The Look of Architecture

The Look of Architecture
Witold Rybczynski
Oxford University Press

"Less is more," insisted minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe, which could also apply to this breezy little book on architectural styles. In its conversational 119 pages, The Look of Architecture lays out the history of changing architectural fashions, from the icons of ancient Greece and Rome to Postmodernist interpretations such as the Chippendale-topped skyscraper of Philip Johnson and John Burgee in New York. Many writers might make this subject as dry as Sheetrock, but Witold Rybczynski makes it a romp. And who could expect any less from the man who made "A natural history of the screwdriver and the screw" into a best-seller?

Rybczynski not only writes well, he relates architecture to our lives. In describing Radio City Music Hall, which opened in 1932, for example, he doesn’t neglect the Rockettes, whose synchronized high jinks are as much a kick as the building’s dazzling design. On a more homely level, he faults architectural photography that always shows a house’s interior without any people in it and "styled" to remove any messy traces of life. Rybczynski humanizes architects as well as architecture, peppering his pages with lively quotes and salty opinions from the masters. Where the great English critic John Ruskin considered Gothic architecture a moral force, for instance, the illustrious English architect Christopher Wren called it "a fantastical and licentious manner of building."

And Rybczynski offers plenty of his own opinions, both provocative and entertaining. He approves of a Walt Disney office in Burbank, California, that features columns carved as human figures in the classical manner of Athenian caryatids—but substitutes the Seven Dwarfs for the graceful maidens of ancient Greece. "The headquarters of a company whose logo is a pair of mouse ears obviously demands a different decorum from a temple," he observes. But while "Shingle style cottages are pleasing," he writes, "A Shingle Style Home Depot is ridiculous."

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