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Celebrating a life's work: Christine Murray interviews Joseph Rykwert

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AJ editor Christine Murray interviews RIBA Gold Medal Award winner Joseph Rykwert

What does winning the Gold Medal mean to you?

It’s wonderful to be recognised by one’s peers and people one has criticised. The recognition means that people think that what one’s written has more than passing value. I was surprised, and very pleased to follow Peter Zumthor.

You once said you’ve lost friends by critique-ing their buildings. Does it mean a lot that this criticism has been valued?

There is an element of that. Giving it to me reflects on the fact that I’ve stood my ground, sometimes going against the stream. And of course, it means something that the people who have given me the Gold Medal are younger than me, because it means that what I’ve written is valued by younger architects.

What do you hope the younger generation take from your work?

They will take their own meaning from it – with writing, what you put out is like putting a letter in a postbox; you hope that they will read what you have written and that they will see what you meant. The meeting between the reader and the writer is always a fascinating but an ambivalent one.

You have also been a practising architect throughout your career, but this award is in recognition of your writing.

Yes but I’ve always written from within architecture. I’ve always thought of myself as an architect working with words, rather than as a pure writer. So writing has always been a kind of architecture for me.

What would you like to be remembered for?

The idea that the city has a shape and that the shape is an intended one and the way in which our intentions play with the physical environment: that’s what matters most vitally to me; that it’s not automatic, that the city doesn’t happen because nature orders it. That it happens because we have willed it and if we don’t like the city, then it’s our own fault. In a way, this does give power to the architect and highlight where the architect as a professional is most important. I’ve always stood out against the idea that the city just happens – that’s why I’ve had problems with books such as Architecture Without Architects (by Bernard Rudofsky, 1964). I think the moment you build, you’re an architect, whether you like it or not. I know that it’s unlike me to quote Mies, but he did say the moment you put one brick on top of another, you’ve started being an architect.

I think the moment you build, you’re an architect, whether you like it or not

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the profession since you started out?

The heartening thing is that younger architects are really standing up and doing their own thing very ably. And I think that’s a very encouraging development over the past decade. Younger architects have appeared who are both willing and able to do their own thing. Witherford Watson Mann is a case in point. I can’t identify it yet as a new movement but I think there are new architects coming out and what they will add up to we don’t yet know because it’s not an adding-up time yet.

But you believe it’s a new movement, not Postmodern?

Yes. There is a new recognition of the relationship to the past. Perhaps also to the 1920s and 1930s. I think also there is a renewed interest in this business of the shape of the city. I just received a doctoral thesis about the whole argument about the heart of the city – which raged in the 1950s and was terribly important. I’m very pleased that that’s coming up as a theme for young architects to consider – this renewed interest in the relationship between the city and the community.

Is there anything you hope young architects leave behind – for example this extended period of icon building?

Well, what we’ve forgotten about is the notion of civic grandeur. It’s really rooted in the idea that society does not exist, which was launched by Mrs Thatcher and is the most inimical idea to architecture that there is. Grandeur does not come from a single building. The last Biennale in Venice, as you know, concerned itself with public space, with the notion of Common Ground, and I hope that’s a straw in the wind.

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