Book Review: The Story of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski
By Jeff Murray, FAIA
On the face of it, taking on the task of writing a history of architecture from the beginning of human civilization to the present day seems daunting if not ridiculous. However, those of you who have gone to architecture school or studied architectural history will know that Witold Rybczynski is far from the first to do so and won’t be the last. You will also know that most past attempts – while often comprehensive and informative – were also tedious and often crushingly boring. At their best they became encyclopedic references, not a book to be read with interest and pleasure from cover to cover. This is why The Story of Architecture (TSOA) is different. It is a good read, and provides information and insights that even the most knowledgeable architect will value while also engaging the general interest reader.
Rybczynski, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and a professional architect, is well known as an excellent and prolific [21 books so far] writer who explains architecture and urban development to the general public. I think that while this is meant as a compliment, it is often a backhanded compliment because it implies that his writing doesn’t have adequate substance or depth for academia and the profession. As a practicing architect with four decades of experience and a deep passion for architecture, I can state unequivocally that I’m now a smarter architect after having read TSOA. Rybczynski’s writing spans both poles of architectural sentiment: the critical [academic / professional] and the popular [general public].
How does he make a survey of architecture from the stone age to the digital age a good read? In part, by being very selective, and a little idiosyncratic in his choices of exemplary buildings. Many are part of ‘the canon’, but sprinkled in are some surprising buildings that are rarely if ever covered by typical architectural surveys. This is the book’s strength and gives it its originality, but it also leads to one of the few quibbles I have with it. As mentioned in his afterword, he used E.H. Gombrich’s “The Story of Art” as his model, so the source of the title is clear; but a more correct title might be ‘A Story of Architecture’, because Rybczynski’s story is in many ways unique and unconventional, and there are probably other equally valid and equally unconventional stories of architecture out there waiting to be told.
As a practicing architect with four decades of experience and a deep passion for architecture, I can state unequivocally that I’m now a smarter architect after having read TSOA.
His definition of ‘architecture’ is ‘building that has [design] ambition’. At first this seems completely inadequate and overly simplistic, but with time – like so many of his observations – it grows on you. The subtle brilliance of this definition is that it never states that ‘architecture’ is by definition better than ‘building’; it is possible for a building without architectural design ambitions to be more successful than one with them, which we know is often [and sadly] true. He does identify architectural ambition with going beyond function to ‘celebrate, honor, pay homage, and yes, to impress.’ So architecture may not always be better, but it is usually trying to be more important.
The first sentence of the book reads “Architecture is concerned not only with beauty but also with function, construction and building materials, thus the art of architecture is inseparable from its practice”. These issues [beauty, function, construction] are as traditional as you can get and remind me of Vitruvius’ firmness, commodity and delight. Rybczynski is seeking universally valid architectural values [rather than short term relativistic values] that are as relevant now as they were 7000 years ago. Architecture as building with design ambition, seeking to embody universally valid values; this is the foundation of his story.
One of the more unconventional exemplars he selected is the Nebraska State Capitol. We learn of Bertram Goodhue, his beginnings as a gothic revivalist and his search for a modern architectural style that is not historically derivative but instead builds upon its lessons. Goodhue actively sought collaboration with master sculptors and painters, giving them equal voice in the design, contradicting the myth of the architect as ‘lone genius’. Rybczynski laments the loss of Goodhue, who died young, and speculates on how his work that embraced ornamental surfaces and expressed both joy and significance while still being modern might have progressed.
Rybczynski writes clearly, engagingly and avoids jargon. Not once did I read ‘scenarios of notional provocation’ or ‘metacognitive textual traces’ both of which I heard at a recent architecture symposium. Even though he uses technical and aesthetic architectural terms extensively, he explains them and never insults the reader by ‘dumbing things down’. So much academic writing about architecture could benefit immensely by trying to be more like Rybczynski.
While he often addresses the economic and political context under which works of architecture are made, he presents himself as non-ideological and is able to express both critical points of view and popular sentiments. He appears not to be a classicist, nor a modernist, but seems to be authentically looking for exemplary architecture in a ‘style-agnostic’ way.
