The architectural historian between Indiana Jones and Gandalf

The Royal Institute of British Architects decided last year September to award 2014’s Royal Gold Medal to Joseph Rykwert, who inspired generations of architects with a series of –in the words of Susan Sontag – ‘gloriously erudite and ingeniously speculative’ writings. One of them is a very influential book on the primitive hut, the topic of my own research project, with the title On Adam’s house in Paradise. The idea of the primitive hut in architectural history (1972, second edition in 1981).

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Joseph Rykwert

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Ernst Gombrich

This work has always puzzled me somewhat. Admittedly, it is packed with references to sources containing huts. Like some reviewers before me however, I do not know if Rykwert’s way of presenting and linking them is necessarily the most insightful. I once jokingly told my supervisor that I liked to think of the book as a primary source, because it reminded me of the way in which eighteenth-century authors speak about the hut. With them as with Rykwert, the hut is programmatic: it serves an agenda for the present. It is no wonder then that the book attracted some fierce criticism, questioning Rykwert’s scholarly rigour and credibility as a historian. Ernst Gombrich, for instance, did not mince his words when reviewing it for the New York Review of Books:

‘Mr. Rykwert is not really concerned with the history of an idea – an idea that never was – but with [..]. memories or fantasies of an archetypal dwelling [..]. To track down and to map this cluster of associations the author adopts the methods of the psychoanalyst rather than those of the historian [..]. There is indeed no dearth of material when it comes to speculations about origins and about the demands of nature in eighteenth-century writings. It certainly would not be easy to organize this vast material, but here as elsewhere Mr. Rykwert prefers suggestive allusion to systematic presentation … one must ask oneself what readers he had in mind. He presumably writes for architects and designers […] but would this class of readers know, for instance, who Filarete was? [..]. He is looking for what is perennial and universal in man’s reaction to buildings, but ends by investigating a tribe of Australian aborigines who have no buildings but carry a ceremonial pole which apparently stands for a totemic animal or object […] One cannot but wonder whether the method adopted by the author is best suited to throw fresh light on his underlying theme – man’s nostalgia for the past and his desire for renewal […] a romantic and almost whimsical essay.’

In a paper given during the 59th Annual SAH Meeting (2006), Helen Thomas sought to shed some more light on Rykwert’s methods by putting them in context. She argues that his stay at Ulm in 1958 brought a new way of studying design to his attention, alongside the related disciplines of sociology, anthropology and semiology. According to Thomas, this was also where he picked up on phenomenology, which was to become hugely influential in architectural thinking from the 1970s onwards. Rykwert himself played no mean part in this development, through his teachings at the University of Essex.

Thomas quotes former student Alberto Pérez Gómez – now the head of the architecture department at McGill University – who recalls that Rykwert ‘went in depth and ‘unpacked’ the texts for us. His ‘agenda’ was to teach us to read carefully and with respect, to hear the answers to our own questions through the texts.’ Rykwert appears to have filled a gap in the available design education at the time, from which architectural history was largely absent. With the arrival of the Warburg Institute in the 1930s, Thomas argues, history had become the exclusive territory of professional art historians, a development Rykwert sought to halt. In a 1980 comment, he mockingly characterized the art historical establishment of his days – of which Gombrich was a member:

‘The history of architecture done by architects is important … It is because we as architects know how we proceed when we are on the drawing board, and how we make decisions, that we can understand certain decisions of past architects. I still remember talking with a colleague about a certain very distinguished art historian, and … the colleague to whom I was speaking said, “You see, X is extremely learned and very ingenious, but the trouble with him is that he is like a very clever eunuch in a brothel: He knows who does it with whom, how many times, which way and in which room; but what he can’t understand is why they want to do it in the first place.’

It is a difference of approaches that continues to be felt today. Having been taught at both a design institute (the Delft faculty of Architecture) and an art history department (Leiden University), I must say I have come to prefer the professional historian’s approach. Although it lacks the glamour and the aura of profound wisdom sometimes appropriated by Rykwert’s followers, it forces the scholar to not be satisfied with what often turn out to be somewhat gratuitous philosophies loosely based on historical sources. I have made a few of those in the past, and although they were exhilarating, they prevented me from really getting into the heads of ‘my’ eighteenth-century authors. When I started doing that, I gained access to a wealth of riches that I could not have tapped into otherwise.

To me, Pérez Gómez’s comment that Rykwert taught him to ‘hear the answers to our own questions through the texts’ therefore does not sound as the best way to instil respect for those texts. The authors of these texts had different questions, and to bypass them in favour of your own seems to me a departure of what history is all about. Even in that discipline, some degree of intellectual cherry picking is of course unavoidable (see for instance what E.H. Carr said about this in his legendary lecture on historiography): but to actively encourage it would mean drowning out the voice of the past in favour of that of the present.

In the end both approaches are precarious though. No one puts this more eloquently than Rykwert, with his usual ‘gift for a pregnant phrase’:[1]

‘The historian peers at his quarry by means of a shaft of light cast by his learning and powered by his research, eschewing the densities of darkness which inevitably surround his core of verifiable vision and which lie, uncharted, a terra incognita … The fabricator, on the other hand, gropes his way, in partial blindness and aided only by the handrail of proper scholarship and the white staff of his imagination with which he taps his lonely way, feeling for such turnocks of probability that may bear his weight.’[2]

As an architectural historian, then, you have the choice of being either Indiana Jones, or Gandalf. For now I think I prefer Indiana Jones, but who knows: I might grow a pointy hat in the future…

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[1] Gombrich’s words, in the New York Review of Books

[2] Quoted in Thomas’s paper

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Critical Juncture, part I: Michael Sorkin | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

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