To American observers, the British design and media scene is a parallel universe—a green and pleasant land in which, astonishingly, cities have newspapers, newspapers have architecture critics, and architecture critics are trained architects. This erudite scene has educated some of America's most luminous architectural minds—Steven Holl, FAIA, and Peter Eisenman, FAIA, above all. And yet somewhere between drinks at the Architectural Association bar and all the noxious confluences of class and taste to which a socially clambering patronage-based profession like architecture is especially subject, this fertile ground can get a little febrile, a little involute, a little thank-God-I'm-landing-at-JFK.
The epitome of the best and tonic to the worst of all of this may be the architectural critic and historian Joseph Rykwert, who today becomes the 2014 recipient of the annual Gold Medal bestowed by the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA). Established in 1848 and given in consultation with the Queen of England herself, the prize has often gone to architects (Le Corbusier in 1953, Peter Zumthor in 2013), but only rarely to writers such as Nikolaus Pevsner, Colin Rowe, and John Summerson.
Like those writers, Rykwert will be familiar to any graduate of Architecture 101. Born in Warsaw in 1926, trained at the Architectural Association, and currently the Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, Rykwert’s signature method has been to locate the surprising deep histories behind seemingly sui generis innovations of the Modern movement. His 1963 The Idea of a Town reached back with Jungian ambition toward mythical and ritual foundations for vernacular urban typologies; Rykwert approached with unusual precision often mystical topics, such as the sense of place. His 1996 The Dancing Column took a similar approach to the classical orders as a prehistory of today’s fascination for the organic body. In 1980’s The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century, Rykwert found a sly and astonishing contemporaneity in the well-trod wonders of Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Claude Perrault, and company.
Rykwert’s lasting achievement may be not only bringing mutual comprehension to American and British design scenes, but to those other cousins divided by their common language: the ancients and the moderns.
Top image: Photo used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Wikimedia Commons.