Book Review: The Architecture Concept Book

The Architecture Concept Book by James Tait (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

REVIEW Paul Dolick

Images James Tait

From conception to realization, understanding the architectural design process can feel like a fool’s game. Design inspiration can emerge from seemingly nowhere and its creative application tends to, more often than not, feel circuitous and elusive to the uninitiated. And so it is with considerable ambition and unlikely success that author and architect James Tait has written The Architecture Concept Book, an insightful primer for students and young professionals looking to formulate and develop enduring architectural design strategies.

In his book, Tait offers clear guidance on how to assess, analyze, augment and assemble meaningful architectural experiences. Using an effective balance of text, diagrams, and seminal historical case studies, the book covers a broad spectrum of topics. These range from the lofty provision of numinous awe and wonder through “the warp and weft of the rational and irrational” to more practical concerns such as how to organize and express a building’s vital but often overlooked mechanical, electrical and plumbing services.

Stair details: at top, sculptural stair forms; in middle, the collision of balustrade and newel post and an alternative design with a seamless transition; at bottom, using stair rise to find the right speed of travel and a floating step to mark a new level.

Admirably, Tait raises a personal concern for the political apathy that pervades the work of contemporary architecture students and practitioners. Asserting that “architecture isn’t everything,” the author encourages designers to more actively engage in broader socio-political agendas and to push back on the increasingly dominant but risk-averse market economy, which he argues tends to stifle architectural agency and innovation. 

Of the book’s few deficiencies, perhaps its most obvious is not elaborating on the essential relationship between buildings and their surrounding landscapes. Published at a time of heightened global awareness and concern for our planet’s wellbeing, it’s a missed opportunity to not consider more carefully the potential for leveraging landscape as a design driver and metric of success within contemporary building projects. 

An illustration of how structure and space work together: “The arrangement, dimensions, and angles
of solid structural columns alone define the space. When spaced apart, columns define an opening; when grouped together, they provide privacy. When angled or turned horizontally, they shield against the sun.”

Tait’s greatest strength is his ability to unpack and demystify the discussion surrounding the architectural design process. Written in a straightforward style, his book is a refreshing break from the scholarly jargon and esoteric hyperbole so common in architectural publications. The author’s penchant for quoting important but often complicated texts—and then paraphrasing them in more relatable terms—is very helpful for the novice reader. The result is thorough without being garrulous, concise without being reductive. 

Accessible, inspiring, and humane, The Architecture Concept Book is a finely crafted educational tool that takes readers on a rewarding and informative journey through the complex and multifaceted process of architectural design.

Paul Dolick is an OAA Intern and Adjunct Instructor at the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo.