Return to form: Joseph Rykwert

June 1, 2009

Renowned architectural historian Joseph Rykwert talks with Lee Stickells about his recent book, The Judicious Eye.

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LS: I’ll start with a quote. You said recently in relation to your book, The Judicious Eye, “The secret agenda of the book is a concern with public space in the city and what happens to it when it is not inflected, as it usually was in the past, by works of art. What happens when works of art no longer carry any narrative, which citizens, as the users of public space, can recognise?” I was wondering if you could flesh that secret agenda out a little bit?

JR: Well, public space in our cities, certainly new cities or cities that are being renewed, tends to be not very interesting. The public space which is most used is the space left over from commercial buildings, which of course isn’t really public space, but private space. Now it’s become the custom of big corporations to dump a large sculpture or something of that kind in the middle of that area. Nowadays we are very indefinite about what we call a work of art. A work of art is something that an artist does. So it may be an outsize baseball bat by Claes Oldenburg, or it may be yet another stabile by Calder. It seems to be quite indifferent, and it certainly has no relation to the debate. You only need walk down George Street, Sydney, and walk past Australia Square.

LS: That kind of corporate plaza has been criticised over recent decades, and there have been various rethinkings of public art, or art for public space, which has often involved artists with communities. Do you see those sorts of moves as positive or still embedded in similar processes?

JR: I’ve not seen anything that makes me feel very cheerful. They seem to me really councils of despair in a situation where there’s no apparent way out. Because the problem is public and political will. The governments of our cities are not interested in these kinds of problems. You need only think of the old headquarters of the London County Council, between that and the Houses of Parliament across the river, a very large Ferris wheel…

LS: The Millennium Eye.

JR: The Millennium Eye, which is only for tourists. So it has put spectacle at the centre of the governance of the British Isles. It’s sold as a triumph of engineering, but of course in engineering terms it’s very straightforward; it’s really an enlarged bicycle wheel. So it’s not an engineering achievement of any considerable kind; it was meant to be there for four years, and it’s been there for more than 10 and is likely to stay. I think it makes a mockery of the way in which the country is governed.

LS: Does the problem of an object that sits in such spaces and has these connotations or meanings connect back to the disconnection or division between architecture and the other arts that you’ve explored in your most recent book?

JR: Yes, but that disconnection is something that’s interested me for a very long time, and it’s a phenomenon that has dogged the arts for a couple of centuries. It’s not a new situation; it’s a situation that developed at the end of the 18th century.

LS: But in The Judicious Eye, you do suggest that there is a coming together, in some ways, of these disciplines again.

JR: Well, there is a movement to consider certain kinds of buildings as works of art, and certain sculptures as works of architecture. There’s a sculptor, little-known outside his own country, Fritz Wotruba, who designed quite a large church, which is very much like one of his sculptures and, of course, people do think of Frank Gehry’s buildings as kinds of sculptures. I was very interested that very recently the sculptor who’s often pointed to in this context, Anish Kapoor, who works in England, said very emphatically that you would never consider what he did, whatever the size, as a piece of architecture. He’d always think of it as something quite different, something not to be occupied, but something, an object to be taken in like a sculpture.

LS: So does that distinction then come in terms of the discourse around the sculpture or the architecture, what conversation it becomes part of?

JR: Well, there used to be the conditions of painting and sculpture, which no longer work because a work of art nowadays is an object or a process or a something by somebody who calls himself an artist. An architect is someone who has passed a professional exam. Certainly in the 18th century a lot of people called themselves architects who didn’t have any of these appurtenances, whereas of course to call yourself an artist all you need nowadays is to produce something that is recognisably a work of art. Now who recognises a work of art? Primarily a dealer, for whom it is a commodity. You have this figure who is defined in a sense entirely by what he does, and by how it’s marketed. If you look at the contracts of 15th century patrons; a patron might be a corporation or a monastery or a private person. They would specify the size of the painting, they would specify the subject, and perhaps the size of certain figures in the painting, and they might specify what colours are to be used. For instance, there were very expensive pigments like ultramarine or gold leaf; they would specify how much of each to use. It’s unthinkable in terms of the 20th century or 21st century artist. Those kinds of contracts simply don’t exist.

LS: Except perhaps sometimes in the realm of public art, where we now have competitions for public art schemes where proposals are sought, quite similar project proposals to those that are sought from architects. It seems that there’s also a professionalisation of the artist in that sort of industry.

JR: I would doubt that, and I think there are levels at which this happens, but the artists who take part in those kind of competitions are not the artists who are most successful in financial terms; they would tend to shy away from these situations. If you go to Oldenburg and you asked him for a sculpture, he will give you a big cherry or a Swiss army knife seven metres high. He will not think in terms of the relationship between the object that he wants to produce and the space or the way it’s being used. A very interesting case is that of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. This was removed after protests by the users of the plaza where it was situated. Serra’s line of defence, his argument, was that this was his utterance and that therefore removing it was infringing his freedom of speech, which, as you know in America, is a very sacred right. Now 20 by four metres of corten steel is only an utterance in a manner of speaking.

LS: Yes. And the public space that it sat within is only public in a manner of speaking; it gets back to your point about the privatisation of those sorts of corporate spaces, that what might be said in them is also limited.

JR: Well, what is said a lot in public space is advertising, and advertisements can be 20, 30 storeys high even, certainly in New York. I haven’t seen them quite so obvious in Sydney, but in New York they occupy the sides of buildings and they do go up 20 storeys, and they are private screens in the public space, because they’re very loud, they’re very obtrusive, and a work of art can do very little against it.

