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Why Joseph Rykwert should win the Gold Medal

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Julyan Wickham of Wickham van Eyck architects explains why he believes the academic and author Joseph Rykwert should be the next recipient of one of architecture's major prizes.

It should not be a cause célèbre as to who recommends the RIBA Royal Gold Medal and other major awards signifying the distinction of those who have obviously contributed to the development of architecture and urbanism. As such let me add the name of Joseph Rykwert.

Rykwert’s ideas, writings and work have played a significant part in the thinking of architects and urbanists from the 1960s on, putting the task of designers into its historical as well as the actual context we find ourselves in now, allowing us to understand that the creation and renewal of our built environment is much more than a response to a mundane need for accommodation.

His seminal book The Idea of a Town, written in 1963, is still highly relevant when understanding why and how cities were and can be formed. It is extremely well researched and it was exhilarating to find a clear authority on the history of town planning and the meaning and rationale behind the form, location and purpose of towns and cities through time and civilisation.

It has been said that Rykwert’s ideas were not readably transmissible and that he did not promulgate solutions. While it is not my understanding that he had such an objective, it is hard to avoid the lesson and messages that run through his writings when looking at the keenness of architects and planners for spatial planning, configurative masterplanning and the construct for urban settlement and architecture in recent times.

In 1967, during my last year at the Architectural Association, I got to know Rykwert when I asked him if he would comment on my final thesis project. As it was on the making of mass housing and dwelling in the city, and was fundamentally about the formation of urban places and their workings, he was the only person at that time, it seemed to me, who could put my study into a considered appreciation of city formation. He was a good person to meet and his comment and observations were highly instructive and clear.

What made Rykwert so appealing was his early grasp of the scale of the ‘project’, together with his enormous capacity for the subject matter and relentless application of logic and reference to the relationships between historic events and manifestations. An erudite and coherent history of urbanism and architecture seen as a web of behaviour and deeds in the context of an expanding world of technological enthusiasm, rock stars and the egalitarian experiment.

Rykwert has been a practising architect for much of his academic life and amazed and thrilled us at the time when we discovered that he, a serious theoretician and scholar – a ‘boffin’ – had designed the Ad Lib nightclub in London’s teeming West End. It was a huge, dark, comfortable space with low-intensity purple and blue lighting and walls and floor of soft black carpet in one continuous and seamless sculptured surface. It became the haunt of the rock/pop fraternity, artists, writers and many others in the ‘scene’ and was utterly connected to the buzz of 1960s London.

In The First Moderns (1983), Rykwert accurately starts at an understandable first point where a Neo-Classical architecture had emerged over a significant part of the world, defining the rationalist and first signs of an egalitarian design approach to architecture and how it had so scarcely touched us in the 20th century. He cites the work of Palladio, Jones, Wren and Hawksmoor as having perhaps a ‘fourth dimension’, where the emergence of an egalitarian society and world were beginning to play an increasingly important part in creation and configuration of all architecture and urbanism.

It was enjoyable to find that while the ‘Commonwealth period’ was, in his opinion, a ‘backwater’, there was an exception – Roger Pratt, who was the only architect of stature and whose best-known building was Coleshill House in Wiltshire, a perfect specimen sadly destroyed by fire in 1952 and now a wonderful ghost with which I have lived for the last 47 years. Pratt was a friend and colleague of Inigo Jones, one of the Neo-Classical pioneers who evidently saw the plans of Coleshill and agreed and possibly influenced the rationalist ease of the design.

The Rykwert discourse is certainly continuing and has developed, weaving together what has happened and what is happening, with a consistency, examining the orders of architecture, the work of the Adam brothers, and the meaning of building from its roots. In The Seduction of Place (2002) he shows us why our urban places today are simply the latest part of the same story – telling us what we did, what we still have, what cities mean and how they may have to develop in the future.

It is now time to think more about Rykwert’s writing, work and teaching and better recognise his significant and positive effect on many who are responsible for making modern architecture and urban places. He will be one of the keynote speakers at this year's RIBA international conference on the subject of architecture and identity, which is to be held in Barcelona on the last weekend in October. He is still engaged in practice and another book is about to appear – this time The Judicious Eye, Architecture against the other Arts. What is certain is that Joseph Rykwert will continue to be a major influence upon us all.

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