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The Look of Architecture

The Look of Architecture

by Witold Rybczynski

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Throwing the door shut on conventional architectural theory, Witold Rybezynski's The Look of Architecture posits a fascinating idea: that the connection between architecture, interior decoration, and fashion is innate. Style is the language of architecture, he writes, and fashion represents the wide and swirling cultural currents that shape and direct that language.


Throwing the door shut on conventional architectural theory, Witold Rybezynski's The Look of Architecture posits a fascinating idea: that the connection between architecture, interior decoration, and fashion is innate. Style is the language of architecture, he writes, and fashion represents the wide and swirling cultural currents that shape and direct that language. To set these ideas in sharp relief, he argues that form does not follow function; that the best architecture is not timeless but precisely of its time; and that details do not merely complement the architecture, details are the architecture. He illustrates his argument by examining how style and fashion are expressed in the work of major architects including Frank Gehry, Mies van der Rohe, Charles McKim, Allan Greenberg, Robert Venturi, Enrique Norten, and many others. Rybezynski concludes that an architecture that recognizes the importance of style would be about more than just buildings, it would be a part of the world: no longer architecture for architects, but for the rest of us as well.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In his introduction, New Yorker and Time magazine contributor Rybczynski (urbanism, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Home) acknowledges that this book began with a series of three extemporaneous talks at the New York Public Library in fall 2001. Yet he still offers keenly observed and cogent commentary on the significance of style and fashion in architecture. Using anecdote, historical data, and descriptive prose to comment on Western architecture during the modern era, Rybczynski shows how the often dismissed discipline of apparel design finds its correlative in architectural fashion. An examination of three stair railings from Le Corbusier's Shodhan House, I.M. Pei's East Building at the National Gallery of Art, and Bernard Tschumi's new Lerner Center at Columbia University interweaves a deep appreciation for how the materials of architecture are assembled with references to their diverse theoretical foundations. Illustrations are regrettably small and low in resolution. Even so, this book serves more ably as an architectural primer than James O'Gorman's ABC of Architecture (LJ 12/97) and should become a companion, if not a worthy successor, to Steen Eiler Rasmussen's Experiencing Architecture (1964). For all architecture collections. Paul Glassman, New York Sch. of Interior Design Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Playing to one of his strengths, Rybczynski (One Good Turn, 2000, etc.) takes a seemingly whimsical topic-the role of fashion in architecture-and lightly teases from it some discomfiting truths. Discomfiting, that is, for those architects-count them in legions-who bridle at the suggestion they might work in a style. But for Rybczynski it is plain as day that, of the three elements of architecture (function, durability, and delight), style has much to do with the last. "Architectural style is the manner in which the architect communicates a particular kind of visual delight." Furthermore, "if style is the language of architecture, fashion represents the wide-and swirling-cultural currents that shape and direct that language." (Then, devilishly, if not convincingly, "If the relationship between dress and decor is intimate . . . there is no doubt that dress comes first.") This short work is the result of a series of lectures delivered at the New York Public Library, and the author makes good use of the materials at hand-the library itself, the famous series of buildings along the 40th Street side, the infamous bunch along 42nd Street, and a few nearby structures-not only to display his sharp use of imagery (as in the "medieval verticality" of the RCA building or Raymond Hood's black-and-gold Radiator Building glowing like hot coals) but to chart the rise and fall of styles-along with representative architects. Like his colleagues, Rybczynski doesn't like confinement either, and he happily spins off to explore notions of absorbing and extending traditions, the importance of expressive detailing, and the folly of categorization (as architects "instinctively understand that the history ofarchitecture-including the present-is a continuity rather than a series of episodes"). A good demonstration that clothes make the mansion, as well as the man.
From the Publisher
"As always, Rybczynski has an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the felicitous phrase."—Eric P. Nash, New York Times Book Review

"In his absorbing and accessible book-length essay on the relationship between fashion and building design...Rybczynski argues eloquently that, as in fashion, a building's form is molded by the tastes of its age."—One: Design Matters

"Rybczyniski takes a seemingly whimsical topic—the role of fashion in architecture—and lightly teases from it some discomfiting truths."—Kirkus (starred review)

"A thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how buildings reflect the desires of their age."—The Boston Globe

