How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit

Witold Rybczynski, Author
Witold Rybczynski. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-21174-5
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Prize-winning architectural writer and University of Pennsylvania emeritus professor Rybczynski (A Clearing in the Distance) follows in the spirit of Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s classic Experiencing Architecture to supply an ideal layperson’s handbook on the fundamentals of modern and contemporary architecture. Focusing on the functional and aesthetic considerations that define a building, and often calling upon his experience as an architect to illustrate major concepts, Rybczynski vividly explains particulars such as how to read architectural plans and how sunlight figures into designs, as well as discussing issues of style, history, and taste. While the book tends to address structure after structure at a speedy clip, the upshot is a commanding view of the field for beginners. An especially rich example is the walk-through of several designs submitted to the competition for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture: this not only illustrates how different architects respond to constraints, but also how such competitions function. Rybczynski is not a polemicist, but he effectively argues certain basic principles, and makes a cogent analogy to typography to show how the past always influences the present. Here, architecture is treated as craft executed with prudence and conviction. The author doesn’t care much for theories, or buildings that fail to be practical, but welcomes “a variety of design approaches,” all of which make him a model teacher. 140 b&w illus. (Oct.)
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