LS: It reminds me of something you said in The Seduction of Place about the urban fabric being not an expression, that it was a figuration or representation of us as a society. That allowing of the advertising, that screening in that public space versus the difficulties in agreeing on public art in those spaces says something about our approach to the quality of those spaces – our valuation of them.

JR: Yes, I think it’s very important. You’re making a point for me very well.

LS: You talked in The Seduction of Place about a dislike you had for the term ‘space’ within contemporary discussions of the city, and the importance that you would place on the idea of ‘form’ and ‘forming’ in that discussion instead. I was wondering whether you could perhaps tease that out a little bit?

JR: Well, that’s a complex issue, and it’s tied up to my dislike of the term ‘expression’ in terms of the city. I’m very insistent on the fact that we are actually responsible for what we do. Buildings don’t just happen; they are willed, they are willed not usually by architects, but by the people financing, quite often developers, and, as I’m sure you’re well aware, developers are not always rational people; they are sometimes guided by instincts that they find difficult to control, desire for a huge size, or dominating a particular landscape.

LS: And you’ve said that you would privilege the idea of place making.

JR: Well, of course I would privilege place over space.
LS: But that to me is the difficult term to untangle, especially in contemporary discussion where the idea of forming space is often about an idea of forming public spaces. I would tend to associate it with an idea of the forming of the city that needs the building form that you were discussing, to contribute to the shaping of its spaces. I see them as bound up together and I’m wondering how you see that as a distinction, because you’ve said you don’t like that term, ‘space’.

JR: Henry James went to New York in 1910 on another one of his visits, and he writes about New York and, when he looks at it from the ship, it doesn’t speak to him about art; it speaks to him very much about business. And of course that is what the silhouette of New York is about. Why I’m so insistent on the idea of place and the idea of form is that they bring to mind, very forcefully, the idea that we are actually responsible for what we do. Space is a very useful word, which was invented actually in the way we use it now at the end of the 19th century. You really don’t find it talked about with architects of the 18th century. So we talk about architecture as space, but it’s another notion. Whereas the idea of place, the idea of home, are related to a whole nexus of ideas that are much older and are much more tied to the way in which people make buildings. But I return to the idea with which I started the last comment, which is that we do want to think of our cities as growing organically; we like that word, ‘organic’. I’ve gone on saying this for the last 50 years – cities are not like plants; cities are a combination of willed and unwilled, and quite often unconscious elements, but they are always objects, if you like, on which the will has operated and which people have taken positions from which they are responsible.

LS: To pick up on that idea of moralism, a concern for environmentally sustainable design is affecting how architects practise and design, but the way possibilities for architecture are defined has also shifted. I see an echoing of discourse currently with that of the 19th century, particularly in terms of architecture’s ability to shape societies. I think of the way within urban design there’s discussion of things like healthy cities and the way that urban form might actually be able to encourage people to exercise more, through things like compact neighbourhoods. I wonder, having in your own research looked very closely at the 19th and early 20th century reform movements, whether you see any of this?

JR: Well, of course it’s coming back isn’t it? The whole ecological discourse is taking up very much what people were talking about around 1900. If you think about Ebenezer Howard and the idea of the garden city, there’s very much a concern with the ecology of the city in relation to the country, the way you relate agriculture to a city. So here we have this idea from 1890 or whatever it was, turning up in 2008, no harm in that; I still think it was a very good idea.

LS: The idea of figuration though, that you talk about within architecture, seems to be rarely dealt with or addressed by architects currently.

JR: Very unfashionable. And yet you see the public react, as you know Norman Foster’s Swiss Re building, almost on the striking of the scaffolding, was christened the erotic gherkin by the locals. It’s now called just a gherkin, the owners didn’t like the erotic bit. Rem Koolhaas did a double skyscraper linked by…

LS: The CCTV Tower.

JR: Yeah. That’s known locally as the crotch. So people, the architect may not think of a figuration, but the public immediately gives it a figurative label.
LS: This idea that the architect must deal with that interpretation, how could one approach it currently given the immense diversity of our society – the diverse ways in which we can build, in which objects, architecture, might be interpreted; the diverse communities that they often have to serve? The examples you give are the colloquial, humorous interpretations of the form. If I set them against the problem that you had with the frivolity of the Millennium Eye, how is it indeed even possible to control those interpretations, would you would want to?

JR: Maybe it’s impossible to control, but it’s certainly possible to play with it. I think that’s something that we’ve forgotten about, we also play with shapes. Writers on architecture nowadays like to remind their readers that Gropius, Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright all went to Froebel schools where they played with elementary shapes as part of the Froebel training. So we play with shapes and we all are roughly the same shape, whether we like it or not. People are roughly six-foot high and they stand upright out of the ground and all those things are ineluctable.

LS: So you would trace these figurative qualities of the buildings back to the body?

JR: Yes. It’s the one thing we can’t get out of.

LS: But do you think there’s more that might be generated out of that relationship between the body and architecture than the analogical and the figural?

JR: Oh yes. I think the blunder-dumping architects are not interested in the human body, except incidentally. They think in mechanical terms, in terms of circulation, for instance. The enduring human body is nowhere in their sights.

LS: No, but there are more possibilities that are perhaps emerging for us when people have thought through, more recently, the potential materialities of architecture, the affective potentials of architecture that go beyond ideal representation. That is an area of exploration that might be of use when representation becomes so problematic.

JR: Surely, but the fact that it’s problematic doesn’t mean we can’t deal with it. And, of course, we can’t entirely control how our buildings will be seen, quite right. But we can at least play with the notion that people will see it.

LS: I think we should leave it there on that note of play. I think it’s a good way to end. Thank you for your time, Joseph.

Dr Lee Stickells is a lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. He teaches and researches across the areas of urban architecture and urban design.

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