Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2013, English
Nonfiction, Architecture
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, hardcover, 368 pages, black-and-white photographs throughout
ISBN: 9780374211745
Suggested Retail Price: $27.00

From the Publisher. In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski, one of our best, most stylish critics and winner of the Vincent Scully Prize for his architectural writing, answers our most fundamental questions about how good—and not-so-good—buildings are designed and constructed. Introducing the reader to the rich and varied world of modern architecture, he takes us behind the scenes, revealing how architects as different as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Robert A. M. Stern envision and create their designs. He teaches us how to “read” plans, how buildings respond to their settings, and how the smallest detail—of a stair balustrade, for instance—can convey an architect’s vision. Ranging widely from a war memorial in London to an opera house in St. Petersburg, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to a famous architect’s private retreat in downtown Princeton, How Architecture Works, explains the central elements that make up good building design. It is an enlightening humanist’s toolkit for thinking about the built environment and seeing it afresh.

Also see our interview with Witold Rybczynski on How Architecture Works.

On 2 book lists
Phil Patton

Architects and their friends should celebrate this book but probably won’t. With the nod in its subtitle to old-fashioned “humanism,” it would be a very useful book for the college course every architect and believer in architecture wishes were required of every freshman. That is, it is general enough, reasonable enough, and accommodating enough to leave the right impression about architecture with people who will never read another book on the subject—people who will go on to work outside of architecture’s professional culture.

This is the way the author appears to see it as well.  The book is dedicated to Rybczynski’s freshman seminar students, aptly enough, and unreels in chapters arranged by ten concepts, the tools, such as “site” and “details.” The main sense here is a lack of the shrillness of most architectural discussion. Rybczynski’s career and life been characterized by reasonableness and practicality, context and measure—in short, most of the qualities absent from talk about architecture.

Witold Rybczynski came onto the public scene with his book Home: a Short History of an Idea at a time when the stridency of the dialogue of architecture was particularly irritating. He offered up a simple concept: comfort as the goal of designers.  Some of us knew him even earlier from his book Taming the Tiger, a thoughtful consideration of technology that showed his range of interest and thought, and we delighted in his little book, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

Rybczynski is real architect—someone who can design a building. Until recently he taught in an academic design and planning program that did not shy away from using the term “real estate” its name. In the age of star architecture he feels the need to remind the reader that buildings reflect much about the corporations as well as the cities and countries that build them. (Cherchez the client!)

A virtue of the toolkit of concepts format is that is shows how down to earth architecture can be, in terms of both function and aesthetics. Rybczynski says, “Most architecture, a backdrop for our everyday lives, is experienced in bits and pieces—the glimpsed view of a distant spire, the intricacy of a wrought-iron railing, the soaring space of a railroad station waiting room. Sometimes it’s just a detail, a well-shaped door handle, a window framing a perfect little view, a rosette carved into a chapel pew. And we say to ourselves, ‘How nice. Someone actually thought of that.’” Along the way, we get good explanations of the skyscraper story—steel skeleton, Sulllivan, the whole tale—in just a few pages, plus talk about things like why there are no mosquito screens at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. He manages to work in the basic names and ideas and stories, the Wright, and Sullivan and Le Corbusier chestnuts, but he also walks up to real landmarks and looks at the hinges on their doors.

The book is also dedicated to the proposition that theory has no place in architecture. “I believe that architecture emerges from the act of building,” he writes. “Theories, if they have any place at all, are an indulgence of the scholar, not a need of the practitioner.” That at least is one theory. Architecture should work, as the title suggests. The passage is likely to set off many practitioners and professors equally. It suggests that many of the problems of recent architecture, measured by half centuries, say, has to do with the persistent overlap of scholar (or at least academic) and practitioner. But I also like to imagine that this is the sort of book that will help produce a more tolerant and understanding City Councilman or a board of directors member decades hence.

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