How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit

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An essential toolkit for understanding architecture as both art form and the setting for our everyday lives

We spend most of our days and nights in buildings, living and working and sometimes playing. Buildings often overawe us with their beauty. Architecture is both setting for our everyday lives and public art form―but it remains mysterious to most of us.
In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski, one of our best, most stylish critics and winner of the Vincent Scully Prize for his architectural writing, answers our most fundamental questions about how good―and not-so-good―buildings are designed and constructed. Introducing the reader to the rich and varied world of modern architecture, he takes us behind the scenes, revealing how architects as different as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Robert A. M. Stern envision and create their designs. He teaches us how to "read" plans, how buildings respond to their settings, and how the smallest detail―of a stair balustrade, for instance―can convey an architect's vision. Ranging widely from a war memorial in London to an opera house in St. Petersburg, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to a famous architect's private retreat in downtown Princeton, How Architecture Works, explains the central elements that make up good building design. It is an enlightening humanist's toolkit for thinking about the built environment and seeing it afresh.
"Architecture, if it is any good, speaks to all of us," Rybczynski writes. This revelatory book is his grand tour of architecture today.

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About the Author:

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is the emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. How Architecture Works is his eighteenth book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which dominated architectural education in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, developed a strict method of teaching building design. After being assigned a problem, the student was isolated in a cubicle without the benefit of books or external advice, and given twelve hours to produce an esquisse, or preliminary design sketch. The chief purpose of this exercise was to decide on a parti, the governing idea that the student would turn into a detailed design over the next two months. A student handbook advised, “Selecting a parti for a problem is to take an attitude toward a solution in the hope that a building developed on the lines indicated by it will give the best solution of the problem.” Although the esquisse is a thing of the past, the term parti has survived, for it embodies an enduring truth: great buildings are often the result of a single—and sometimes very simple—idea.
When you enter the Pantheon in Rome, you take it all in at a single glance: a vast drum supporting a coffered dome, illuminated from above by an oculus, or circular aperture. Nothing could be simpler, yet no one would describe the Pantheon as a one-liner. Finished by Hadrian in the first century A.D., it is one of the most influential buildings of Western architecture, having inspired Bramante at St. Peter’s, Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s, and Thomas Ustick Walter at the U.S. Capitol. King’s College Chapel of Cambridge University, begun by Henry VI in 1446, is another building whose design expresses a singular idea: a tall space whose dematerialized walls are almost entirely stained glass. Modeled on a cathedral choir, the narrow chapel is eighty feet high and almost three hundred feet long. There is no apse, no crossing, no rose window, just a numinous, soaring space. In buildings, the idea also informs the details. While the coffers of the Pantheon emphasize the solidity and weight of the dome and lead the eye up to the oculus, the lacy fan vaults of the Perpendicular Gothic chapel harmonize with the delicate tracery of the windows.
A more recent example of a building whose design is driven by an idea is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Wright started with the insight that, given the high cost of Manhattan real estate, the museum had to be vertical. He explored four schemes, one of them octagonal, and settled on a spiral ramp coiling around a tall skylit space. The museumgoer would take the elevator to the top of the ramp, viewing the art as he descended. Uncomplicated in conception, yet no matter how often I go there I am always surprised—and delighted—anew. Wright kept the details in the background: the spiraling balustrade, for example, is a plain concrete parapet with a rounded top; the ramp floor is simply painted concrete. “The eye encounters no abrupt change,” he explained, “but is gently led and treated as if at the edge of a shore watching an unbreaking wave.”
Another modern museum that is based on a simple idea is the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, a building designed by Norman Foster in the mid-1970s. Although the building was to house a variety of uses—exhibition spaces, a school of art history, a student cafeteria, and a faculty club—Foster accommodated them in what was basically an extremely long shed that recalls an elegant aircraft hangar. The long space, glazed at each end, does not feel tunnel-like, thanks to the daylight that filters down from skylights. The Sainsbury Centre has no architectural antecedents, it is as if Foster had asked himself: What if many different university functions were contained in one large space?
