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Op-Ed: Which "Past" Should Architects Embrace and Why? Posing Alternatives to Architectural Nostalgia

Witold Rybczynski's "How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit" might be his most urbanely written and sensibly organized books - but his traditional definition of architecture’s past might be passé.

By Norman Weinstein
October 11, 2013

How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) might be the most urbanely written and sensibly organized of any of Witold Rybczynski’s books, and definitely deserves appreciative attention this fall. Of immense value is Rybczynski’s inclusive taste, what he eloquently labels his “ecumenical position,” adding “I have no grand theory to advance, no polemical agenda, no school to champion. Architecture, good architecture, is rare enough; there is no need to create artificial schisms.” His approach is personal, detail-oriented, historical, and gloriously resistant to ideological faddism, offering a book of penetratingly thoughtful cases of eclectic architectural achievement.


That said, I’m chagrined by one chapter entitled “The Past.” Killer word, that “the.”


And “past” in the singular can be delimiting, a point well made by poet Robert Kelly in his essay “Pasts” (published in the literary journal Sulfur, issue 33). The architectural past that Rybczynski’s survey heralds is founded on Greco-Roman models, moves into European and Japanese Modernism, and tips a hat to Postmodernism and to Classical Revivalism. Very tidy and reasonable, establishing the author as an architectural man of all tastes and seasons.


The trouble is: such a packaging of architecture’s past instead of pasts – I’m using the plural of “past” from now on – bypasses the contributions of centuries of designs by vernacular architects, the untitled and unlicensed, particularly those outside of a European and American orbit. Curiously, it also downplays or ignores hybrid identities: the engineer-architect (Félix Candela, for example), and the conceptual art-architect (Archigram, John Hejduk, Lebbeus Woods). But there’s a larger issue than inclusiveness within architectural history at stake here. As Rybczynski writes: “The architectural advantage of looking back is that it engages the memory as well as the eye . . .Looking back may be prompted by different sentiments – nostalgia, reverence, admiration – or simply by the recognition that we owe a debt to our ancestors.”


Hold that thought in mind – and then leap forward to a number of current “Classical Revivalists” (Robert A.M. Stern, Quinlan Terry) who are characteristically written about as “bridging architecture’s past and present.” Or to use another metaphor implicit in the jury citation language of the 2013 Driehaus Prize:


In awarding the Driehaus Prize to Tom Beeby, the jury celebrates the work of a dedicated architect and teacher for his lifelong commitment to the search for a common ground between the classical and the modern; the two most powerful architectural ideas of our century.


“Bridge” or “common ground,” some architects and critics envision architecture as in the business of customizing a “past,” converting the unruly chaos of times before into an altar to direct orders of worship So when you synthesize the concept of architectural past from Rybczynski and the Driehaus Prize jury’s language, this is what you might end up with:


·                    Recent architectural history comprises a Manichean pas de deux between schools of Classicism and Modernism. No other overarching ideas are worthy contenders. And Classicism and Modernism must be conceptualized as opposite camps requiring rapprochement.

·                    Accepting entirely a single academically-sanctioned mainstream version of architectural history is the prime catalyst for architectural design to positively evolve.

·                     Worthy sentiments experienced when looking back at architecture include nostalgia, reverence, admiration, and recognition of debt to our ancestors.


The genteel appeal of the above might be attributed to seeing architecture’s past in this version as neatly contained in a box. Since the past has been called by poets and politicians “a faraway country,” then this version of architecture’s past ensures that it stays at a safe distance from the encroaching and unsettling urgencies of the present.


What if there are only multiple and ceaselessly shifting versions of architecture’s past simultaneously existing in the present? Young architects at their ubiquitous monitors remembering they have a quiz on Palladio in their survey course coming up soon? Or midcareer designers with knowledge of apt scale and proportion for small-town public libraries now hired to construct urban book centers with e-books replacing physical bound volumes?


In utter contrast for pleas for architects to “look back,” how else can we look but omni-directionally, from every imaginable perspective? Not just for the conventionally faithful is the ancient tale of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt for nostalgically (or was reverently?) looking back a word to the wise. The image of our heads spinning with architectural visions from all times and places – our vertiginous but panoramic and infinitely deep present – allows for thinking “outside the box” of a monolithic architectural “greatest hits” list. Corbu’s promenade through a building now morphing into the spinning presence of painter Paul Klee’s “Revolving House” (1921).


By thinking of layers of conflicting and paradoxical versions of architectural pasts, we see the utility of mining times before our own, and cultural heritages unlike ours, non-hierarchically, for global wisdom in a time characterized by new material ambiguities and non-hierarchical social, architectural, and environmental structures living and dying, often in quick digital dissolves. Rather than an architectural past locked in a box (Pandora’s?), or to be more generously romantic, tucked away neatly into drawers of a cabinet of curiosities, think of it as a swirling sprawling constellation of material, intellectual, and spiritual energies on the threshold of assuming new forms. More a tornado or galaxy than a contained school of architecture. And yet this dynamic formulation need not imply a degradation of lessons learned from the past, or living now in a constant state of post-postmodern instability. Rootedness extracted from the design creativity of all pasts is as much a generous source for a sustainable sustaining professional practice, if not more, than being locked into a neo-Palladian mindset.


Nothing can be more staid and lifeless than to assign to multi-dimensional living architecture a single conceptual shroud to be buried in. “The past” is yet to be finally interpreted and utilizable – by architects or anyone else. And not all ages passing from our horizons may even be realized in architecture or words. As the major American novelist of the Midwest, Willa Cather, touchingly suggested in My Antonia, sometimes all we can share is the knowledge of “the precious, the incommunicable past.”


So while Rybczynski’s sense of the high points of architecture’s history as “a gift” appears quite valuable, it might just be that much of the architecture of past centuries can often be a difficult “gift,” only speaking to us gradually, and when it does, through shadows rather than through the clear light of day.



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at


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