So where does it go from here? What new roads does Joseph Rykwert’s work open up for the future? That was the central question of a Rykwert symposium held at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Saturday 22 February, as part of Critical Juncture. Introduced by Kieran Long, architecture curator at the V&A, and Louise Noelle, chairwoman of CICA, it sported sessions on Rykwert’s books On Adam’s house in Paradise and The Idea of a Town. After lunch, the future of architecture criticism was again the centre of debate.
Of course the session on Adam’s house had my warm interest. Michelangelo Sabatino, first up, referred to Arthur Drexler’s foreword to the first edition to highlight how Rykwert’s book fit the era. Although Adam’s house is in no way related to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, the only other book published in the MoMA series ‘Papers in architecture’, they both take aim at modernist dogma: Venturi criticizing it outright, Rykwert exposing its root causes. Another influence was the contemporary ‘exaltation of the spontaneous’, a trend seen in the publications of Bernard Rudofsky, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Paul Oliver, and in the Whole Earth Catalog. As Rykwert admitted in his recent memoir ‘Adam at forty’, it irritated him to such an extent that he decided to bring back some intellectual grounding: ‘A return to such sources seemed to me to show a way of recalling something essential about building, something which seemed to have got lost in all that aesthetic admiration of the accidental, the casual, and the unintended.’
Richard Wesley then made some fascinating remarks on the illustrations of primitive huts in Filarete’s fifteenth century manuscript treatise. One of them shows Adam being chased out of paradise with his hands to his head. As Wesley pointed out, this appears to be more of a ‘Woe is me!’ gesture than seeking shelter from the rain, as academics – including Rykwert – usually have it. Even more compelling was his observation that another drawing by Filarete (see below) shows Eve, not Adam, holding a stylus and drawing a plan in the sand. In the same picture Adam is seen bending a branch into a curve, an act identified by Wesley as the ‘mitochondrial DNA for the non-Euclidian architecture of the 1980s and 90s’.
Calling in a novel by Mark Twain with the title Eve’s diary, where the first hut is a North American log cabin (see below) and where paradise ends with Eve’s death, Wesley went on to use the original meaning of the word ‘paradise’ – ‘womb-like enclosure’, according to him, although Etymology Online does not concur – to equate the first house with a woman’s body. Which was a perfect bridge to the next speaker, Carlos Eduardo Comas, on the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer: also a great admirer of female curves.
As the afternoon progressed, I sensed some gradually increasing tension building up among the ranks. It finally culminated in a bit of skirmishing at the concluding session, when the participating speakers and critics expressed a general dissatisfaction with the way criticism is done right now. However, the critics present could not come to a final conclusion on why that was, who was to blame, what would be a good way out of the situation, and how to address these problems in relation to the work of Joseph Rykwert – who was after all the honorary guest.
Underlying the discussion were several ghosts – and not, as George Baird thought, Rem Koolhaas and phenomenology. It seems to me the biggest elephant in the room was the essential powerlessness of the critic nowadays, something already hinted at the day before. On the whole, architectural critics are remarkably idealistic, but their voice is hardly heard. Consumerism and market forces rule architecture, while ‘theory’ – ‘theory of what?’ as Pippo Ciorra asked: ‘where’s the object, where’s the fact?’ – has surpassed criticism and retreated into the ivory tower of North American universities. There is a group of critics that wants to restrict itself to questions of form and aesthetics; another that wants to address the political side of building; yet another that thinks the academic should not involve himself in the question that is asked but keep an intellectual distance.
In my opinion Luis Fernandez-Galiano offered the most graceful comment, in light of the occasion: ‘Market forces are the modern equivalent of the minotaur’s labyrinth. To kill the beast we need a red thread of Ariadne: Joseph’s work.’ However elegantly put, Rykwert himself disagreed though. As he made clear in the closing sentences of his RIBA speech, two days later, he is with the critics that focus on the political dimension of architecture:
‘It is a dimension of which we need to be constantly reminded, for our experience of building is always political. Every building adds or diminishes the common good. That is why another Gold Medalist, the late Aldo van Eyck, was right to remind us that if you’re not a bit of a boy scout, there’s no point in going into architecture.’
Want to read about the first day of Critical Juncture? Click here for part I, a rousing call for responsible criticism by Michael Sorkin, and part II, with talks by a British, an Indonesian and a Spanish critic.