Three Centuries of Notable American Architects, edited by Joseph J. Thorndike Jr. Introduction by Vincent Scully. New York: American Heritage (dist. by Charles Scribner's Sons). 348 pp. $39.95.

No art lends itself less to biography; none needs it more. The collective art of architecture - client-inspired, builder-tooled, neighborhood-conditioned, is rarely solitary, seldom the product of a single author. Yet biography alone can break down its abstractions and humanize its parts.Despite the book's own reservations (voiced, peculiarly enough in its own introduction by Vincent Scully), one welcomes the portraits collected here.This is a popularizer that is not just the slick or obligatory nod to its subject. The writing is graceful; the design good, if slightly slick; the photographs well-chosen.Though it breaks no new ground, its 17 chapters bring a useful summary of the available scholarship, sometimes plentiful (abundant works on Frank Lloyd Wright, Stanford White, Thomas Jefferson); sometimes sparse (few on Louis Sullivan, Charles Bulfinch). The lively profiles also provide a chronology of architecture, USA.An unlikely crew, if ever one was collected, the architects lived well and poorly, long and short, worked hermetically and congenially, built monumentally, domestically, publicly, and privately.One emerges with a collage of designers who shook their drawings out of their sleeves or wrenched them tormentedly from their souls, who bowed graciously to the world's accolades or collapsed from neglect, who created buildings with a steely perfection of line or a rich panoply of ornamental detail; who wore, in short, the coat of many colors called architecture.

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