As a somewhat sheltered (OK, nerdy) child growing up in New York, two books achieved totemic status in my private universe—the repositories, it seemed, of all the useful knowledge any reasonable individual might possibly care to know: The Baseball Encyclopedia
and the AIA Guide to New York City
. The former has long since been out of print, superannuated by a perpetually updated electronic database. This, by all rights, should be the future of the latter; never has a publication more wanted to be an application for a mobile device. Yet the guide, lumbering dinosaur that it is, remains blessedly in print, even as its two primary authors, Norval White (who died last year) and Elliot Willensky (who died in 1990), are no longer around to celebrate it.
The new guide, readers will be pleased to know, is a vast improvement over its predecessor, beginning with a redesigned retro-'70s cover that replaces the widely loathed faux-metal version of the fourth edition. The new book is also trimmer than its predecessor, though its content is greatly expanded, thanks to a shift to a two-column page layout. A team of writers, led by White and Fran Leadon, has done extraordinary work combing the city, and not just Manhattan, adding entries for new buildings and providing "necrologies" for the dearly departed. That said, it retains the flaws that have always made it a book to love despite itself. Navigation is a constant frustration. The photography can be comically amateurish. The maps, which have been completely redrawn, are still lousy, but in a different way: more detailed, less legible. (In the map of Brooklyn's Gowanus area, for example, the canal is not differentiated from the surrounding streets—a scary thought, given the waterway's Superfund status.)
What redeems these petty aggravations, however, and keeps the guide safely in "classic" territory, is the voice of its authors. From its first edition, the book has always had an essential humanism that makes it a pleasure to read, even if one occasionally wishes it were a bit more caustic in its appraisals of bad work. About the worst an architect can receive is the disappointed-teacher treatment. (On Charles Gwathmey's Astor Place tower: "It might be more at home on the skyline of some other town.") But the guide's real joy come in its estimations of projects it admires. The entry for Polshek Partnership Architects' recently opened Standard Hotel ("like an open cocktail cabinet in concrete") neatly sums the guide's philosophy: "If too many buildings were built this way, it would be a mistake; most buildings in the City need to fit in and behave themselves. Here, what could have been a dull program (yet another luxury hotel) turns into real architecture."
It's writing like this—gimlet-eyed, free of pretense—that will always grant the guide a place of honor on my shelf, and that makes it an indispensable resource for anyone interested in New York City and its history. When it is released for the iPhone, I'll be happy to have that, too.