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Eric Parry: 'Rykwert has changed the way architects think about buildings and cities'

Eric Parry explains why the RIBA Honours Committee gave the institute’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award to architect, writer and critic Joseph Rykwert

Citation in full

Now in his eighty-seventh year Joseph Rykwert’s body of published work is by any standard extraordinary in its consistent intensity, relevance and on-going influence. We too easily take for granted the way in which he has enriched of today’s debate about our environment when confronted by the span of his career. In 1949 he was introduced by Sigfried Giedion to the president of CIAM, Cornelis van Eesteren at their seventh gathering in Bergamo as ‘our young revolutionary’. Of the five or so historian / theorists to have received this award since WW II Giedion’s name is conspicuous by its absence.

While Joseph’s reputation places him in the camp of the builders of architects rather than that of the designer of buildings he is at heart an architect. He began his training at The Bartlett in 1942, at that time evacuated to Cambridge, then moved to the AA, worked for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, followed by time spent with Richard Sheppard and then Ove Arup. Later he designed a housing development at Inner Court, Old Church Street, London, which was recently reviewed for listing and received considerable local and national support against demolition and so quite naturally, next to his writing desk he has always maintained a drawing board.

Rykwert has always maintained a drawing board

Joseph’s principal books have changed the way architects, planners and urban theorists think about buildings and cities and more fundamentally how historians view the architectural roots of our era.

The first manifestation, after a fascinating intellectual journey was The Idea of a Town in 1963. He conceived it at a time when product design and empirical sociology were thought to offer the solutions needed to solve the problems which re-building after the destruction of the war required. It was a critical response to the picturesque ideas of the Townscape movement; the formal preoccupations of both the Brutalists and the techno-utopians; and the anarchic cries for the dismantling of the industrial city by groups like the Situationists. In The Idea of a Town he drew together two critical strands of investigation, that of the social, political and artistic history of the Italian town (so often cites as a precedent by practitioners and theorists) together with an anthropological investigation of how society related to the fabric which it created and was subsequently conditioned by it. On Adam’s House in Paradise followed nine years later in 1972.

Eight years later in 1980 the weightier The First Moderns brought a radical freshness to the well-trodden paths of 17th and 18th Century architectural scholarship. It represented in part the fruit of thirteen very influential years as Professor of Art at Essex University. The post-graduate seminar on the history and theory of Architecture that he began there in 1967/8 was the first of its kind anywhere and it is harrowing to reflect that the architectural authorities of the time wanted it suppressed.

Frances Yates, a student contemporary of his at the Warburg Institute and a brilliant scholar, praised The First Moderns lavishly. He said: ‘The range of Rykwert’s learning is enormous. History of gardens, Chinese influences, festival architecture, all contribute to the overflowing wealth. Great figures in the history of thought and science — Bacon, Newton, Vico — are seen from new angles….This is no superficial history of styles, no conventional history of ideas. It invigorates both through the attempt at a new kind of history of architecture.’

Amongst those who figure in the acknowledgements for The First Moderns are some of his students Yoshihige Akahosi, David Leatherbarrow, Solomon Kaufman, Mohsen Mostafavi and Alberto Perez Gomez. Their subsequent careers, and many, many others, are witness to the fertile ground he helped to create for them. As a demonstration of that range which Frances Yates remarked on, in 1982 he published The Necessity of Artifice which drew together 18 previous essays spread over a period of twenty five years. They all sparkle with the common ground of his perceptive analysis of the human condition and of individual creativity.

Of the former The Sitting Position – A Question of Method and Learning from the Street are memorable examples whilst his essay Two Houses by Eileen Gray (the first publication about her work after Corbusier’s book Des Canons, des Munitions? Merci!Des Logis…SVP) in 1937 and Adolf Loos: The New Vision were groundbreaking. Joseph made his first trip to Italy, a country and culture that has gripped him ever since then, with John Turner with whom he shared both an architectural and political affinity, John Turner who would later publish the influential Freedom to Build 1972. Apart from the thrill of the best contemporary design, and an easy contact with a host of important figures it was, as he has put it, ‘the unexpected grandeur of S Andrea Mantua that conquered me entirely on that first visit.’ It led to a series of collaborative projects, translations, commentaries and advocacy of Alberti’s greatness. In 1988 he published a translation, undertaken with Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor, On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Following this in 1994 he curated with his wife Anne and Robert Tavernor the major exhibition of Alberti’s life and work, held in the Palazzo Te Mantua.

Gehry: ‘I can’t stop reading it’

A larger space of time separates The First Moderns from The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture published in 1996. During the intervening period Joseph moved from the University of Essex to the University of Cambridge, where in 1979 he had delivered the Slade lectures. In 1988 he was appointed Paul Philippe Cret Professor at the University of Pennsylvania which he held until 1999.

If On Adam’s House was in a sense a response to the wide breadth and scope of The Idea of a Town, so The Dancing Column is to The First Moderns. In the former he examined the Western world’s changing attitudes towards the Classical orders since antiquity. In the latter he examined the growth of the associations of the words ‘classic’ and ‘classical’ as they apply to architecture, through the ground of revolution, objectivity, enlightenment and equality. The Dancing Column has been widely acclaimed, Frank Gehry calls the work ‘staggering’, claiming: ‘I can’t stop reading it’, whilst leading academics were similarly impressed.

Joseph Rykwert

On Adam’s House in Paradise by Joseph Rykwert

Frank Gehry is one of no less than seven previous Gold Medalists who supported his nomination. In 2002 he was presented with a festschrift entitled Body and Building: essaying on the changing relationship of body to architecture – edited by George Dodds and Robert Tavernor. It contains twenty essays contributed by scholars, close associates and former students and raises issues that have been a constant concern of Rykwert’s.

The Europe we know is a relatively stable political entity. 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Franco-German reconciliation signed by Chancellor Adenauer and President de Gaulle. The political context of Joseph’s youth could not have been more different. Warsaw was the epicentre of the growing political storm in the 1930s. With a maternal lineage referencing pre-revolutionary Russia as a cultural precedent and an anglophile father, Joseph vividly recalls his family’s nervous laughter at the menacingly comical broadcasts of one Adolf Hitler and at the same time the living terror experienced at first hand by his father of communist Russia. He coped admirably well, seeds sown at Charterhouse School succored by the dazzling intellectual firmament of the Warburg and thereafter very much on a path of  his own making. Joseph’s first review, that of Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, published in 1948 took him two years to complete, no doubt drawn out by the  need to have fully grasped the material. That same tenacity and wisdom underlies all his work. Let the last words of this citation be Susan Sontag’s: ‘Joseph Rykwert is a gloriously erudite ingeniously speculative historian and critic of architecture – of that is, the forms (in the most concrete sense) of civilization, of social embodiment itself.’

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