Rykwert's study goes well beyond the tradition of architectural history, which has largely been concerned with the outward, stylistic evolution from the classic to the Baroque and Rococo. It examines buildings as embodiments of the whole culture, founded on basic philosophical concepts and shaped by ongoing political and religious upheavals. In particular, it focuses on the shift from the "classic" to the "Neoclassic."
The study includes major painters and sculptors of the period and pays considerable attention to the practical and social context in which the architects, artists, and artisans worked—the organization of labor, the establishment of the Academies and of the architectural profession, the development of the building guilds, and the rise of freemasonry. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and index.