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
New York Public Library Lectures in Humanities Series
Product dimensions:
7.10(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Architecture is hard to define. Goethe called it music frozen in space, which, while it captures a sense of rhythm, is too one-dimensional. And it relegates the mother of the arts to an inferior position; just as well to describe music as melted architecture. Nietzsche believed that architecture reflected his pride, man's triumph over gravity, and his will to power. This notion applies to many buildings, from Gothic cathedrals to skyscrapers, but it is too, well, Nietzschean. The British master Edwin Lutyens referred to architecture as a sort of play: "In architecture, Palladio is the game!" Le Corbusier described his art as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light," which is a good description of one of his own buildings. I am partial to Sir Henry Wotton's definition. Wotton, who lived a long time in Venice and was a lover of architecture though not an architect, published a treatise on the subject in 1642. "In Architecture, as in all other Operative Arts, the end must direct the Operation," he wrote. "The end is to build well. Well-building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmeness, and Delight."

    Sir Henry's description, which was based on the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, appeals to me because it emphasizes the complexity of the building art. To begin with, architecture has not one but three distinct purposes: to shelter human activity (commodity), to durably challenge gravity and the elements (firmness), and to be an object of beauty (delight). Architecture is always a synthesis of the three. However, the fulfillment of one purpose does not guarantee the satisfaction of the others. There are homely sturdy buildings and beautiful flimsy ones. A well-planned building can be ugly just as a beautiful building can function poorly. Form does not, contrary to Louis Sullivan's hoary maxim, follow function.

    Not only are function and form separate, over their long lives buildings can successfully accommodate a variety of uses. For example, some of the most famous museums (the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Belvedere) started life as royal palaces; the Uffizi in Florence is so named because it originally housed offices; and the Prado in Madrid was designed to be a museum of science, not art. The acclaimed Musée d'Orsay in Paris is housed in a railroad station. Two of my favorite small museums, the Frick Collection in New York City and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., were built as residences. As historic preservation and adaptive reuse demonstrate, you can shop in a renovated warehouse, do office work in a converted loft, or live in a barn. Assuming, of course, that the warehouse, the loft, and the barn were well built. The material fabric of old buildings—the heavy beams, rough brick walls, and solid woodwork—is one of their chief pleasures. That is why we feel cheated by hollow walls, flimsy doors, and shaky balustrades. Buildings should last and feel as though they will.

    One might assume that just as the highest-rated cars—Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus—represent the highest standards of automobile technology, the most admired architecture would be the best built. This was generally true in the past, but in the twentieth century, when new materials and new aesthetic theories often have driven architects to cavalier experimentation, even celebrated architects have fallen short in that department. Le Corbusier's white suburban villas, for example, were crudely finished in cement plaster on top of brick, and since the architect usually ignored (for aesthetic reasons) intrusive metal flashing and coping strips, the crude "machines for living" often aged poorly. Some Frank Lloyd Wright buildings have leaky skylights, sagging overhangs, and defective heating systems. This does not make them any less delightful to visit, but it must make them considerably less delightful to inhabit. Perhaps the most dramatic example of failed experimentation in recent years is the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which opened in 1977. The building was widely praised for its architectural innovation—the British periodical Architectural Design called it "a seminal building of the Modern Movement." The architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers turned the building literally inside-out. They dramatically hung pipes, ducts, fire stairs, elevators, and escalators from the exterior structure. These previously hidden elements were now exposed in plain sight—and exposed to the elements. The result might have been foreseen: after only twenty years, the French government was obliged to close the building for a two-year renovation. Although the authorities maintained that the renovation was required because of the unexpectedly large number of visitors, according to Le Monde almost half of the $90 million budget was spent on refurbishing the façade.

    The University of Pennsylvania, where I teach, is the site of Louis I. Kahn's A. N. Richards Medical Research Laboratory. This structural tour-de-force of precast concrete and brick brought its designer international acclaim. I remember traveling from Montreal to Philadelphia as a student to see the building a few years after it was built. My classmates and I particularly admired the exposed concrete structure and the explicit separation of what Kahn called "servant" and "served" spaces—massive brick ventilation shafts and delicate, glass-enclosed individual laboratories. However, The latter proved to be unpopular with their occupants. The large windows let in too much light (today, most are papered over with aluminum foil), cement dust from the exposed concrete beams falls on the lab tables, and the rigid plan has proved inflexible to changing needs.

