Witold Rybczynski: A conversation about architecture
Focus & Attention
Architecture is a backdrop to our lives. It is rarely viewed with the focus and attention that we use with plays, novels or paintings. We glimpse a feature and think, “how nice that somebody actually thought of that.”
We see a play once, maybe twice, but we may see a building daily for many years. A building may remain in use for a hundred years or more, even in a consumer society that throws everything away. Most hundred-year-old things are viewed as antiques or historical curiosities and placed in museums but we live in hundred-year-old buildings. It is still “of our time.” And it will be of somebody else’s time further down the road.
Like literature, architecture has a canon. A well-designed building is not replaced in the way we replace a well-designed phone or computer or elevator. It remains in the canon as we continue to add new additions to it.
Public buildings need public support. It is hard to get behind the presentation of Brutalism from forty years ago, constructed of so much concrete. It costs money to preserve a building so you have to really like it to keep it.
Symmetry is a useful tool. It is powerful and has a long tradition. We shouldn’t throw things out that have build up a value.
Empirical, not theoretical
Architecture, like engineering, is based on trial and error. If it works we repeat it. It is a much more frequent practice than creating buildings motivated by a kind of theory. Experience almost always triumphs over theory.
The best architecture
The best architecture is when the architect faces seemingly intractable problems, solves them and creates something that is very satisfying. When a building’s roof leaks, it is not very satisfying—no matter how aesthetically pleasing it may seem.
Canadian architecture is very conservative because the climate is so harsh and unforgiving. Water will get into any flaws, freeze and break them apart. You would be insane to experiment too much. In warmer, more forgiving climates you can try stranger and more unusual things. Las Vegas is a perfect example.
How buildings learn
In his book How Buildings Learn, Stuart Brand points out that you cannot set out to design a building that anticipates it’s future use, but there are some buildings that are more successful in doing this than others.
I don’t really have an argument. If there is an argument it’s that there are many ways to make a building. The theory, if you will, is that we should appreciate a broader range of buildings. If you understand what an architect is trying to do, what problems he is trying to solve, you can better appreciate what he does.
- How Buildings Learn (and why software is no different) (mdswanson.com)