June 15: Architecture Books in America

2016/06/15 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1773 Asher Benjamin was born.

Born, raised and apprenticed in Connecticut, Benjamin (d. 1845) was one of New England’s most prominent builders, known for great skill in carving ornament as well as translating drawings of complex geometries into actual, workable, elegant architectural features.  You think actually building a cantilevered oval stair is easier than drawing it?  Well, do you punk?

Benjamin’s practice took him to Greenfield, Massachusetts where he built some fine houses and then, like Palladio, started doing the thing that would make him so influential: he wrote, illustrated and published books.  This was without, of course, becoming as famous (nor as mind-numingly ubiquitous) as Palladio; however, it is arguable that Americans should recognize a Benjaminic style evident along the east coast and into the middle part of the country–basically anywhere there’s antebellum architecture in the US, you can bet on at least a whiff of Benjamin there.

He furthered his legacy in print: his first title, The Country Builder’s Assistant of 1797 was the country’s first published work on architecture.  Its popularity and usefulness is revealed in its multiple editions.  Six more titles followed, all of them bearing titles with words like Rudiments, Practical and Elements.  The very titles suggest their character: handbooks for use by builders of any stripe who required source material for designs–from mantle pieces to floor plans for courthouses–as well as techniques–from introductory lessons on conic sections to directions for carving a cyma, which is no small potatoes.  He often included prefaces that dipped into architectural history, and in the course of discussions of the Orders, for example, slipped in a bit of architectural theory.  But this is background to the main thrust of the works to educate, inform, lead and guide.  Considering that all of his works went into multiple editions and stayed in print long after his death (and remain so!), his far reach, and deep influence, should be obvious.

Image: from an 1833 edition of the Practice of Architecture (Clio’s)


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