Bold Books and Big Buildings: Architectural Writing and Publishing with Victoria Newhouse

Interview by: Sarah Rafson

Architectural critic Victoria Newhouse established the Architectural History Foundation in 1977 to raise the quality of architectural writing and provide support for books that might otherwise remain unpublished. The thirty-six books in the foundation’s catalogue covered such wide-ranging topics as baths of ancient Rome and the modernism of Gordon Bunshaft, united under the banner of serious historical scholarship. When the foundation closed its publishing operations in 1994, the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote a glowing tribute to Newhouse’s work. He deemed the books “uniformly accessible to educated lay readers” and posited that the books would  continue to “contribute to a deepening of historical awareness in contemporary architectural practice.”

As a writer and critic, Newhouse examines architecture through structural, social, and political lenses. From her first book, Wallace Harrison, Architect, in 1989, to her most recent book published in 2017, Chaos and Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Newhouse examines a range of historical periods, geographic regions, and architectural styles. Chaos and Culture, for example, zooms in on the complex process of designing and building the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Athens, Greece by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Surface magazine described Chaos and Culture as “the kind of architecture book the world needs more of.” Overlooking the Hudson River, we spoke with Newhouse in her One World Trade Center office about her architectural publishing, writing process, and next title in the works.

Newhouse in a pink shawl, standing in a spotlight on stage in front of a projector screen projecting the image of an auditorium interior.
Newhouse presenting on her book Chaos and Culture at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in Athens, Greece alongside Renzo Piano, Annabelle Selldorf, Adam Weinberg, Yiorgis Yerolymbos, John Peponis, and Andreas Kourkoulas. Courtesy of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Sarah Rafson: The list of books you’ve written is substantial, with each diving deeply into a distinct subject. Can you describe the process of writing the first, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect?

Victoria Newhouse: It was my first book, and I had no idea what I was doing. It began with the lunch where I met Wallace Harrison. I was trapped in a blizzard at the house of a friend, Hester Diamond, and Wallace Harrison was one of the guests. It was only four of us—Hester and her husband, Wally, and myself—and I was totally drawn to him. He was probably in his eighties then, but he was so articulate and charming and interesting.  I remember coming home and telling my husband that I wanted to write his biography. He said, “You better think long and hard before you get into something like that.” Oh boy, was he right. It was very, very difficult.

I wrote it before computers became as sophisticated as they are now. I can’t tell you how many months it took me to put together the endnotes—they were all on catalogue cards. I remember sitting on the floor trying to line things up. It was a whole other world. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., who had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater for his family, was tremendously helpful. I’d never written anything before that.

I met with Harrison dozens, if not hundreds of times. At that point he was more or less retired, so he had plenty of time. He really enjoyed the process. It was something to fill his time; the whole book came from him. It was a chance to put all of his work together.

Did you read biographies to prepare?

I probably should have, but I didn’t think of it as a biography. That’s why I called it Wallace K. Harrison, Architect—because I wanted it to be a discussion of his work rather than a biography. Wally passed away before the book was published. His wife was still around though, and she was very happy with it.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they were influenced by this book—architects, of course, and people in New York who were fascinated by all the New York projects and personalities in the book. If I had any models for the tone of the writing, it was The New Yorker. I love the writing in The New Yorker.

Books written by Victoria Newhouse at her One World Trade Center office. Courtesy of Victoria Newhouse.

A stack of white, gray, and a blue books with the titles: Wallack K. Harrison Architect, Towards A New Museum, Art and the Power of Placement, Site and Sound, and Chaos and Culture. 2 books are in German.

By the time you wrote Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, you had already been on the other side of the process, reviewing manuscripts and publishing books. How did you first break into architecture publishing?

In the sixties, I was an editor with George Braziller, handling projects that had nothing to do with architecture. I had started working for him in Paris, supervising a big project he had there—the drawings of the Louvre in three volumes: French, Northern, and Italian. I ended up translating those books from the French. I was there in 1968 during the riots. George was an idealist, and he was always trying to publish books related to political and economic issues of the time. Working with him then was wonderful, and it was a very exciting time.

When I came back to New York, he threw a book on architecture onto my desk. It had been left by the architecture editor, who had been fired abruptly. She had several projects that were in progress. While on that book, I realized that I really liked working on architecture because at the time there was so much less published on architecture than on art. Art had been covered backward and forward, but architecture was a growing field.

I quickly concluded that if I were going to continue working in architecture, I would have to go back to school, so I stopped working for George and went to Columbia University for my master’s in architectural history. Going back to school as a mature student was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

What was your thesis project?

It was an interesting subject; I studied the small buildings that Louis Kahn used to experiment with some basic ideas. I had half a dozen examples of these small designs that he then applied to larger projects.

That could have been a book in itself! You started the Architectural History Foundation in 1977 and still serve as president. What was the impetus for the foundation?

The people I met at Columbia helped shape my vision for the foundation—George Collins and Edgar Kaufmann Jr., among others, really got me started. There were such a wonderful faculty up there.

We responded to the need to publish scholarly books, which had a limited sales potential. What spurred the decision to create that foundation was the fact that Henry Russell Hitchcock, the renowned architectural historian, had been working for years on a book on Netherlandish architecture. He had a contract for it with a Midwestern publisher, but practically the day he was ready to hand it in, the publisher went belly-up. Things were very tough at that time for publishing, especially scholarly publishing. That was the real inspiration for creating the foundation—to have scholars publish serious works on architectural history.

