Book: The Look of Architecture by Witold Rybczynski

It’s a little bit untrue to title this small volume solely a book. It caught my eye while I was perusing the stacks last week at the New York Society Library. I love small books – they are a small offering of thought in a portable package, distilled and clean. The Look of Architecture (Witold Rybscynski, New York Public Library/Oxford University Press, 2001) springs from a  lecture series held by the NYPL and Oxford University Press for which they invite a notable scholar to lecture on their topic of choice. Clocking in at 119 pages, it made for a thoughtful unwind from the week during my flight from Montreal to New York.

My first interaction with an architect (or wanna-be architect) was my high school boyfriend, who unfortunately channeled way more of the bad of Frank Lloyd Wright than the good. So I smiled when Rybscynski starts out “Ask an architect what style he works in and you are likely to be met with a pained expression, or with silence.” Architects want their buildings to contain meaning through time, rather than express the culture of the time in which they were built.

I personally don’t know any architects.

Rybscynski challenges that people enjoy buildings not because they are timeless, but because they are of their time. We hear Gershwin in our heads when we see the Chrysler building, and we’re transported into nighttime photographs of New York, glowing with flashing marquees and elevated train trestles. Architecture is living bits of history in our midst. When we lose architecture, we lose that part of our meaning. I wonder about those who scoff at history, as I find it a mooring tether. It gives me things to cherish, as well as a point of reference for the advancement of our culture.

Sullivan’s “form follows function” edict also goes down in this small volume. Practically, it would imply that all buildings serving the same function, like a train station, would be the same. (Of course, regular readers know that I would need to target the train station mentions in this book). Train stations throughout the country used innumerable styles to craft the town’s identity for arriving passengers (read my ode to the local train station).

Take a short amount of time to delight in this book, and then delight in the world around you. Unless you live in blah post-1970 suburban tract housing.



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