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Summer Reading for Design Lovers: The Story of Architecture

Witold Rybczynski talks to Designers & Books about his most recent guide to our built environment.

By Witold Rybczynski July 13, 2023

What’s on our summer reading list? As design book devotees, we’re turning to The Story of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski.

Recently, Designers & Books had a chance to talk with the author about how he conceived his expansive and engaging history of buildings from the Stone Age to the present day—his 22nd book—and what readers can take away from it.D&B.

Designers & Books: As you researched The Story of Architecture, what factors did you conclude were most critical in driving the advance and evolution of architecture? Technology? Materials? Construction methods? Economics? The ambition of clients? The imagination of architects? Or . . .?

Witold Rybczynski, The Story of Architecture (Yale University Press, 2022).

Witold Rybczynski: I must confess that I don’t believe that architecture evolves—it’s not a science. Is Pope’s Rotunda at the National Gallery more “advanced” than the Pantheon? In a way, architects across the ages have faced similar issues: a setting, a site, a way of building, a way of handling details, style, and so on. What makes architecture so interesting is the different ways that different periods and different architects have dealt—or not dealt—with these issues.

The constant that kept coming up again and again in my story is best expressed by Otto Wagner’s advice to his students: “The architect always has to develop the art form out of construction.” Develop doesn’t necessarily mean reveal, as the pilaster demonstrates, nor does it mean that architecture is simply engineering. I think Wagner saw construction as the springboard from which architecture derived its chief qualities: order, meaning, and beauty.

D&B: You quote Julia Morgan at the very beginning of your book: “Buildings speak for themselves.” While we can generally nod in agreement with that sentiment, isn’t your book itself proof that her statement is only partially true?

WR: What I think she meant was that it is the actual experience of a building that lies at the heart of architecture. I am very sympathetic to this view. Although my story deals with architects, clients, cultural backgrounds, and ideas, it focuses chiefly on the built work. That is why I didn’t include unrealized designs. This is a book about objects not theories.

D&B: The popular heroes in The Story of Architecture are well known. Who are the most significant “unsung heroes and heroines” in your book who deserve more attention?

WR: E. H. Gombrich, whose Story of Art inspired my book, wrote that “the most famous works are really often the greatest by many standards.” So too with buildings. Famous buildings are part of my story not because they are well known but because they really are “the greatest by many standards.” At the same time, I did include some unsung great buildings such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Empire State Building. If there are “unsung heroes” they might be Bertram Goodhue and Paul Cret. Are Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capital, and Cret’s Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington, DC, traditional or modern? I think they are both.

D&B: Is the way your book is organized—six sections, each divided into six or seven subsections—just convenient, or purposely significant and meaningful?

WR: I had a rough book length in mind and Yale University Press (the publisher) had limited the number of images, so that was a discipline. The 39 chapters are relatively short, but they vary considerably; some are devoted to a single historical period (the High Renaissance, the Viennese Secession), some to a single building (Hagia Sophia, Durham Cathedral) or group of buildings (the Acropolis, the Alhambra), some to a single architect (Gaudí, Aalto). Some chapters compare two or more buildings of the same time and place—or of different places. I actually like the short format—the Parthenon in a single paragraph. When I was Slate’s architecture critic, I often wrote slideshows with captions of less than 200 words, and from my editor, Meghan O’Rourke, a poet, I learned to compress.

Hagia Sophia, 532–537 CE. The great double buttresses counter the thrust of the dome. The minarets are an Ottoman addition, constructed when the basilica was turned into a mosque. Photo: Nserrano. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

D&B: In the process of writing your book, what “of consequence” did you learn that you didn’t know before?

WR: I was struck by the almost universal presence of ornament, not simply its presence but its central role. Architects speak of light and space, which are important qualities in a building such as St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, but it is the ornament—the delicately carved capitals, the evocative mosaics, the sculptures, the icons—that is at the heart of the experience. The ornament provides not only visual richness but also meaning.

While modernist advocates have focused on the utilitarian upper floors of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co. department store in Chicago as an early example of Adolf Loos’s pronouncement that “ornament is crime,” it is Louis Sullivan’s richly ornamented cast-iron display window surrounds at sidewalk level that delight passersby. Otto Wagner’s contemporaneous Majolikahaus, in Loos’s Vienna, likewise uses ornament to great effect.

D&B: You say that “architecture has always involved both collaboration and compromise.” Regarding compromise, to its benefit or its detriment?

