Rybczynski:How Architecture Works

If you don’t understand what an architect is trying to do, you can’t understand the architecture.

That’s the premise of Witold Rybczynski’s forthcoming book, coming October 8 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and it makes sense.

Rybczynski, of course, is one of our best critics, a Vincent Scully Prize-winner who’s written about architecture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times and Slate.

In How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, he’s created primer of sorts, to examine how Mies, Kahn, Cret, Stern, Gehry, Foster, Aalto and Piano – among many others – approach the art and science of architecture.

“What I want people to do is understand why architects do what they do, and that different architects do different things for different reasons,” he says.

He hasn’t included all the architects and all the buildings in his 353-page tome, but rather, the buildings that he’s visited by the architects he admires. Mies’ Farnsworth House is here, along with Johnson’s Glass House. “They’re similar in chronology and in the idea behind them – a simple idea of a house that’s all glass,” he says.

On the other end of the spectrum are buildings that are not about single ideas at all, by architects like Aalto and Kahn and Gehry. They’re about how architects react to the realities of site, setting or skin, their complex interior solutions layered beneath exterior sheathing.

“Sometimes all you see is the skin of glass or bronze or steel,” he says. “There’s something to appreciate in Gehry’s wrapping a building like a newspaper, loosely, while others wrap it tightly to express what’s underneath.”

The book covers a wide variety of architecture, including classical, traditional, mainstream modern, high-tech and no-tech. Rather than focusing on a particular style, the author chooses to look at the challenges facing any architect, including setting, site, plan, structure, skin and details.

It is, he implies, no walk in the park.

“Good architecture is hard to do – to line up all the pieces like a good client with money, the right site, the kind of building regulations and the contractor who’ll carry out what you want,” he says. “To get all those pieces lined up is difficult.”

He’s included one of his own projects – a 1980 passive solar home called the FerreroHouse designed and built in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s. At 1,200 square feet, it’s a dogleg in plan: half face south and the other half is parallel to the road out front.

It offers ample, shaded windows on the southern exposure, with thermal blinds, and as few windows on the north elevation as possible. Heavily insulated, it uses concrete tiles to collect solar energy when needed.

And it’s still functioning, with a recent addition he designed. “The trees are mature and the materials have stood up well,” he says. “It wasn’t an experiment – it was a year-round house.”

Which, of course, is what the architect was trying to do all along.

For more information, go to http://www.witoldrybczynski.com/books/

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