If video killed the radio star, as the song goes, has the proliferation of firm websites killed the architectural monograph? Not yet, say the architects and publishers we interviewed for this story. But not all monographs are created equal. The trick to producing a worthwhile tome requires having enough significant work, finding a collaborative publisher, and picking a graphic aesthetic that reflects the firm. “Architecture is about physical objects,” says Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster, who spent several years as a senior editor with the Princeton Architectural Press. “To make a physical object about those objects is interesting.”
Even if a monograph is only a modest seller—and most are, at best—it can be a useful tool for sharing work with clients, other firms, and the public. For San Antonio’s Lake|Flato Architects, creating Lake|Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape (University of Texas Press, 2014) generated publicity for the firm’s work. “We’re in places like boutique hotels and museum gift shops, not to mention traditional bookstores, which has helped our brand,” says associate partner Robert Hoang, who directs the firm’s marketing and business development. Lake|Flato tailored the book to the market: a 1995 monograph, when the firm designed mostly houses, sold better than a 2005 one mixing its residential and institutional work. Sure enough, the 2014 houses book has bested its predecessors, selling about 5,500 copies to date.
The process of revisiting past work to decide what to include in the monograph affords time for reflection, says Andrew Freear, who heads the Auburn University School of Architecture’s acclaimed Rural Studio, through which students design and build homes for some of Alabama’s lowest-income residents. Freear co-wrote Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), which focuses largely on projects completed after the death of Rural Studio’s founder Samuel Mockbee in 2001. “Five or 10 years down the road, you come to feel differently about projects than [you did] when you designed them,” he says.
A published monograph can even be an unofficial requirement for prominent jobs—something of a gilded calling card. “When you’re pursuing a certain kind of project, I think there is an expectation, whether that’s for boards of trustees considering you for an institutional or cultural project, or the upper levels of large civic or even private residential projects,” says Lisa Green, a partner at New York’s Selldorf Architects, whose second monograph, Selldorf Architects: Portfolio and Projects (Phaidon, 2016), showcases 30 of its projects with text, plans, sketches, and ample photography.
Philip Nobel, a longtime architecture critic who wrote an essay for SHoP Architects: Out of Practice (The Monacelli Press, 2012) and now serves as the firm’s editorial director, credits the lasting influence of monographs. “You’re saying, ‘This is the story that we will stand behind,’” he says. “[A book is] a higher threshold of labor and commitment, so I think it can tell you more about the values of the firm.”
Finding a Publisher
When selecting a publisher, firms should look beyond the name to see how it has handled similar projects in the past. “It isn’t to say different publishers don’t have different tastes and intelligences,” Nobel says, “but how well a publisher can move the product from out of the architecture studio and into the world through distribution networks seems more critical to me than what in the past was the prestige of an individual publisher.”
Connecting with a publisher can be as simple as crafting a book proposal and making contact with one of its commissioning editors. “You don’t need an introduction,” Green says. “I think the approach, though, should be specific: why [the firm thinks] a monograph of their work is a good fit for that particular publisher. It’s similar to pitching a client in that sense.”
And the process can require a bit of shopping around. Lake|Flato sent mock-ups of its recent monograph to several prospective publishers. “Being able to visualize our book and the work that it would include helped our cause,” Hoang says. “We had several offers from different presses. For smaller firms or ones with less notoriety, the mock-up is essential.”
Publishers’ financial terms vary and can include requiring the firm to purchase a set number of copies or to help pay for production and printing. “We never ask for any financial commitment,” says Virginia McLeod, a commissioning editor at Phaidon. “We think it muddies the water of what the book is for and the reasons for doing it.” At minimum, firms are expected to supply images. “We [handle] everything else: the graphic design, the printing, the binding, the distribution, the marketing,” she says. The publisher withholds the firm’s share of the profits until it recovers those costs.
There is no one-size-fits-all measure of an ideal publisher, though a good partnership balances creative freedom with a collaborative spirit. “You want to know: Is this a publisher that will be a partner, or one that will be more there to produce and distribute?” Green says. “As architects, we can do graphic design and we can write, but we’re not graphic designers and writers. You have to let the professionals do what they do.”
Picking an Approach
Some monographs seek to reinvent the form, such as Bjarke Ingels Group’s comic tome, Yes is More. An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution (Taschen, 2009) or Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, and Bruce Mau’s 1997 classic S, M, L, XL (The Monacelli Press), which weaves poetry, diary entries, and personal essays into the presentation of projects. Selldorf’s 2016 monograph takes a more straightforward approach to showcasing its portfolio, with text, images, and drawings. And Lake|Flato did a little of both, arranging the houses in its new book by landscape type. “That says something about our priorities,” says Lake|Flato co-founder Ted Flato, FAIA.
The key, McLeod says, is that the approach reflects the firm’s identity. “Architect A might say, ‘Our architecture is very minimal and restrained and calm. We’d like a book that reflects that,’” she explains. “Architect B might say, ‘I don’t want to do the same old monograph.’”