Witold Rybczynski’s latest book—he’s written 22 now, at last count—is The Story of Architecture (Yale University Press), and it’s as comprehensive as the title implies. The author of Home and A Clearing in the Distance starts with the ancients, works his way chronologically through the movements, buildings, and architects, and into the present day. It’s done, he concedes, through his own prism. “I have not given equal attention to all parts of the world,” he writes in the book’s Note to the Reader. “This is primarily although not exclusively the story of the Western canon. That is not to slight regions that often have their own unique architectural accomplishments … but I have chosen examples that best convey the principal thrust of the strain of architectural thought that has most influenced me.” Recently I talked with Rybczynski about the genesis for the book, what architecture lost when it abandoned ornamentation, and where we are today.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
WR: Witold Rybczynski
I have the book and it’s very nicely done. Tell me the origin story.
The book started when Katherine Boller, my editor at Yale, asked me if I’d read Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. She sent me a copy, and it’s quite a wonderful book. An impossible subject, of course, but he actually pulls it off.
He wrestles it to the ground.
Exactly. The book was written in 1936, but it did not appear in English until 2005, mostly translated by Gombrich, who died in 2001. Katherine said that Yale, which published the book, had developed a series: A Little History of Philosophy, A Little History of Literature, A Little History of Economics—there were a number of titles. She asked if I was interested in writing a little history of architecture.
I noticed that all of the chapters in your book are between 8 and 10 pages, so there’s an inherent structure to it.
Gombrich’s original book had 40 chapters. I should back up and say that the attractive thing about his book is that it’s very readable—the original German title was A Short History of the World for Young Readers. The more I thought about it, the more I became intrigued. It seemed like the sort of thing that you could do when you’re approaching 80, as I am; it’s not a book that I could have written 20 years ago. In the end, the little history of architecture project didn’t work out; the series editor, who was in Yale’s London office, didn’t warm to the proposal. But Katherine suggested that we should pursue the idea as a larger illustrated book. For me what was attractive about the project was that it would be a story, a narrative.
The underlying narrative of course is time, right?
Yes, but the story format also meant that I was looking for continuities and linkages rather than simply categorizing historical periods such as Gothic or Romanesque. I also wanted to make this a book about the practice of architecture, rather than an art history book that looked only at the end product. I wanted the reader to understand buildings in the context of their time, their clients, building technology, and so on. Because I’ve been a practitioner as well as a writer and critic, I understood that designing a building was not like creating a painting. For one thing, buildings are not initiated by architects; they’re initiated by other people: clients. The story needed to reflect that. The title, The Story of Architecture, was a homage to Gombrich, who had written The Story of Art, and like him I wanted to illustrate any building that I discussed. Obviously, that limited the number of examples, so organizing the book became an exercise in identifying influential buildings and then figuring out how those buildings linked up.
Did you work your way chronologically through the book, or did you jump around to different eras?
The book is organized chronologically, but it jumps around geographically. For example, to the Middle East, North Africa, and Moorish Spain to discuss Islamic architecture, and to Persia and dynastic China. One chapter pairs Palladio’s villas and the Katsura imperial villa in Kyoto, which are roughly contemporaneous. I also include a chapter on Gaudí, who wasn’t someone that I initially thought to write about, but I realized that he represented a personal interpretation of architecture that would eventually become mainstream—many architects would have their own personal vision. I also included buildings that are often left out of architectural histories, such as Henry Bacon’s Lincoln Memorial.
And what surprised you in writing the book?
Several things. For example, the importance of ornament. Once people discovered how to build columns, arches, and domes, those were part of a language, but they became particular to a culture because they were ornamented in a certain way. For thousands of years, architecture was to a great extent defined by ornament. Of course, ornament also has a lot to do with meaning.
Exactly, although ornament was used not only in places of worship. In almost every period, architects collaborated with artists, whether they were muralists, painters, or sculptors. Up to roughly the 1930s, that collaboration remained a key ingredient of important buildings. For example, the Lincoln Memorial, where Bacon worked with Daniel Chester French and Jules Guerin, or an urban complex such as Rockefeller Center, where artistic ornament is a key part of the experience.
As I wrote the book, I realized that by banishing ornament modernism also banished art, and buildings lost a lot in the process, not only a different sensibility as well as meaning but also legible detail. What I mean is that when you approach a modern building what you generally see are technical details such as nuts and bolts.
Yes, “expressed” structure.
But also mute. A bolt is just not that interesting; all it says is, “I am a bolt.” In older buildings, what you saw when you got close was rich and meaningful carving, mosaic, wrought-iron work, and stained glass. That integration of art and ornament stopped very abruptly.
Post–World War II.
Pretty much, yes. Earlier, architects such as Otto Wagner in the Postal Savings Bank combined sculpted figures with minimal surface ornament. Conversely, in his Majolikahaus, which I discuss in the book, the tiled surface treatment is breathtaking—all these floral designs and bright colors. I find this to be a very interesting period, when architects explored modernism with ornament.
Where are we right now? We’re in a weird moment at present, aren’t we, as far as what architecture is and what the dominant style is, and all of those things?
When you write a book like this, you get a sense of the sweep of history, the view from a thousand feet. You see that the story of architecture is not continuous, but ebbs and flows. There are productive periods. Sometimes it may be a group of people who happen to work in the same place at the same time, and are concerned with the same issues. Renaissance Florence was one of those places, so was fin-de-siècle Vienna. And New York City in the early 20th century, where architects and artists worked together—I’m thinking of architects such as Bertrand Goodhue and Raymond Hood, and artists such as Hildreth Meiére and Lee Lawrie. At the same time, there are also moments that are less productive, when architects lose their way and architecture seems to get stalled, or “stuck” as James Stirling once put it. I suspect that we may be in such a period today. There are some good architects, but everyone is going off in different directions on their own. It doesn’t quite add up.
I would agree with you. There’s a kind of soul searching about what the role of architects is.
Yes. When I look at architecture magazines and websites, they’re covering climate change and social issues, which while important are not really architectural questions, they’re technical or social or political. There isn’t much critical discussion about architecture itself. And I think that partly reflects the confused moment that we’re in. I can be critical of early modern architecture, whose solutions were often simplistic, but I am almost envious of that period. There was a sense of camaraderie. Modernist architects were marginal figures—outsiders, really—and so they supported each other, organized conferences and exhibitions, wrote pamphlets and manifestos. There’s something endearing about that moment. But it’s not a moment we’re in today, not at all. I don’t see any of that. People are focused on their own work. Maybe they’re busier than they ever were, after all globalization creates a lot of commissions, but I’m not convinced that it makes for better architecture.
It does seem like we’re either at the end of an exhausted era, or ready to start some new era.
I agree. Exhausted is the right word.
Featured image: Postal Savings Bank, designed by Otto Wagner, Vienna, 1905, via Smarthistory.