Fran Leadon, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at City College. To prepare this fifth edition, he worked closely with White, who had been living in France since 1993, and 22 student research assistants. 

For all its quirks, the guide remains a “one-of-a-kind” read. Written in haste (reportedly six or nine months) to coincide with the 1967 AIA convention in New York City, the original volume was conceived to be portable, with scattered commentary about local history, stores, and restaurants, as well as routes for walking tours.

Over the years, the number of entries has quadrupled, and though this edition has 20 percent more than the last volume—over 6,000 in all—the spine is slightly slimmer and the number of pages is approximately the same. To accomplish this, a tighter, two-column layout was adopted. The new maps are generally strong, clearly designed and easy to read, with building footprints for each structure. When sites are close, in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn, one can easily devise a personal itinerary.

In recent years, many excellent books have been published on New York City. Websites and blogs have also made significant contributions, the latter of which the AIA Guide frequently resembles in tone. Though many entries are identical or slightly updated, most of the new entries, especially along the transformed waterfront, appear to have been written by Leadon.

Here, he is completely on his own, sometimes astute and concise, and other times merely riffing on his predecessors. A great effort has been made to keep the text as current as possible and to extend the book’s usefulness—an enviable goal but an impossible task, especially in Lower Manhattan, where the map of the World Trade Center is at least two years old and lacks entry numbers.

A “necrology” section of varying length now follows each neighborhood, paying respect to buildings that were included in previous editions but have been lost or significantly altered. These somewhat poignant, brown-tinted entries do not appear on the maps, and would be more useful if integrated into the main text, allowing users to better evaluate their successors. Gone are the vertical rows of thumbnail images that populated the 2000 edition, replaced by fewer and more prominent photographs that make the page design more appealing but, perhaps, less useful to armchair readers.

The AIA Guide has always been a lively, informative, and opinionated publication, but it is hardly authoritative, and should be referenced with care. For instance, when the text says that LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Everything Designed,” are the authors trying to be clever, or just sloppy? And in describing new construction along West 18th Street, Leadon smugly writes that there is “a startling collection of cutting-edge architecture (ouch! the building cut me!).” Moreover, as years pass, the tone has become predictable as the authors lament the continued conversion of historic office buildings to condos (“what else?”) and the transformation of neighborhoods by “yuppies”—arguably a dated and meaningless term.

Attractive and generally well designed, the AIA Guide features excellent indexes that make it possible to find a building by its name or address. Yet it still tries to achieve too many things. Do we really need to know a museum’s hours, phone number, and web address? Readers with a strong interest in New York City and architecture will continue to value this single volume as an essential point of departure, but it is by no means the final word.

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