The erudite and architecturally well-traveled Rybczynski (Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, 2010, etc.) offers a brimming toolkit that we should bring to “our daily experience of buildings, which is practical as well as aesthetic.”
In this robust tour of architecture—in which he offers plenty of opinions, without being overly opinionated, and a host of useful, disarming illuminations—the author delivers a conceptual framework for approaching architecture, in addition to presenting the many different intentions and theories of architects. It is also written for the man and woman on the street, the story of these settings of everyday life allowing readers into architects’ heads. Rybczynski writes with equal felicity on architecture as art—why a building touches us and speaks to us—as well as its function and realization. He moves with ease, accompanied by copious examples and illustrations, among significant moments in the architect’s work: the importance of the specificity of site; symmetries and axes, movement, orientation and disorientation; how the setting can be both embraced and set in opposition; working with a street grid, a brassy or refined environment; fashioning a small house in a cramped lot. In architecture, writes the author, the materials are the message, as in the skin of a building: tight, soft, heavy, light, ornamental, flat or backlit. There are all the details and quirks that can make or break our immediate response to a building—a Rem Koolhaas studio railing is a lovely example—and there are all the creations, borrowings, manipulation and nurturings of style, not to mention the furtive notions of taste, suitability and proportion.
Rybczynski is an artful conductor and learned hand who leaves much of the pleasure of architectural discovery to readers.