…He addresses the contradictions of ‘post-modernism’ insightfully and prominently features several 21st century classical revival buildings juxtaposed with the work of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas.
While he doesn’t reject modernism he certainly questions the ‘Calvinist’ morality that informed a reductive, sometimes joyless and often unpopular modernism while supporting other more joyful alternative modernisms like art deco, which he explains didn’t survive the mid-20th century disruption of the global depression and World War II. He laments the rejection of ‘stripped classicism’ because of its association with Nazism, while featuring the stripped classical work of Paul Cret. He celebrates many turn of the century art nouveau works and contrasts its embrace of decorative ornament with the sparse modernism influenced by Adolph Loos’s Ornament and Crime. In more recent times he addresses the contradictions of ‘post-modernism’ insightfully and prominently features several 21st century classical revival buildings juxtaposed with the work of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas.
I wish Rybczynski hadn’t titled a significant chapter ‘Starchitects’, a word I hate, while I recognize the value of his important observations about how ‘celebrity’ in our times has [mostly detrimentally] impacted architecture as well as almost every other creative profession. Yes, he is critical of celebrity, yet he recognizes that some celebrity architects do brilliant work, and he provides insightful analysis to support his assertions.
To make a book like this work in the lovely way that it does requires that much be left out. That begs the question: What’s missing that perhaps shouldn’t be? Two significant omissions stand out: ‘sustainable design’ and ‘design for wellbeing’ – both of which are central to contemporary architectural practice.
In his earlier book, How Architecture Works: A Humanist Toolkit, Rybczynski calls sustainability a crucial concern that does not shape architectural form. This is too bad, because it is clear to many of us that sustainable design has impacted the ‘beauty, function, construction and building materials’ of architecture significantly, and not just recently. If we define sustainable design at its root as ‘using resources wisely’ then his discussion of ‘spolia’ – which are fragments of ancient buildings like columns reused in medieval architecture – could be seen as a particularly aesthetic form of recycling. His analysis of Gaudi’s Casa Batilo could point out the value of renovation and identify how cleverly the courtyard was tiled with a gradient of colored tiles to harvest daylight to the lower floors. He could have talked about the radical changes in architecture that are being driven by mass timber technology and how it compares to the earlier impacts of steel or concrete. Instead of trying to put sustainability into a tiny, near term, technical box I would have loved to see how brilliantly Rybczynski could have woven it into his 7 millennia narrative. Maybe next edition.
Beauty – seemingly his most important ‘universal’ value in defining architecture – can be seen as addressing the ‘higher’ needs of wellbeing like human dignity, connection, joy and meaning.
I have the same sentiment regarding ‘design for wellbeing’. Back to roots again, we see that the most essential functions of all buildings include providing safe and comforting environments that afford basic occupant wellbeing. Beauty – seemingly his most important ‘universal’ value in defining architecture – can be seen as addressing the ‘higher’ needs of wellbeing like human dignity, connection, joy and meaning.
His interest in getting to the origins of things and finding enduring drivers that position architecture as a significant aspect of civilization could be furthered by telling the long and varied stories of wellbeing and sustainability. These could be extra plot lines within in his already rich story, rather than seeing them as peripheral and fleeting topics irrelevant to the history of architecture.
Of course – in spite of my little and not so little quibbles – I recommend you read this book if you want to learn more about architecture or become a better architect. Perhaps more importantly, Rybczynski demonstrates that serious ideas about architecture can be written in accessible and enjoyable narratives from relatively non-ideological positions that address both why architecture matters and what making architecture entails. If he can do it, then perhaps more people who write about architecture should strive for similar high standards of simplicity, clarity, originality and occasional brilliance.
Jeff Murray, FAIA is a Senior Vice President and Market Leader with Cannon Design providing design leadership for complex projects supporting scientific research. He is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) recognized for his innovation in the design of research facilities for a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines with a focus on how design impacts human performance and collaboration.