Villa La Rotonda, Vicenza. Palladio, 1566–70. The hilltop villa has four identical Ionic porticos. Photo: Quinok. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

WR: One compromise that architects were obliged to make in the past involved the length of time it took to complete a building, meaning that often one architect started a building but another—or several others—completed it. Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda was finished by Scamozzi, who flattened Palladio’s tall dome, a not unattractive result to my eye. Della Porta and Fontana completed Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, which looks fine. On the other hand, Maderno’s rather pedestrian east facade is a bit of a comedown. Nevertheless, I like the evidence of different creative hands in old buildings; it is a humanizing quality that makes architecture different from the other arts.

D&B: In your “Note to the Reader,” you refer to “the principal thrust of the strain of architectural thought” that has most influenced you. How would you describe that “thrust”?

WR: I attended McGill University in Montreal in the sixties. The architecture program had been founded at the end of the nineteenth century by Scottish Arts and Crafts architects. One of the foundations of their approach was construction—the school was situated within the faculty of engineering. By the time I studied, the design curriculum was modernist, but there was still a strong emphasis on construction, and on architectural history, particularly the roots of the Western canon in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Later, I traveled and saw many of the buildings for myself. As I was writing my book, I became aware of many other influences: Persian, Byzantine, and Moorish, for example. Equally interesting are traditional Chinese buildings, which are both like—and unlike—Western architecture.

Hagia Sophia. The wedge-shaped carved marble imposts of Byzantine columns were designed to carry arches rather than an entablature. Note the vestigial Ionic volutes. The book-matched marble of a pier is visible in the background. Photo: Mark Ahsman. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

D&B: Why does the appearance of the column merit “fanfare”—even today?

WR: The column, which emerged in ancient Egypt, formed the basis of ancient architecture—a Greek temple is just a simple box; the architecture is all about the columns. Ancient columns could be imagined as trees, as soldiers, and as human figures in the case of caryatids. Columns were also central to Arabic and Moorish architecture, which often reused antique Roman columns. The column’s primacy continued in the medieval period, and the Renaissance pilaster is a column turned into a wall ornament. Domes and vaults were also important, of course, but in many ways the column remained for a long time a key ingredient of the Western canon.

D&B: Has the rise of the “starchitect” class changed the role and perception of the role of the architect in society?

WR: Unlike some, I do not consider “starchitect” to be a disparaging term. I think it well describes the globe-trotting architect whose name is an internationally recognized brand. My book includes buildings by Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid. On the positive side, the globalization of architecture has raised public awareness and has provided building opportunities for (some) architects. On the negative side, architects building in places they don’t know, for people they don’t know—and who don’t know them—is not necessarily a recipe for great architecture. Architectural branding can all too easily turn buildings into fashionable—and faddish—“products.”

D&B: You ascribe a great deal of importance to Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Why was it “profession changing”? What other buildings from the past have exerted similar influence?

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain. Gehry Partners, 1991–97. The chaotic collision of forms covered in titanium had no architectural precedent. Photo: Ardfern. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

WR: I think that the Guggenheim Bilbao shook up the architectural world by questioning many of what had been previously considered inviolable design rules. This has happened before. Bramante’s Tempietto is a tiny building but it similarly had a big influence, demonstrating how a dome could be combined with classical columns. Later architects such as Michelangelo and Wren, would elaborate Bramante’s insight; so did Thomas U. Walter in the U.S. Capitol dome. The skylit exhibition rooms of John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first example in architectural history, changed museum design forever. Of course, not every innovative building is influential. Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia did not alter church design, any more than Wright’s Guggenheim Museum changed the design of art museums.

D&B: According to the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), women accounted for 51 percent of all students enrolled in accredited architecture programs in 2019 (most recent data available). This is a significant increase from the 41 percent of women enrolled in architecture school in 2008. Does this signal any shifts in how the profession is practiced and in the future nature of our built environment?

WR: Judging from historic examples—Theodate Pope Riddle, Julia Morgan, Charlotte Perriand, Alison Smithson, Lina Bo Bardi, Denise Scott Brown, Zaha Hadid—I would not expect the increased presence of women in the architectural profession to alter the practice of architecture in a significant way, any more than it has altered the practice of professions such as accountancy, dentistry, medicine, or the law.

The Story of Architecture
By Witold Rybczynski
2022, hardcover, 360 pages, 169 illustrations
Available from Yale University Press

For further reading:

Books that Inspire Witold Rybczynski

Books by Witold Rybczynski


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