Edited by Denna Jones. Prestel Publishing, November 2014, 576 pages, $35.

History looms over architects. In few other professions is there such a defined canon of masterpieces, such a tradition of reviving old styles. Yet, as Richard Rogers and Philip Gumuchdjian observe in their forward to Architecture: The Whole Story, “architecture is surely one of the most optimistic art forms.” Each generation searches for “new utopias, new ideals” and finds inspiration “from all our innovations and all expressions of harmony and beauty,” they say. Architecture always looks forward, but does revisiting the past offer new inspiration? That tension is at the heart of this hefty tome: how to translate the richness of history into a tool for the present.

Architecture: The Whole Story

This is no history book in a traditional sense. With more than 1,000 illustrations and hundreds of entries on individual buildings, The Whole Story is a “look-book” of architectural history. Articles on particular buildings, each a double-page spread, sit between slightly longer chapters that discuss historical or regional styles such as Indian sacred architecture or Brutalism. The graphics are minimal, and a simplified timeline of historical events runs through these chapters. The single-building entries frequently feature one large photograph and smaller ones or drawings to explore the design's finer points. The vast majority of these images are of high quality; the few fuzzy or poorly color-balanced photos stand out. Each entry is written by one of 42 professors, lecturers, and architects, all experts in their field. The editor, Denna Jones, is an architecture and design writer in London. While Jones organizes the book's progression by historical eras and architectural styles, most curation melts away as we flip through the pleasantly digestible entries. But the book's breadth isn't its strong suit. Instead, it excels when its selection of architecture becomes strange and unfamiliar.

Certain entries jump out. One explores the startling mudhif villages that rest on artificial islands in Mesopotamian rivers. Using reeds alone, villagers have crafted structural columns and permeable walls that ventilate the interiors. Another showcases a little-known Art Nouveau masterpiece in St.-Gilles, Belgium. Designed by Paul Hankar in 1894, the five-story apartment building features beautiful Japanese-inspired decorations and sinuous wrought-iron framing on its facade. Examples such as these, known mostly to the book's specialized contributors, are what will especially delight readers. Ironically, in its quest to distill and document history, the book's most interesting chapters are the ones that disrupt your preexisting historical ideas.

These architectural surprises may also leave the reader thirsting for more. Where are Vauban's ex nihilo geometric fortress towns? Or Wallace Neff's instant concrete homes cast with inflatable formworks? The history of architecture is full of strange experiments and buildings that were forgotten or neglected. The editor has made a valiant effort to condense history, though it is the unexpected and unseen that will ignite new visions—and show that no one's idea of what was, or what could be, is written in stone.

Zachary Edelson is an art and architecture journalist in New York.