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s own residence in New Canaan, Connecticut, are single spaces that ask an unusual question: What if all the walls of a house were glass? Both houses were designed as weekend retreats in the late 1940s; both are one-story boxes, the Farnsworth twenty-eight by seventy-seven feet, the Johnson thirty-two by fifty-six feet; and both are constructed of steel I-beams. A transparent house should be as open as possible, and in both cases the interior is a column-free space divided only by freestanding elements containing closets, kitchen counters, bathrooms, and other necessities. There are no conventional rooms.
Although Johnson finished his house first, he always credited Mies with the original idea.1 Johnson considered the German architect his model: “I have been called Mies van der Johnson,” he once told Yale students; “it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.” But of his own house he said, “I won’t say it’s imitation Mies, because it’s quite different.” Johnson was not just being defensive—Mies’s house sits in a floodplain and is elevated five feet in the air, which makes it appear to hover, while Johnson’s house is planted firmly on the ground. And there are other differences. While Mies uses luxurious materials—travertine floors and tropical hardwood paneling—Johnson uses plain red brick. The bathroom is a cylinder, “which would of course be anathema to Mies,” said Johnson. Mies purposely designed the exterior of his glass house to be unsymmetrical—the roof and floor extend at one end to form a covered terrace—while Johnson made his four façades essentially identical, each with a door in the center. A final telling difference: Mies’s steel is painted glossy white, the traditional color of garden pavilions, while Johnson’s I-beams are matte black, making his house a machinelike presence in the natural landscape.
The architect and writer Peter Blake observed that Johnson’s house is European in conception, like a small classical palazzo, while the Farnsworth House is free, light, and airy in a way that makes it more American—despite that Mies had arrived in Chicago from Berlin only a decade earlier. Mies visited Johnson’s glass house several times when they were working together on the Seagram Building. Johnson recounted that during his last visit, although Mies was supposed to stay overnight in the guesthouse, late in the evening he announced, “I’m not staying here tonight. Find me another place to stay.” Johnson said that he didn’t know what had set Mies off, whether it was a small disagreement that they had had earlier, or whether he simply didn’t like the architecture.
Philip Johnson was an art collector and his house contained two freestanding works of art: Nicolas Poussin’s landscape painting Burial of Phocion and a sculpture by Elie Nadelman. Mies, on the other hand, specified that no art was to be hung on the Primavera-paneled walls. My friend Martin Pawley spent a night in the Farnsworth House and recounted that the owner, Peter Palumbo, a London developer, respected the architect’s wishes and hung paintings (I think they were by Paul Klee) only inside the bathroom. A sign asked guests to make sure to leave the bathroom door open after showering to avoid creating condensation that would damage the art. Martin described a memorable episode that occurred during his visit. The Fox River had overflowed its banks, as it did annually, and in the morning he was greeted by the sight of the butler bringing breakfast from the nearby main house (where Palumbo stayed) in a canoe. On that occasion, the terrace did double duty as a boat dock.
Of the Farnsworth House, Mies’s biographer Franz Schulze observed that it “is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.” That’s a scholarly way of saying that a glass house is not very practical. Privacy was not the problem, since the Farnsworth House, like Johnson’s home, is in the country, without close neighbors. Nor was the absence of separate rooms an issue, as both houses had only one occupant. The chief practical drawback of these glass houses was environmental: with unshaded plate glass and no air-conditioning, the interiors overheated in the summer, and were difficult to keep warm in the winter.2 Mies and Johnson made minimal provisions for ventilation: the Farnsworth House has two hopper windows at the bedroom end; the Johnson house has no openable windows at all, and is ventilated by opening one or more of the four doors. Since neither of the houses had insect screens, mosquitoes and flies were a problem, especially at night, when they were attracted by the light.
In the 1920s, Mies had designed a residence in Czechoslovakia—the Tugendhat House—in which large sections of a glass wall were lowered into the floor to open the living room to the outdoors, without the benefit of insect screens. Are mosquitoes, moths, and flies a lesser nuisance in Europe than in America? Perhaps, for woven-wire insect screens are an American invention that came into widespread use in the second half of the nineteenth century when the screened porch became a domestic fixture. The most elegant solution I have seen to accommodate insect screens in a modern house is in a Vero Beach, Florida, residence designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, in which windows and insect screens both slide out of sight into wall pockets, allowing the tall openings to be glazed, screened, or fully open.
There is no place for wall pockets in a glass house. Of course, Mies and Johnson could easily have installed screens but they faced an aesthetic problem: metal screens appear opaque compared with glass, which works against the sense of reflectivity that, as Mies frequently said, is a glass building’s special quality. It is a measure of both architects’ single-mindedness—or of their stubbornness?—that they refused to compromise. But that’s the nature of a strong idea: it tends to impose its own rules. The architect must either observe those rules or start over.