    The Richards Laboratory was built only 35 years ago. It is next to a student dormitory known as the Quad, a picturesque Jacobean Revival complex planned around a series of courtyards. This handsome building has been doing yeoman service for almost a century. The Quad was designed by the Philadelphia firm of Walter Cope and John Stewardson, whose work at the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Bryn Mawr was largely responsible for the popularity of so-called Collegiate Gothic. Pleasing, well-loved—and well-built—the Quad is architecture of the highest order. Yet my classmates and I did not pay any attention to the dormitory when we visited Philadelphia years ago. We had never heard of Cope & Stewardson, despite their achievements and wide cultural influence. The architecture historians whom we studied—Siegfried Giedion, Nikolaus Pevsner, James Marston Fitch—favored innovators and experimenters, even if the innovations and experiments often failed. Put another way, most historians of modern architecture gave precedence to Delight over Commoditie and Firmeness. This may be because the appearance of a building was easier to assess (especially at a distance) than either its functional performance or material durability. Or maybe they were attracted chiefly to the aesthetic qualities of architecture. In any case, "imaginative, inventive, and revolutionary" were more likely accolades to be showered on important buildings than "accommodating, dependable, and sound."

    This is not to say that good architecture is merely utilitarian. One of the grandest spaces in Philadelphia is the concourse of Thirtieth Street Station, which was built in 1934 for the Pennsylvania Railroad by the accomplished Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the successor firm of Daniel H. Burnham. The magnificent room, 290 feet long and almost 100 feet high, is covered by a flat coffered ceiling decorated in red, gold, and cream. Diffused light streams in from tall windows on both sides. Almost nothing in this memorable space—the gilded Art Deco chandeliers, the travertine walls, the massive Corinthian columns at each end—was a product of its rather mundane function: to provide a waiting space for people, before they descended the staircases that led to the platforms below. But the railroad station concourse in the heyday of railroad travel, was more than merely a place to get on and off trains. It was a gateway to the city, as well as a symbol of unreserved faith in modern transportation—and in the Pennsylvania Railroad. That is why it was appropriate for delight to take precedence over commodity.

    Yet delight is not uniform. The Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, for example, offers different pleasures than Thirtieth Street Station. The monumental spaces are comparable in size and function. They are both well built. Similar spaces, similar materials, yet the experience of the two concourses is different. Both buildings are inspired by the Classical architecture of the past, but Grand Central, which opened in 1913, is a modified version of Beaux-Arts Classicism, whereas the Philadelphia station, despite the Corinthian columns, is simplified, abstracted, and stylized, what historians called "stripped Classicism." As a result, Grand Central is dramatic, visually rich in its details, almost Wagnerian; Thirtieth Street is equally dramatic but in a way that is coolly geometrical and sleekly urbane—not Wagner, Cole Porter. Style is evident in the smallest details. It ensures a continuity between the great vaulted sky of Grand Central and the ticket counters, or between the Thirtieth Street chandeliers and the announcement boards at each track stair. It is the visual language of a building. Architectural style is the manner in which the architect communicates a particular kind of visual delight, in large ways and small.

    Commodity, firmness, and delight are never evenly weighted. Sometimes one predominates, sometimes the other. Sometimes a waiting room needs to be a triumphal celebration of arrival and departure—sometimes it is just a waiting room. Sometimes it is necessary to compromise structural simplicity to achieve an esthetic effect. Sometimes functional requirements override other considerations; a laboratory that does not serve its scientists is a failed work of architecture, no matter how beautiful its design. A banal church is a greater failure than a banal factory. The art of building requires judiciously balancing Wotton's three conditions.

    The end must direct the operation. That is what distinguishes architecture from the fine arts of painting and sculpture "An artist can paint square wheels," Paul Klee once observed, "but an architect must make them round." Architecture, in this respect, is no different than other "operative arts" such as cooking. The creativity of the chef is likewise circumscribed by factors outside his control—the natural ingredients, the human palate, the chemistry of foods. The dish must be at once nourishing (commodity), cookable (firmness), and, of course, tasty (delight). (It should also look good, although the contemporary trend toward visually extravagant dishes seems to me an aberration). The art of cooking, like the art of architecture, lies in knowing how to establish the appropriate relations between the three conditions.

