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Rykwert picks up RIBA Gold Medal

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Architect-turned-critic Joseph Rykwert has picked up the 2014 RIBA Royal Gold Medal in recognition of his lifetime’s work

Rykwert received the accolade at the RIBA headquarters in London on tonight (25 February).

The historian and writer, described as ‘standing in the threshold between theory, criticism and practice’, joins the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Peter Zumthor in being recognised by the prestigious award.

Campaigners have been championing Rykwert for the honour since 2008.

Architect and critic Yasmin Shariff said: ‘Traditionally the award goes to a practising architect, but awarding the Gold Medal to an architectural critic will change the way the whole world looks at architectural criticism. It sets a precedent.’

Rykwert, who is best known for his influential book The Idea of a Town, was announced back in September as the recipient of the annual award, which this year was judged by Eric Parry, David Chipperfield, Louisa Hutton, Frederic Migayruo, and RIBA president Stephen Hodder.

RIBA president Stephen Hodder commented: ‘The recognition of Joseph with this prestigious award is long overdue; that it has gone to a man whose writings have provided inspiration to so many who practice in the heart of our cities, gives me particular personal pleasure. Joseph’s writing and teaching are rare in that he can deliver the most profound thinking on architecture in an accessible way. All our lives are the richer for it.’

This week saw a celebration of the 87-year-old’s career, starting with a symposium at the V&A on Saturday, where architect Patrick Lynch said: ‘It is impossible to imagine what the world would be like if Rykwert hadn’t invented himself. He so greatly understands the relationship between architecture and life. No other architectural historians or critics before him had thought like this.’

On receiving the award, Rykwert said: ‘If we all had our desserts’, the poet asked, ‘who would scape a whipping?’ Certainly not I. So I can’t think of a Gold Medal as my dessert. It is a wonderful gift which my colleagues have made me and adds weight and authority to my words to which they could never otherwise pretend.

‘What makes the gift doubly precious is that it does not come from my fellow-scriveners, but from architects and builders - and suggests that what I have written has engaged their attention and been of use, even though I have never sought to be impartial but have taken sides, sometimes combatively. So I feel both elated and enormously grateful.’

Judge’s citation

Eric Parry on Joseph Rykwert

Now in his eighty-eighth 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 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 World War 2 Giedion’s name is conspicuous by its absence.

Rykwert is at heart an architect

Whilst 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 Architectural Association, worked for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, followed by time spent with Richard Sheppard and then Ove Arup. Later he designed, together with Mark Livingston, 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.

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, one of the most distinguished scholars then teaching at the Warburg Institute Warburg, praised The First Moderns lavishly: ‘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 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 would later publish the influential Freedom to Build in 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.

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. 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.

Tenacity and wisdom underlies all his work

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.’

The Idea of a Town

Previous story (AJ 18.09.13)

Rykwert wins RIBA Gold Medal

The 2014 RIBA Royal Gold Medal has been awarded to a close friend of the AJ in recognition of his lifetime’s service to architecture

Architect turned architectural critic Joseph Rykwert has won the 2014 RIBA Royal Gold Medal in recognition of his lifetime’s work.

The historian and writer, best known for his influential book The Idea of a Town (1963), joins the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Voysey to have been handed the prestigious award.

A regular AJ contributor, Rykwert, 86, worked with Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew in the 1940s before becoming a librarian and, later, an author. He also designed the legendary Ad Lib nightclub in London.

According to Eric Parry, who selected Rykwert along with fellow RIBA Honours Committee judges, David Chipperfield, Louisa Hutton, Frederic Migayrou and RIBA president Stephen Hodder, the author’s books had ‘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’.

Hodder said the institute’s recognition for Rykwert, who is again judging the AJ’s annual Writing Prize, was ‘long overdue’.

He said: ‘[The fact that the medal] has gone to a man whose writings have provided inspiration to so many who practice in the heart of our cities, gives me particular personal pleasure.

‘Joseph’s writing and teaching are rare in that he can deliver the most profound thinking on architecture in an accessible way. All our lives are the richer for it.’

Rykwert will be presented with the medal at a special event at the RIBA at Portland Place on the 25 February 2014.


1926 Born in Warsaw

1939 Moves to England and attends Charterhouse school

1942-44 Studies at The Bartlett

1944-47 Studies at AA; works in the office of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew

1951 Starts teaching at the Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts

1961 Becomes librarian and tutor at the Royal College of Art

1963 Completes his PhD and seminal work The Idea of a Town

1967 Leaves RCA and spends the next 14 years as professor of art at the University of Essex, where helaunches a post-graduate course on architectural history and theory with the critic Dalibor Vesely

1972 Rykwert’s influential theoretical work On Adam’s House in Paradise is published

1979 Delivers the University of Cambridge’s Slade lectures

1980 The First Moderns is published

1981-87 Becomes reader in architecture at Cambridge

1982 The Necessity of Artifice is published

1984 Appointed a Knight of France’s Order of Arts and Letters

1988 Teaches as Paul Philippe Cret Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His translation of Leon Battista Alberti’s 15th century Art of Building in Ten Books is published

1994 Co-curates an exhibition on Alberti

1996 The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture is published. Becomes president of CICA, the international council of architectural critics

1999 Becomes prof emeritus at University of Pennsylvania

2000 Lands the Venice Biennale’s Bruno Zevi prize for architectural history

2002 Publishes a new treatise on urban space entitled The Seduction of Place

2008 Becomes a regular columnist in the AJ, as well as writing building studies

2009 Wins Spain’s Gold Medal for Fine Arts

2014 Awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for his life’s work in architectural criticism


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