In defence of architecture

Witold Rybczynski overturns familiar Modernist orthodoxies and gives due weight to older but still vibrant traditions.

Loyola College, Montreal.
Loyola College, Montreal. Credit: Megapress / Alamy Stock Photo

The Story of Architecture, by Witold Rybczynski. Yale University Press, 2022, 360pp, £25/$40

Loyola College in Montreal takes the form of a Jacobean quadrangle built in the 1910s. When Witold Rybczynski went to high school there, he loved the towers, turrets and rosettes, the classrooms with tall ceilings, polished wooden floors and heavy oak desks. They were ‘idyllic surroundings,’ which provided ‘the everyday experience of architectural beauty, an experience that was both unself-conscious and intimate’. If that didn’t prompt him to choose an architectural career, I am a Dutchman — or possibly, in view of Rybczynski’s heritage, a Pole. Certainly it has influenced the vision expressed in this glorious book.

I don’t say glorious because of the images or layout, which are restrained. But here is a worthy companion to Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, published in 1950 and never bettered as an introduction to its subject. The Story of Architecture is similarly written in lucid, accessible and jargon-free prose; Rybczynski, like Gombrich, centres his narrative on individual works — in his case buildings — rather than movements, though much has happened since Gombrich’s day. What can only have seemed impressive and admirable 73 years ago now looks like a brave endeavour. Remember the BBC’s attempt to remake Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, another Olympian tour d’horizon, five years ago? It was a flop. The brilliance of Clark was that he defined what civilisation meant for him and his generation — the Western tradition, which might all too easily have been extinguished by nuclear war. In today’s more complex and diverse society, the BBC called the new series Civilisations and had it fronted by three presenters with contrasting views. Boldly, Rybczynski — white male though he is — has put himself forward as the sole voice of The Story of Architecture, overturning the familiar Modernist orthodoxies and giving due weight to older but still vibrant traditions. This fills me with hope. It’s as though all the ugliness, dysfunctionality and inefficiency that twentieth- and twenty-first-century architects imposed on the world are not as central as they seemed. In the great scheme of things, according to this book, they are not much more than a blip — a few pages from a total of nearly 350. It is so refreshing I could cry.

This is partly because much of what has been built through the ages doesn’t qualify as architecture. Architecture is about specific kinds of buildings — ones that have been thought about, are likely to have monumental properties, and whose conformity to self-evident rules makes them beautiful. Above all, they are buildings that last. Great buildings can be torn down; eventually they’ll crumble away if they’re not properly maintained, although, even then, their cores may survive, as Roman ruins did in the Anglo-Saxon landscape, seemingly the work of giants. They may be destroyed by fire, blown up or bombed. Or later generations may pillage them for building materials, in which case they’ll disappear. But the people who built them did not plan for them to have short lives. Before mechanisation, the effort of quarrying stone, transporting it to the site, carving it and laboriously raising it — by means of a crane operated by men walking inside a kind of hamster wheel — was so immense that it could only be undertaken for the greatest projects, and then rarely. The societies constructing these buildings thought they would last forever. That is no longer the case. For all the importance now attached to sustainability, modern high-rise towers are not expected to last more than 50 years. Great buildings from the past, in the course of their long lives, have often served different purposes — as Rybczynski notes, for example, art galleries such as the Uffizi often started life as something else. Battersea Power Station is now a shopping centre. How many modern towers will be capable of reuse? The high-rise apartments of the rich will never be colonised by the poor because of the cost of running the services. Perhaps in the future plate glass windows will be made so as to contain photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity, or the ancient idea of hydraulically powered lifts will be revived. Until this happens, they have only one use. They won’t even make beautiful ruins.