Eventually, Mies grudgingly acceded to Edith Farnsworth’s demand to screen the covered terrace of her house. Johnson, who occupied his house for almost sixty years until his death, never installed screen doors and simply put up with the inconvenience of bugs. “I’d rather sleep in Chartres Cathedral with the nearest john three blocks down the street,” he once told a Yale class, “than I would in a Harvard house with back-to-back bathrooms.” Does great architecture trump practicality? Johnson’s statement is cavalier, but his point is a serious one. The experience of great architecture is rare and precious, while convenience is commonplace—and fungible. I live in an old stone house, designed by the Philadelphia architect H. Louis Duhring Jr. in 1907. In the last few years I have had moisture problems in one of the walls, the result of a stepped parapet that absorbs water in driving rain. The house gives me pleasure daily; the leaks require occasional patching and repainting. Life’s imperfect.
Frank Lloyd Wright—a more practical architect than his reputation suggests—provided insect screens and screen doors in Fallingwater, the famous house that he designed for Edgar J. Kaufmann in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. This house was also a weekend retreat, although it is functionally more demanding than Mies’s and Johnson’s glass houses, since it was occupied by a family of three with frequent guests.3 Wright’s novel idea was to situate the house on a large rock outcropping and cantilever the structure over a waterfall. He is said to have designed the house in one morning but he must have been thinking about it for a long time, as the overlapping terraces and interlocking spaces are anything but simple. The range of materials is limited—creamy-colored reinforced concrete with rounded edges, rough stone walls and floors, and steel window frames painted his favorite color, Cherokee Red. With this simple palette, the “old magus,” as his biographer Brendan Gill called him, cast his spell.
The most famous concept house in history is an Italian Renaissance villa on the outskirts of Vicenza called the Villa Rotonda, after the circular domed room at its center—a miniature Pantheon. Most Renaissance architects used axially symmetrical plans—that is, if an imaginary line is drawn through the center of the house, all the rooms on the right mirror those on the left. Andrea Palladio went one step further and created two intersecting main axes, producing a square house with four identical fronts. Each front has a columned portico, and since the house is on a hilltop, each portico has a different view. Such a rigidly symmetrical plan is not as impractical as it sounds. Each of the eight rooms has direct access to the outside without interfering with whatever is going on in the domed chamber, which is the main reception room and can be reached from any of the four porticos.
Ever since the Villa Rotonda was built, it has been an inspiration for other architects. Vincenzo Scamozzi, Palladio’s student who completed the villa after his master’s death, was the first to have a go, designing the four-sided villa La Rocca on a dramatic hilltop site. The English architect Inigo Jones, who admired Palladio, designed several biaxial houses, though none was built. In the eighteenth century there were four famous Rotonda-like British houses, including one by the Scottish architect Colen Campbell, and another, Chiswick House, designed by Lord Burlington, a devout Palladian. To this day, architects have continued to be fascinated by Palladio’s idea, and there are recent examples in the United States and England, and an exceptionally faithful facsimile that stands among olive terraces in the Palestinian West Bank.
Architects playing variations on old themes are similar to composers and painters inspired by their predecessors: Brahms revisiting Haydn, Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov returning to Bach, Picasso painting versions of Goya, and both Picasso and Francis Bacon revisiting Velázquez. Such re-creations are a nod to genius, and also a recognition that some creative ideas—a house with four fronts, for example—are rich enough to merit further exploration.
To be considered for high-profile commissions, architects—even celebrated architects—are often required to enter competitions, in effect, beauty contests. The first American architectural competition was held in 1792, to choose a design for the President’s House in Washington, D.C. Competition juries generally consist of architects, although they may also include a representative of the client or sponsor. In this case, the judges were the three commissioners of the new federal city and the house’s future occupant, President George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, a recognized authority in architectural matters, took second place with a design based on the Villa Rotonda, but the winner was James Hoban, an Irish-born architect who just happened to be a protégé of the president.
There were only nine entries in the President’s House competition, but most modern competitions have hundreds of contestants. The judging of such competitions follows a well-established pattern. The members of the jury first quickly review all the submissions, with an eye on eliminating projects that have ignored competition requirements, are incomplete, are obviously flawed, or simply look uninteresting. Once the long list is winnowed down to a manageable number, the judges spend the remainder of their time studying these designs in detail to see how well they have resolved the competition requirements. The bulk of the time may be spent discussing the final two or three submissions. Some competitions are organized in stages, a group of entrants from the first stage being chosen to elaborate their projects in a second stage. The entries to open competit...

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