The experience of food is sensual. It is also first-hand. That is, while it's fun to read recipes and look at photographs of table settings in Gourmet magazine, no one I know considers this a substitute for eating. The experience of buildings is sensual, too. Yet, many of us get our first glimpses of buildings—particularly celebrated buildings—as images in books, magazines, newspapers, public lectures, and exhibitions. One of the most famous buildings of the Modern movement, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, was known almost entirely through photographs since it was built for an exhibition that lasted only seven months. Before photography, the Paimio Tubercolosis Sanatorium, located in a remote part of Finland, would have remained obscure; as it was, its stunning images brought the young Alvar Aalto worldwide recognition. The Sydney Opera House is another world-famous building that, at least outside Australia, relatively few people have seen first-hand. Yet photography tells us very little about how a building fulfills its function, or about how it is built. For example, the handrails in the often-photographed stairway of the Paimio sanatorium look like standard International Style metal pipes. In fact they are wood—much more pleasant to the touch—painted to look like metal. Well-known photographs of the Barcelona Pavilion show eight free-standing columns supporting a flat slab, and free-standing marble screens that carry no loads, a prototypical International Style structure. In reality, there are columns concealed within the screens, which are not slabs of marble but thin marble sheets attached to a masonry back-up wall. In other words, this 1929 building is an example of traditional layered construction, not of modernistic structural purism.

    In photographs, buildings are forever young. The ravages of time, weather, and use are banished. It is a shock to come across a revered architectural icon and to find the concrete stained, the painted window frames chipped, the tiles cracked. Of course, all buildings age, but some age more gracefully than others. A 450-year-old Palladio villa retains its beauty, despite peeling plaster and mossy stonework (perhaps it even looks more enchanting). Most modern buildings, on the other hand, lose their potency if they are not gleaming and machinelike.

    Obviously, photography highlights the visual qualities of buildings and ignores commodity and firmness. Yet photography cannot completely communicate delight. A visitor to the Seagram Building in New York, for example, is surprised to discover the subtle relationship between Mies' bronze tower and the Italian Renaissance façade of McKim, Mead & White's Racquet and Tennis Club on the other side of Park Avenue. Equally deceptive are photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright's work in Oak Park, since they give no hint of the comfortable suburban surroundings of his so-called prairie houses. As I student, I studied the buildings of Le Corbusier in black and white photographs, which did not prepare me for the shock of experiencing his often wildly polychrome interiors. Nor can photography communicate movement, which is such an integral part of the architectural experience (film is better at this, but not much). Nothing conveys the actual experience of a building like the real thing. To paraphrase Robert Hughes, a photograph of architecture is to architecture as telephone sex is to sex.

    Never is modern architectural photography more misleading than in its portrayal of domestic interiors. Interiors are usually photographed empty or with minimal furnishings, before the owners have had the opportunity to move in and (presumably) defile the purity of the design. But even if the space is occupied, strict conventions prevail: furniture must be lined up just so; there must be no distractions, no half-empty tea cups, no crumpled newspapers, no abandoned children's toys. Books on shelves are arranged to create interesting patterns, personal mementos are temporarily banished—everything must be neat. I once observed a photographer's assistant during a photo shoot comb out the fringe of a rug. Such primping and visual editing sets off the architecture to best advantage. It also—not coincidentally—gives the impression that the designed interior is autonomous and self-contained: in other words, that it is a work of art. Markedly, these photographs never include human figures. People would be the greatest distraction of all.

    The world of buildings depicted in books and magazines is a scaleless, self-sufficient place. The absence of people in architectural photographs has several effects. In the past, the proportions and dimensions of buildings were based on the human body. While this was done for philosophical reasons, it also ensured a direct relationship between architecture and people—it is why even very large Classical buildings feel comfortable. By removing people from buildings, architectural photography makes it possible to regard architecture as an abstraction, unrelated to humans. It is not merely that the conventions of modern architectural photography ideally communicate the intentions of most modern architects, it is also that they validate those intentions. People? Who needs them?

    While I was writing Home, I discovered that the most useful historical sources for information about how people furnished and decorated their homes were often paintings. Not paintings in which the room was the subject, but portraits and domestic genre scenes. An example of the latter is James Tissot's, "Hide and Seek," which shows four little girls at play in a Victorian sitting room. The décor is exotic, an eclectic mixture of Persian rugs, Chinese porcelain pots, and tiger-skins and others furs scattered over the furniture.

