Self-Contained Universes

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central LibraryStaff Picks

Self-Contained Universes

A history of architecture, real and imagined

What would the world be like without the Empire State Building? Or the Statue of Liberty? Would World War II have gone differently if Chartres Cathedral had never been built? 

One of the ways we humans define ourselves as being different from other animals is that we build structures. From our earliest days when we built simple huts to our modern glass and steel skyscrapers, humankind has built structures for protection, for worship, for entertainment, and for utility. Come explore some works that focus on the buildings and how they came to be.

The Story of Buildings
By Patrick Dillon with illustrations by Stephen Biesty
A truly historic look at architecture starting way back at the beginning of human civilization, this children's book follows the development of complex construction. Starting with simple homes and eventually reaching the most complex and modern buildings, this book is accompanied by the ever amazing art of Stephen Biesty, best known for his Incredible Cross-Sections. Informative and fun to look at, this book delights children and adults alike.

Universe of Stone
By Philip Ball
Built mostly during the 13th Century, Chartres Cathedral is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cathedrals ever built. Philip Ball contends in his "biography" of the building that Chartres is the ultimate source of the northern European renaissance that eventually resulted in the superpowers of England and France. The main point of his assertion is that the development of the more German-influenced Gothic architecture, first seen in any prominence in Chartres, influenced the styles of not just churches, but also everyday buildings and thus gave everyday people aspirations of reaching for greater things. Discussing many of the details of the building and its colorful history in detail, this books is a must for those who think they know about the renaissance in northern Europe.

Built to Last
By David Macaulay
Known for his semi-fanciful works on the construction of great buildings, this book is a collection of three of David Macaulay's best selling works. In Castle, Macaulay imagines and explores the construction of a British castle to defend against an imminent Welsh invasion. In Cathedral Macaulay explores the nearly century long process of planning and building a new cathedral. Finally, in Mosque, Macaulay explores the methods and practices in the construction of a Mosque in Istanbul in the 16th Century. With detailed yet simple explanations and beautiful drawings to match, this collection of stories make the complicated seem simple, an act at which Macaulay as an author excels.

Pillars of the Earth
By Ken Follett
While focusing greatly on the political intrigue surrounding a small town in England, Pillars of the Earth is the story of a cathedral in the making. Tom Builder is a widower trying to make his way through the world. With a lifelong ambition to build a great cathedral, Tom eventually is granted the chance when a fire destroys the old cathedral in the town where he is living. As the cathedral rises to the heavens, the fortunes of those surrounding the effort rise and fall. After nearly 40 years the building is completed and the lives of those in the town, and in England as a whole, are changed forever.

Naming Liberty
By Jane Yolen
This children's book follows two separate but related stories. The first story is of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and his quest to design and build a great monument to the United States, eventually creating the Statue of Liberty. The second story is that of a young girl from the Ukraine who is traveling with her family to start a new life in America. This biographical book follows the journey of these two extraordinary people, one a person and one a statue, to the point where they meet: New York Harbor when the young girl sees the Statue of Liberty for the first time and decides her new name in America should be Libby. Jane Yolen notes that this story is based on the traveling journey of her own family coming to America.

The Hidden White House
By Robert Klara
Opening with one of the more harrowing tales from the Truman administration of a piano nearly falling on the President's wife during a receiving line, The Hidden White House explores the reconstruction project undertaken in the 1950s to keep the White House from literally crumbling to the ground. Having had no real reconstruction work done since the house was burned to the ground during the War of 1812, the White House was in dire need of fixing up when President Truman moved in; so much so that, until other arrangements were made, the Trumans stayed in a hotel room. Central to the story is the house itself. While a complete overhaul was necessary, the desire to keep the structure as it was led to the whole building being gutted and rebuilt from the inside; the outside walls stayed up the entire time as a new steel and concrete inner structure was erected within. Easily one of the more intriguing stories of presidential history, this tale is rarely mentioned in history despite the great importance of the subject.

By David Macaulay
Another fantastic David Macaulay book, this work captivated my imagination as a child and was the driving force behind my own long held desire to become an architect (things didn't work out that way.) Imagine the New York skyline without the Empire State Building. It's hard. For more that 50 years, the Empire State Building held the distinction of the being the tallest in the world. But this book imagines a world where a middle east oil company buys the Empire State Building to be its new headquarters...and then decides to move it across the ocean to the Arabian dessert. A look at the insides of a building as it is in the process being deconstructed, Unbuilding is a classic that will capture the imagination of children and adults alike.