When it comes to architecture, New York and Washington, D.C. are, indeed, zoos. At least, that is how architectural historian and children's book author Isabel Hill sees them as she introduces kids to the menagerie of animals in architecture that grace city buildings.
"I'm trying to get them to look up," and away from their cell phones and other digital devices, says Hill, who is also a photographer and filmmaker. Through her three books aimed at 5 to 12 year olds, she is also trying to cultivate early on an appreciation for the A/E/C industry.
"I think developing an awareness of the built environment gets children, and adults also, to take pride in their communities, and when that happens, people become committed to their neighborhoods and want to preserve whatever is special about them," she says.
Hill describes her recently released third book, "Urban Animals of Washington, D.C.," as well as her first one that focuses on New York, "Urban Animals," as primers on architecture. In them, using rhymes and photos of animals in building details—such as lion keystones, bear finials and gargoyles—she aims to teach children to observe architecture more closely.
"The nation's capital has a secret to discover. Animals are all around but some are undercover," so goes the introduction to her third book. "To find them, take a look everywhere, on corners, in doorways, way up in the air." The reader is invited to discover animals "hidden in plain sight." The book includes an architectural glossary and identifies the buildings and designers it features.
It was a little dog in the details of a stone column that drew the attention of Anna, Hill's daughter who was then 7, and sparked the idea for the first book.
"I was always telling my daughter to look at the buildings, to look up, but she wasn't really interested until she spotted the dog," Hill says. "I thought this was interesting and told her to look for more animals."
That began the pair's search for animals "in the buildings" wherever they went. "One day I thought a book on this would be a good way to teach kids about architecture," she says. An enthusiastic response to her books from adults was one of the unexpected surprises. "People tell me that since they've read these books to their kids, they're looking up too."
Published in 2009, Urban Animals was followed in 2011 by "Building Stories," which focuses on the history of New York buildings through the objects that adorn them. It includes historic and current photos of buildings with details, such as the yellow pencils on the face of the former Eberhard Faber Pencil Building factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
The pencils are "sharpened to a perfect point. They are just like the ones that were made inside this factory, which employed mostly women," the book notes. Designed by Frederick H. Clie and built in 1924, the building today stands as a mixed-use structure.
Hill, who has a masters in American studies with a concentration in historic preservation, has consulted for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, worked as a planner for the NYC Dept. of City Planning, and was a historian at the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record in Washington, D.C.
Hill's firm, Building History Productions, specializes in reports, photography and documentary films about architecture and urban issues. She is working on a fourth book that will take readers around the world looking at buildings from a city planner's point of view. "Transportation, open spaces and buildings—we'll look at those things kind of like a city planner would." It is expected to be released next fall.