    Tissot was a French painter who settled in London in 1871. An easel in the corner suggests that this is his own house, in which case, the woman sunk deep into an easy chair, reading a newspaper may be his Irish mistress. John Singer Sargent's masterpiece, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," painted in 1882, likewise shows four girls. Henry James described it as "the happy play-world of a family of charming children," but the girls can hardly be said to be playing. Properly dressed in white pinafores, black socks, and patent leather shoes, they form a motionless tableau. The room, in an apartment in Paris, is stylishly bare, unadorned except for two immense Japanese vases and a red screen. The mood is entirely different in the Swedish painter Carl Larsson's playful "Mother's and the Cherubs' Room," which was included in Larsson's famous book Ett Hem (At Home), published in 1899. The walls of his wife's bedroom are wooden boards, whitewashed and decorated with a painted frieze of ribboned garlands; the ceiling, likewise wood, is painted green with red trim. The simple furniture is also painted in bright colors. Karin Larsson's bed is separated from the children's cots by a striped woven curtain. We see three of the Larsson girls in various stages of dress—and undress. That is appropriate, too, for naturalism and artlessness permeate this charming scene.

    Such paintings are more faithful depictions of domestic surroundings than modern architectural photographs. For one thing, they are full of the signs of everyday life. A coat is thrown casually over a chair, there are crumbs on the table, Tissot's little girl playing on the floor rumples the carpet. Moreover, in these interiors the architecture is in the background. It is a setting for human activity—just as it is in real life. Paintings also convey something about the atmosphere of the interior. Dutch seventeenth-century domestic paintings, for example, exude a prosperous air of bourgeois comfort and propriety. A hundred years later, François Boucher painted a middle-class French family gathering for morning coffee in a little room with japanned woodwork and gilded moldings. There is a sweet intimacy here that is absent in the Dutch interiors. An interior of the same period by Henry Walton shows an English gentleman at breakfast. He is sitting in a relaxed posture, wearing a riding-coat and boots, accompanied by his dog. The ambience is one of informal and relaxed country life.

    As I studied such paintings, I started to see associations between the rooms and their inhabitants. The legs of the mahogany furniture in an English country house were as straight and unadorned as their owners' riding boots. The arabesques and curlicues of the moldings and architectural ornaments in a French salon mirrored the flouncing ribbons that adorned the women's dresses and the frills of the men's shirts. The proper black broadcloth and white lace collars of the Dutch men and women echoed the spotless black-and-white checkerboard marble floors. I became convinced that a strong connection exists between the way that we decorate our homes and the way that we dress ourselves.

    There are three distinct reasons for the intimate relationship between dress and décor. The first is technical. Décor, like dress, incorporates fabrics. Curtains, swags, and window-treatments are made of silk, damask, satin, brocade, wool, muslin, and velvet—so is clothing. Woven materials are used in tapestries, wall-hangings, carpets and upholstery as well as coats and skirts. Inevitably, the dressmaker's techniques of embroidering, gathering, pleating, and trimming find their way into décor. This is why furniture skirts recall women's skirts, and why the fringes, cords, and bobbins of nineteenth-century drapery recall ladies' ballgowns. The delicate lace curtains and the billowing baldachin over a bed in a ladies' boudoir matched the clothes in her dressing room.

    The connection between décor and dress can be even more intimate, for architecture sometimes directly mimics dress. The garlands in eighteenth-century buildings are sculpted or painted versions of the sashes and flowered ornaments worn by men and women. The ancient Greeks incorporated elements of dress in temple architecture. This is most apparent in colonnades, which Vincent Scully has likened to hoplites massed in a phalanx. There is no doubt that Classical columns were given human attributes. Ancient authors likened the vertical flutes to the folds in a chiton, or tunic. Columns have capitals—that is, heads. The moldings of Doric capitals were sometimes painted to resemble headbands; Ionic and Corinthian capitals incorporated carved head garlands, and the curving tendrils of Corinthian capitals often look more like hair than foliage. Indeed, Vitruvius considered the Corinthian order "feminine," as opposed to the sturdy masculine Doric. Sir Henry Wotton went so far as to call the Corinthian order "lascivious" and "decked like a wanton courtesan."

Excerpted from THE LOOK OF ARCHITECTURE by Witold Rybczynski. Copyright © 2001 by Witold Rybczynski. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Witold Rybczynski is one of America's best known writers on architecture, the author of the bestselling One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, Home, Waiting for the Weekend, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance. He has also written on architecture for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, and The New York Review of Books. The Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, he lives in Philadelphia.

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