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Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: How Architecture Works

How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit by Witold Rybczynski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Hardcover, 368 pages



A sketch by Louis I. Kahn of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, graces the cover of Witold Rybczynski's 18th book—a number I knew was high but hadn't nailed down until reading an interview at Designers & Books. It is a telling image, for it straddles tradition and modernity, something that Rybczynski does throughout the book, eventually asserting his appreciation for a variety of design approaches. It's hard to think that Kahn was shunned by many modernists for bringing mass and echoes of traditional forms into his architecture in the 1950s and 60s. The Kimbell's vaults recall Roman buildings, yet the strip of light at their apex, and the gap between the concrete structure and the infill walls, subtly signals modern construction underlying the whole thing. Very few architects have been able to achieve such a unique synthesis of the modern and the past, so it's fitting that Kahn's sketch signals "how architecture works."

The title makes it clear that Rybczynski has crafted a book for a general audience, for those who appreciate architecture but probably can't speak about it critically beyond "I like that" or "I don't like that." In this vein, the inclusion of a glossary is hardly surprising, though the author fills it primarily with words that reference the Classical tradition of architecture. He acknowledges as much in some sentences prefacing the glossary (pointing out that modern architecture has not existed long enough to build up its own vocabulary), but what comes before across ten chapters is much heavier on contemporary architecture than anything even preceding modern architecture. This makes sense, for after all Rybczynski is a critic, and what critic (outside of one) spends his time discussing glories of the past rather than the new forms (literally and metaphorically) that architecture is taking? Therefore, Rybczynski doesn't promote one approach over another, meaning people honing their skills on architecture come away with a more personal and nuanced appreciation of architecture akin to the author's.

The first time I read one of Rybczynski's books was in college for a class on environment and behavior. The book was Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture (his sixth, per the author's website), a collection of essays and lectures. While I haven't looked through it since that class (though I still have it, in anticipation of that happening again...perhaps sooner now that I've read his latest) a few essays have stuck with me. One of them is on the design of chairs and what it means when they are transplanted from homes or offices or classrooms and put on display in museums. They can't be sat on or touched in museums, only appreciated visually and historically through placards. So if a chair can no longer be sat upon, is it still serving its purpose? The same can be asked of various entities, but it clearly elevates experience (and in turn design for experience) above other means of appreciation. It also aligns Rybczynski's ideas—consistent two decades later—as firmly humanist, just as the subtitle of his new book attests.

How Architecture Works has a clear trajectory in its chapters, both from the general to the detailed in terms of subject, and from the broad to the personal in terms of Rybczynski's writing. In the case of the former, the reader ventures from the realm of "ideas" to "the setting" and eventually to "details," at which time enough basics have been covered to delve into "style," "the past" and "taste." These last few chapters see Rybczynski revealing more and more about his own preference, but just when it seems like the first 2/3 of the book and its focus on contemporary architecture is going to be knocked down he reveals his openness to various styles and approaches to design.

This doesn't mean that certain architects and buildings don't bubble to the fore throughout the book; Frank Gehry, Mies van der Rohe, Renzo Piano, Frank Lloyd Wright, and cover man Louis Kahn receive the most ink, based on memory and the size of their index entries. Yet it's probably Paul Cret, close behind these five architects in how much he's discussed, that embodies Rybczynski's ongoing search for what he calls the "essence of architecture." Cret's epigraph is the first thing confronted inside the book, and like Kahn's sketch the words prompt the reader to keep an open mind, looking beyond function and construction to that "something that makes architecture a think apart."


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