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Elementary education in the United States is usually focused on a few core competencies: reading, writing, basic math and general knowledge in history and the sciences. While these things are essential, parents who want to expose their children to cultural subjects like architecture usually need to look beyond the basic school curriculum.
Luckily, the folks at Princeton Architectural Press never fail to produce culturally enriching content for all ages. The publisher has released two picture books written and illustrated by the French designer Didier Cornille: Who Built That? Modern Houses and Who Built That? Skyscrapers. These books provide young readers with breezy, illustrated vignettes about some of the most iconic buildings of the modern era. What’s more, they do so in an engaging, accessible way that is sure to hold a child’s interest.
A few runs through these books at bedtime and your child will be able to talk about Le Corbusier, Wright and Gehry as effortlessly as if they were Pokémon.
Cornille’s simple illustrations allow children to appreciate the sinuous contours of Gehry’s buildings.
“Architecture may seem complex and difficult to understand, but it’s also quite fascinating,” reads the introduction to the Modern Houses volume. “This book teaches you, as simply as possible, about a variety of houses designed by great modern architects.”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1939)
Both books move chronologically, focusing on one architect at a time and highlighting a significant building they created. The charming illustrations — which include section views as well as exterior and interior sketches — are paired with text that explains exactly why the buildings are special. Cornille clearly has a knack for making the nuances of modern architecture accessible to young readers with little to no background knowledge.
The Skyscrapers volume spans the period between the construction of the Eiffel Tower (1889) to Burj Khalifa (2010); image via Tumblr.
Cornille’s illustrations are minimal felt-tip affairs carried out with a restrained color palette. This helps young readers recognize and appreciate the design features of the buildings, which might be harder to pick out in more detailed photographs or renderings. In addition to buildings, Cornille’s scenes are populated by smiling figures as well as cats, dogs and even cars and bicycles. Like all great picture books, these pages seem to reveal new surprises with each reading.
The Modern Houses volume includes discussions of furniture design when appropriate, such as in this chapter on the Eameses. All in all it presents a fairly rounded survey of the development of residential architecture and design over the course of the 20th century.
The Skyscrapers book is oriented vertically, while the Modern Houses book is oriented horizontally, following the designs of the featured buildings. This is just one of many details that speaks to the care and attention that went into the creation of these slim but intricate volumes. Indeed, one doesn’t need to have children to appreciate these books: The copies I bought are just for me.
Details of the Eames House by Charles and Ray Eames (1949)
You can pick up the two books here.
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