Chaos and extreme narcissistic individualism, this book seems to be telling us, are not beautiful. The word ‘architecture’ derives from the Greek for ‘chief builder’ or ‘principal craftsman,’ evoking the Ancient world, whose system of building was based on the human scale. The arrival of the column in chapter three receives a fanfare. Fifth-century BC Athens is hailed as the ‘birthplace.’ Here Rybczynski describes the Acropolis as perhaps ‘the first time architecture was used to honor civic rather than regal virtues’. But temples weren’t communes. They were homes to the effigies they contained. Those peristyles and carved friezes honoured the gods who were present in the statues. Sacrifices took place in front of the temple (not inside, that was not the point of them) — and the temple itself was a kind of offering. That is perhaps why the Greeks transposed wooden methods of building into stone. The wooden forms must have had time-honoured, sacred connotations: but stone was better, being eternal. To build out of stone using long straight sections in the manner of wooden beams is difficult and inefficient, as well as costly (it requires large slabs of stone). Arches would have been better, and the Greeks must have known about them: they could be seen in Egypt. Yet they preferred to stick to the archaic form, just as they listened to recitals of Homer in an archaic Greek that was no longer being spoken. This was not, though, as Rybczynski reveals, the reason the Chinese preferred to build their houses in timber, despite knowledge of masonry construction: as the author reveals, they were fearful of earthquakes.

The Greeks produced a rules-based system that, if not rational, was highly sophisticated. The Romans revered it, retaining the trabeated form for their temples, but applying the same system of ornament to quite different kinds of buildings, which were not built using flat lintels. Although Emperor Hadrian was devoted to Greek culture, he completed the Pantheon in Rome and sometimes held court there, beneath a dome made, incredibly, of concrete. To this day nobody knows exactly how it was constructed. The Pantheon was not a temple, and yet it is approached through the sort of giant portico that is usually to be found on temples. That’s what is so great about the Classical system: the rules are there to be broken. In the Renaissance, the greatest rule-breaker of all was Michelangelo, who used Classical ornament with the plasticity of sculpture. More rule-breaking came with the lubricious curves of the Baroque. The principles of Classicism were robust enough to survive the abuse. The tradition, indeed, thrived on it, being continually refreshed.

Not that any history of architecture, even Western architecture, could only be about Classicism. It is interesting to see, in reading this book, how often other styles relate to it. A Gothic column is divided into base, shaft and capital in the same way as a Greek or Roman column; that is not so surprising when one remembers that the builders of the great cathedrals did not know they were Gothic — the term was only invented later. The Great Mosque at Cordoba in Spain, whose repeating arches have such a ‘hypnotic’ effect, was built with Corinthian columns salvaged from Roman buildings. All buildings that use load-bearing masonry construction are constrained to share some of the same features, and they happen to be ones that most people like. The arrival of the steel frame at the end of the nineteenth century opened Pandora’s box: dystopia was freed.

Although this book begins in the third  millennium BC, fully one-third of it is devoted to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This is the period for which the general reader, for whom the book is intended, most needs Rybczynski’s help. The author suavely guides us from modern life in the Vienna of the Secession to the elevators, cinema and rolled steel frame of the Ellicott Square Building in Buffalo New York — before a chapter on the ‘Enduring Past’ of Washington DC and the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi. That seems to be Rybczynski’s point: the past does endure. Early skyscrapers were intended to relate to the great works of the past; they also had the equivalent of bases, shafts and capitals. Rybczynski dwells on works like Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol of 1920-32 and the Rockefeller Center — cathedral-like in their ambition — that get short shrift in Modernist histories. In recent decades, computers have tempted some architects to use shock tactics, producing buildings that look as though they ought not to stand up. Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing is a kind of 51-storey doughnut, with tapering towers of unequal heightconnected at top and bottom, but hollow in the middle. Weird. Zaha Hadid’s Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku could have been made from melted ice-cream. But Rybczynski suggests that we can pass these types of buildings by with averted eyes. For these show-off ‘me me me’ structures are expensive aberrations, not typical of the mass of building. Nor are they what people want. Rybczynski ends with the Brockman Hall for Opera at Rice University by the doyen of American Classicism, Allan Greenberg. How reassuring.


Clive Aslet