Joseph Rykwert is the author The Seduction of Place. Joseph is Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He was born in Warsaw and emigrated to England in 1939. Following his architectural studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture and the Architectural Association, he taught at Hammersmith School of Arts & Crafts and the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm before becoming Librarian and Tutor at the Royal College of Art in London. In 1967 he became Professor of Art at the newly-created University of Essex where he remained until 1981 when he was first Slade Professor in the Fine Arts at the University of Cambridge and then Reader in Architecture. He took up his appointment in Philadelphia in 1988. Here, he kindly answers a few of my questions.
Mark Thwaite: When did your fascination with cities and the built environment begin?
Joseph Rykwert: When I was about ten, my parents had a house built. As the son of the house, I was allowed on the scaffold to ‘help’ the bricklayers. I suspect that my interest in the built environment was first awoken by that bricklaying. Interest in the city came later - perhaps with the loss of city life when I became a boarder at school. More professionally, I became extremely disenchanted with the extremely positivist - rather than rationalist - way in which urban problems were regarded in the architectural schools I attended, first as a student, then as a teacher.
MT: At the start of your book, you mention the twenty years after the destruction of Europe in WWII as one in which architecture seemed to offer both a real career and a real chance to change the world. It was an optimistic time. How do you characterise the times now?
JR: Reconstruction is no longer an issue and public housing has receded into the background. Architects are not primarily regarded for their contribution to the fabric of the city, but - when they are catching public attention - as individual ‘performers’ who can give the building product the appropriate image - rather like industrial designers who are expected to ‘brand’ a product through their designs. Although the majority of architects still produce projects for housing schemes, private houses, factories and other buildings of common use, the ‘flagship’ practitioners - those to whom the students look up - are expected to produce recognizable, ‘signature’ projects. And that reflects down to the commonplace practitioners, making those at the beginning of their careers ambitious to achieve individuality. They forget the old adage that real originality does not consist in trying to do something different, but in trying to do exactly the same as everyone else, and failing.
MT: Will architecture and the city have to take a new turn post-9/11?
JR: I hesitate to prophecy. Certainly, 9/11 has led to the cancellation of some very high-rise projects, but the old bad habits have returned. Since 9/11, the continuing threat of terrorism is being used by authorities to regulate society, and it will of course have its effect on building - if only in the emphasis on security measures in places of public access.
MT: Built space is so important for - and to - our everyday lives: do you think it should be left to professionals or should we try somehow to democratise the decision making process that will shape our future cities? Or is architecture - planned and paid for predominantly by the corporations who own our cities - always out of reach of a city's inhabitants?
JR: Your question would be simple if everyone knew what they wanted and could go about the business of getting it. But while a lot of people want to live in a house with a garden, which is within easy reach of their job, many also hate the daily commute and what is now called ‘sprawl’. Desires are often irreconcilable, and professionals are there to moderate the conflicts. This makes them unpopular, of course - they have to tell people that they cannot have what they want without paying a price for it. And the price may mean living in higher buildings or at higher densities than they would wish.
Architecture is also supposed to be a matter of taste, about which agreement is never easy. Many clients, as architects know well, want to commission something which resembles a building they have seen before - somewhere - on a trip, in a magazine. The designer who presents the client with a scheme which may suit the client’s pocket or circumstance, but for which he cannot recall a precedent, often has a hard time. This is often also true of public bodies. Yet we do now have techniques for presenting projects in ways which are accessible to the layman, to which the architects of the past did not have access and which are still underused
MT: Can you explain a little further the difference between aesthetics and the metaphoric function you end your book hoping your readers will share with you?
JR: Not a simple question, even though brief. Aesthetics, for which a clear definition is not available, seems to me concerned with art as a spectator sport: that is with what the viewer, the client, the spectator may take away from a picture or building. As one of the major aestheticians put it - it ‘is a branch of philosophy that exists for the sake of knowledge and not as a guide to practice’.
For all that, some nineteenth century psychologists thought that they could determine by experiment which shapes and colours would be pleasing (and therefore most desirable) independently of any cultural and historical context; they thought they would be in a position to tell artists and designers ‘scientifically’ how to go about their business; we find their assumptions somewhat callow now that many artists are not much interested in pleasing.
Metaphor is not concerned with pleasure - though it might convey it - but with the way the artist structures the elements in his work to embody his intention, and with how the viewer/spectator/user interprets the result of the artist/designer’s endeavours, they way he ‘reads’ and so absorbs them into his experience. In the book I have tried to suggest that a designer must be aware of how his public may interpret his building - because interpret they certainly will: the ‘erotic gherkin’ is a case in point; the architect certainly did not claim to have built a phallic intention into the design when the project was published.
MT: How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
JR: I do write directly on the screen. But always edit, usually heavily, in my own very scribbly hand.
I have nearly finished a book on the fraught relation between the three ‘arts of design’, painting, sculpture, architecture between 1800 and our time. The ‘secret’ agenda of the book is a concern with public space in the city, and what happens to it when it is not inflected, as it usually was in the past, by works of art; what happens when works of art no longer carry any narrative which citizens - as the users of public space - can recognize. I am concerned, too, as to whether ‘works of art’ can go on inflecting the public realm when they become exclusively aesthetic, such as those of Richard Serra, or when they carry a narrative only of concern to the artist himself - like those of Claes Oldenburg.
MT: What is your favourite book?
JR: A favourite book - I have lots, not one.
MT: What book do you wish you had written?
JR: The Divine Comedy - or Don Quijote.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
JR: Our lords and masters - even those who say they care - like the Prince of Wales and the Deputy Prime Minister or the Mayor of London seem to know very little about architecture. That is why I think writing and arguing about it is essential. Otherwise we will have only ourselves to blame as we try to cope with the detritus of their decisions for generations to come.
MT: Thank you so much for your time Joseph - all the very best!