So I became a publisher. I was living in a townhouse on Seventieth Street then, and I had two women helping me—Julianne Griffin and Karen Banks. We produced our own books, usually publishing about two or three books a year.

What was the first book the foundation produced?

It was Sebastiano Serlio’s The Five Books of Architecture, a manuscript in the Avery Library. One of our editors was a wonderful Avery Library librarian named Adolf Placzek. He had the idea that this would be our first book, and it was a tremendous success. We received the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award from the Society of Architectural Historians for it.

Newhouse presenting on her book Chaos and Culture at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in Athens, Greece. Courtesy of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Newhouse with a pink shawl draped over her shoulders, holding papers and standing in a spotlight in a large theatre, presenting.

Many of your books have won prestigious awards, not just the first one.

Well, it was a fabulous thing to have done. Of all my accomplishments, creating that foundation was probably the most important. We weren’t following any kind of subject in particular. Our concern was people who needed some sort of support, financially, in order to be able to publish. Most often it was a need for money for photography. Since I know a lot of people in the architecture world, interesting things would come across my desk quite frequently. I passed along to the editors things that I thought were particularly noteworthy. We had a great board—Adolf Placzek, Vincent Scully, Spiro Kostof, Christoph Frommel, Hank Millon.

Our most important publication was the four volumes of Le Corbusier’s sketchbooks. The Le Corbusier Foundation had been trying for years to publish them, and every publisher they approached wanted to do them as facsimiles, which was prohibitively expensive. I suggested publishing them as part of a larger book, grouping four or five of these sketchbooks in one volume. That made it possible.

How has the foundation changed since it began?

We started the foundation because there was a financial need—even university presses were turning down worthwhile projects because of financial problems. By the time we had been publishing for almost twenty years, the scene had changed. We realized that we were competing with university presses, which wasn’t what we wanted to do at all.

But the foundation still exists. We have a different editorial board. We still have a modest income coming in from our backlist, so we can offer small grants, usually about $5,000, for photography.

Shortly after closing the publishing operation, in 1998 you published your second book, Towards a New Museum, which is now in its second edition. What spurred that book?

There was a very specific reason for that book. I was outraged by the new addition to the Guggenheim. In fact, I fought it with Edgar Kaufmann Jr.: we persuaded them to change the design. All of the newspapers called the first design an “old-fashioned toilet” because it looked like a water tank. I still think it’s a disgrace the way they stuck this unsightly addition to this architectural masterpiece, but at least it’s not quite as offensive.

That is why I wrote my next book. By that time, I had been married for a number of years, and my husband Si and I spent a lot of time in museums and art galleries. I thought what was happening with museum expansions was a big problem. That became the chapter “Wings That Don’t Fly.” A lot of the predictions I made in that book all those years ago have come true. People no longer go to art museums for the art. They go to meet a friend or a family member, and then maybe they visit the galleries together. Maybe not. Maybe they just go to the cafe or bookstore. I predicted all of that in that book.

Chaos and Culture book cover spread draft. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press.

the cover of Newshouse's book: chaos and culture.  the image across the back and front cover is an Athens cityscape

It was a multiyear book project, just like Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls and your most recent book, Chaos & Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, which blends those two themes together quite nicely.

Yes, they all took three or four years. Now I am deeply involved in my current project: new parks inaugurated in the last decade or two, built on an existing structure. We want to showcase this phenomenon internationally.

The High Line is of course the obvious example, which I will not be writing about because so much has been written about it already. But there are two linear parks, one in Detroit and one in Chicago, both based on the same idea—an abandoned railroad—which are also interesting. Our preliminary list is quite impressive. Certainly, we want to include China, that’s for sure.

What is the impact you hope your new book will have? What is the impact you envision for your writing?

For each one of my books, I have hoped to raise awareness about the subject at hand. I wanted to give Harrison his due as an architect and as a man of exceptional integrity; I wanted Towards a New Museum to call attention to the impact of architecture on the contents of museums. Art and the Power of Placement took this idea one step further—to demonstrate how the way an artwork is placed alters its appearance. Site and Sound explains how architecture and acoustics affect sound; Chaos and Culture reveals the complexity of designing and constructing a cultural venue. My next book—on new public parks—will show how landscape design can help correct environmental problems, such as water control.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, view from east. Courtesy of Bill Barekas.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center - a large structure with glass facades with a shallow reflecting pool out front. Warm light pools out from the buildings, and people gather and wander outside

About the author:

Sarah Rafson is an architecture writer, researcher, editor, and curator. A graduate of the University of Toronto and Columbia University’s Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices program, she has worked on books with Kenneth Frampton, Bernard Tschumi, and Barry Bergdoll, and collaborated on exhibitions at MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Center for Architecture in New York, and the Parsons School of Design.

While at MoMA, Sarah assisted in the development of exhibitions on contemporary architecture and was the editorial assistant for the catalogue of the 2015 exhibition Latin America in Construction.

While at Columbia, Sarah won the Buell Center Oral History Prize for her thesis on the feminist Chicago architecture curatorial collective, CARYATIDS. She currently sits on the board of ArchiteXX and writes on a range of issues in architecture and design.

Find Sarah on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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