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The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture: Book Review

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture gets an indispensable third edition.
The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture: Third Edition

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture in its third edition.

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition
By James Stevens Curl with contributions on landscape architecture by Susan Wilson
Oxford University Press; 2015; hardcover, 1,017 pages; $70
ISBN: 978-0-19-967498-5

Reviewed by Calder Loth

Architects, architectural historians, landscape architects, and all types of architectural aficionados will find this new and expanded edition of James Stevens Curl’s prodigious Oxford Dictionary of Architecture an essential reference. I have regularly used the paperback version of the first edition (1999) as a desk copy and look forward to having an even greater amount of trusted information at my fingertips. The octavo size (6x9 inches) does not inhibit easy physical handling. With its more than 6,000 entries, beginning with Aalto and ending with zystos, the new edition has been enlarged to include nearly 1,000 additional entries, 50% of which are related to landscape design, contributed by landscape historian Dr. Susan Wilson. This is a valuable inclusion of essential information since many architects often perceive works in isolation, overlooking the importance of landscape setting and context. How many architects know what a patte d’oie is and how it is used to relate a building to a garden or even understand its role in town planning?

Supplementing the main dictionary is a bibliography of some 6,300 entries, a testament to Prof. Curl’s formidable scholarship. This addendum covers monographs, architectural dictionaries, biographical dictionaries, articles and historic pattern books. The bibliography is a useful reference in itself and assures us that Curl’s definitions are based on reliable sources. Indeed, the dictionary’s information is certainly to be more trusted than much of the online material so tempting for quick access. Of course the meat of the dictionary is the succinct biographies of a host of architects, each listing their dates, principal works, and their place in history. Unlike the earlier editions, the 3rd edition includes individual entries only for the deceased. Curl rightly states in his preface that one cannot offer rounded judgment on an architect’s life work until it is finished. Nevertheless, certain important living architects such as Robert Adam, Leon Krier, John Simpson, Robert A. M. Stern, and Quinlan Terry are sneaked in in the definition of New Classicism. To be fair, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and the like are citied in the entry on Deconstructivism.

As might be expected of a British scholar, the bulk of the architects’ entries are British; however, European and American architects are adequately represented. Even so, it’s tempting to scrutinize which Americans didn’t make it. Conspicuously absent is Arthur Brown, Jr., architect of such masterful classical works as the San Francisco City Hall and the centerpiece of Washington’s Federal Triangle.

Following the pattern of his previous editions, Prof. Curl defines an abundance of architectural features and details with heavy emphasis on terms relating to classicism. Curl admits that he had to restrain the number of Chinese and Japanese terms, which could otherwise have filled the book. Middle Eastern terms are given suitable representation.

Many entries are complemented with the author’s line drawings, some 270 of which are sprinkled through the text. 

Though at small scale, the drawings are clear and precise, many with helpful annotations. Among the drawings are different types of moldings, rustication, capitals, and gables, as well as various floor plans. One might wish, however, that the etymology of some of the terms could have been included. Knowing the origin of such terms as echinus or patera is helpful in understanding their appearance. On the other hand, skimming through the book provides the delight of coming across such esoterica as pastophorium and sheela-na-gig. Interestingly unfamiliar words as these make this work an entertaining and educational vehicle for casual perusal.

No work of this type would be complete without properly addressing construction details. Particularly informative are the several pages devoted to brick: brick types brick bonds, and brick pointing, all supplemented with numerous illustrations. Substantive too are the sections on arches and vaulting with their own associated illustrations, to say nothing of all the different elements of various type of ridges.

Prof. Curl is a well-known authority on classical architecture and his entries on classical forms, details, and buildings, as well as the practitioners of the various classical styles form a principal strength of his dictionary. For one so proficient in the scholarship of classicism, it may be inevitable that a degree of subjectivity (albeit informed) creeps into various entries that are antithetical to the more traditional modes. For instance, we find the following in the entry on Modern Style: “Modern Movements (there were many strands) promoted an incoherent, limited, non-architecture (with no sound intellectual basis whatsoever), which has not contributed to an agreeable environment, and indeed has succeeded all too well in creating an inhumane, alien, dangerous Dystopia.”

More amusingly, his entry for piloti, (a term previously unfamiliar to me), i.e. an open ground floor, states, “It was a favorite device of Le Corbusier: its widespread adoption in the UK has created many unpleasant spaces.” Such outspoken observations, whether we agree or not, make for an engaging read.

No dictionary is ever fully comprehensive, but this Third Edition is a commendable effort to fill various voids of his previous editions and to make a huge and vital subject accessible and interesting (and affordable) to a general public. Some architectural dictionaries and encyclopedias can extend to several volumes, rendering them costly and intimidating. This new edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture admirably compresses some 4,000 years of architectural information into a concise and reliable reference.

Much of our contemporary architecture suffers from the lack of an informed laity or even informed designers. A tabula rasa does not guarantee great work. We count on Curl’s and Wilson’s impressive new edition to make us all more architecturally literate and in so doing, enrich the quality of our buildings and the character of their settings. This dictionary should be a required addition to the desk of any architect, builder, gardener, or inquisitive individual. TB

Calder Loth is the Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. He is a member of the Council of Advisors of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art where he teaches architectural literacy. He was the 2010 recipient of the ICAA Board of Directors Honors Award. He serves as Vice President of the Center for Palladian Studies in America. He can be reached at

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