Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the foremost architectural historians and critics of his generation.
I meet Professor Rykwert in his apartment in Hampstead, London, where he has resided for the last 50 years. He lives on a very quiet road, surrounded by trees and small houses, and his apartment is composed of several rooms whose walls are all covered by bookshelves. In the living room there are some Cubist paintings and a couple of lamps that he designed himself. We go into his study, and it too is full of books, a little table with his computer facing the bow window and an architect’s table where he draws. Classical music and Opera is playing.
Professor Rykwert has just turned 90 years old, and still works on his new book every day. He can speak Polish, German, Russian, French, Italian…. but we decide to hold our conversation in English. Rykwert moved to England with his family because of the coming Second World War and persecutions.
Joseph, you just received an Honorary Degree in Bologna, one of many you hold. How do you feel about that?
Well, when people make a fuss of you, on the whole you like it. My first Honorary Degree was at Edinburgh, and the other person getting it at the same time was Amartya Sen. But he was getting his nineteenth and me my first. This is an honour rather than an award, for my books and career.
Do you consider yourself an intellectual, an architect, a professor?
Primarily I think of myself as an architect who has wandered into history and theory.
You have written books where the city has a central role, for instance “The Idea of a Town”.
Yes, I come from Warsaw, which when I lived there as a child had a population of 1.5 million. That counts as a small city nowadays. From 1937- 38 on we had a flat in London, and I discovered the big city. I am concerned with the way people see the city in which they live. How they see it physically. What, for instance, is the map of the city they have in their heads?
Is there a perfect city?
Of course there can’t be a perfect city. They are imperfect because they are only half willed. Take Manhattan, for instance, when it was New Amsterdam it was at the southern tip of Manhattan and Wall Street did correspond to the wall of that city. Then in 1811 the great plan for dividing the land of New York into rectangles was laid out.
Was it like a Roman castrum?
No, because a Roman castrum was directional and virtually laid out, and had to be sanctified by sacrifices. It was a very elaborate process. New York was laid out pragmatically.
What about Paris?
A very different case. It started on the Left Bank and then was restricted to the island, and then a castle, “The Louvre”, appeared on the Right Bank and the whole emphasis of the town shifted. But the old Roman town was the site of the university and of some monasteries.
London is quite different, it never had a university, it had the Inns of Court and therefore was a centre for law, and less so for medicine. But the basic structure of London was the tension between the Royal City of Westminster and the Royal Hall and the mercantile City around St Paul’s.
Italy is the country of the 100 cities, isn’t it?
Yes, there are several capital cities. I saw this because I was very surprised when I went to Dublin to find that it is not a provincial town. It is a capital, unlike other cities in England, like Manchester, Liverpool or even Glasgow. Edinburgh, like Dublin, has somehow the character of a capital. Britain has three capitals, but Italy has many.
Turin and Venice, or Florence, Palermo, Naples, and of course above all Rome. In a sense all the cities around the via Emilia, like Parma, Modena, Bologna and Rimini, they all had rulers and courts.
Do you think that Venice is the most extraordinary city in the world?
Of course it is extraordinary, but there are analogous water-cities in China and south-east Asia. What seems to me unique about Venice is its elective monarchy and the way it uses its main waterside to display its charity and its power. It starts with the Incurabili, the hospice on the Zattere, goes on to the Magazzini del sale – the state salt warehouse and then comes the Dogana, the customs house at the entrance of the Grand Canal. On the other side was the big bulk of the Magazzini del Grano, the state grain warehouse, which were pulled down early in the 19th century, then the Mint and the State library. The hiatus of the piazzetta has the gibbet between the two columns and then comes the impressive bulk of the Ducal Palace with its adjoining prison, the piombi. The sequence ends with the Misericordia, the foundling hospice – it’s a display of power which must have been obvious to anyone who arrived in Venice by water.
Is it a dying city?
It has been dying for a very long time, since it hasn’t been an independent entity for two hundred years.
Which is your favourite city?
All cities are interesting, from Beijing to Shanghai, from Varanasi to Bombay. I find all cities fascinating.
You worked a lot on Leon Battista Alberti?
Alberti said that the city is a large house and the house is a small city. This notion of Chinese box I think is essential to the understanding of a city. I spent two summers of my life working on the Foro Romana when Frank Brown was excavating the Reggia. It was a fascinating experience.
Rome is an extraordinary example of so many styles?
It was settled three thousand years ago, and like several other fundamental cities it started with a murder. Romulus killed his brother Remus. In a way it rhymes with the story of Cain and Abel.
What does Rome mean to you?
Caput Mundi. The centre of oldest Rome is the Palatine, Campidoglio and Forum. Now they have all been emptied so they look like what they are, an archaeological park. We all have our own Roman centre – mine I suppose, is the Piazza di Spagna.
Yes, in London it’s always been dual. The Royal City is Westminster with Abbey, Parliament, and Palace. The other, the mercantile power nexus is The City – the two were connected along the river by the Strand and Fleet Road, from which modern London grew north, east, and south. When it became so big that it required its own governance it acquired a palace opposite parliament. But Mrs Thatcher removed the awkward left-leaning authority and now both centres are dwarfed by the London Eye, a vast bucket-wheel and tourist attraction which seems to signify that London is to be looked at rather than lived in.
Skyscrapers changed the idea of architecture and of the city?
There are new cities, particularly on the Persian Gulf. They are a new form of urban dwelling, and they fascinate certain writers like J. G. Ballard or William Gibson.
What do you think of skyscrapers and their architects?
I prefer not to think about it. I prefer to think of architects who design horizontal skyscrapers, like Stephen Holl who designed a large building as long as the Empire State is high in Shenzhen, the major city outside Hong Kong. I don’t like “archi-stars” because they rely on the spectacular nature of the personality and not on the quality of their work.
Do you think that architecture shapes the passage of history?
The thing about high rise buildings is that they consume and waste the space around them. The tallest building in the world actually is going up in Jeddah, it is one kilometre high. If you look at the perspective round it, it is wasteland. In fact it is a building you cannot enter by foot, you have to go by motor car. An even taller building is planned for Baku. These are not buildings of any architectural distinction.
What about New York?
It is full of buildings of no distinction. As you know New York considers itself the capital of the world, and because it has the UN in a sense that is how it is.
Who are the architects that you admire?
Apollodorus of Damascus designed Trajan’s Forum, perhaps the Pantheon. He is said to have been executed by Hadrian because he spoke disrespectfully of Hadrian’s architecture. Architecture criticism is a dangerous profession. I rather admire Borromini and Bernini, who disliked each other. Of course I admire Alberti, and I admire Bramante, and Le Corbusier, not so much Mies van der Rohe. Gropius was very good at choosing his collaborators, like Kandinsky and Klee and Schlemmer, and Itten above all.
Is architecture dynamic nowadays?
There are architects working all the time. It is very difficult to be an architect in the neo-capitalist period because we lack the sense of a need for the public realm. Unless you have a sense of society, you can do individual buildings but the fabric of the city is in pieces. This is a worldwide phenomenon.
Is it still rewarding to be an architect?
There will always be possibilities of building.
What about design?
The curious thing is that Bauhaus still dominates some aspect of design, after a century of existence.
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17th May, 2016
Alain Elkann Interviews Joseph Rykwert by Alain Elkann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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