Witold Rybczynski: Architects Must Listen to the Melody – New York Times

[excerpt from article published September 24, 1989 New York Times]

Goethe once described architecture as frozen music; if he was right, could cities be described as congealed concertos? Maybe this is stretching an already flimsy metaphor, but music, architecture and cities do share one striking characteristic. Just as agreeable music requires both solo and ensemble playing, and great architecture needs expanses of serenity to provide the setting for moments of soaring drama so, too, successful cities demand an underlying melody. The pleasures of Venice or Florence are not only the wonderful churches and civic buildings but also the rich fabric of the more numerous commonplace structures in which people live and work. It is the common streets that provide character in a city – the white terraces and squares of Georgian London, or the brownstones of 19th-century New York. For great cities are the result not only of celebrated master architects but also of the dozens of smaller talents who provided the less dramatic but equally precious background buildings.

One of the greatest architectural shortcomings of most modern cities is the apparent inability to produce large numbers of unassuming but satisfying buildings that can form the backdrop for the occasional important landmark. Instead, what we have are cities composed increasingly of aspiring landmarks, which is to say, cities without any landmarks at all.


The communication of meaning – more than beauty – is the most important function of architecture. It is what distinguishes it from engineering. A bridge requires to be solid, functional and attractive; a good public library is all three, but it also carries cultural baggage. Its architecture tells us about our attitude toward reading, for example, and celebrates a sense of civic pride; a library is more than a warehouse for books, it is a built evocation of an ideal.

Classical architecture managed to convey meaning in a fashion that was not only rich enough to be used in a variety of public buildings, but also widely understood and cherished. Its potency, and its longevity, however, were also the result of its widespread application in more modest buildings, such as homes and places of work. These could make use of selected classical elements at the entrance, or along the roof, without necessarily incorporating the whole range of decorative elements. The result was buildings that were less architecturally charged than – but not unrelated to – their more impressive neighbors. As Allan Greenberg has pointed out, a Colonial cottage has a front door that is a simplified version of the same entrance as the one at the White House. This concern for a fitting expression of a building\’s importance – whether it was a President’s house, or a private home – produced cities of a wide range of intelligible architecture: mundane and monumental, familiarly banal and commandingly grand.

The best-known examples of this sensitive balance between public and private buildings are the 18th-century Georgian extensions to cities like Dublin and Bath, as well as Bloomsbury in London. The residential streets of the New Town of Edinburgh, planned in 1767 by James Craig, exhibit an admirable uniformity of materials (brick, stone, stucco), a constant roof line, and common repeating elements like columns, windows and doors. The anonymity of the streets is eased by public gardens and open spaces (squares, crescents, ovals) and by the monumental public buildings of Princes Street.

In 17th-century Amsterdam, Daniel Stolpaert, a surveyor-architect, established an explicit framework for the city – places for large important buildings on the three main canals, and for smaller houses on smaller canals. The houses themselves were all variations of three simple canons: narrow, decorated gable fronts, large, multi-paned windows, and a consistent face along the sidewalk, interrupted by a multitude of stoops and shallow projections. In Boston’s Back Bay, which was planned in 1857 on a filled-in tidal marsh, the precepts were different and governed the height of the house, its setback from the street, and the distribution and proportion of the characteristic bay windows. The result was an environment of rich and varied urbanity, the architecture of the narrow side streets contrasting with the stateliness of Commonwealth Avenue.

It is precisely this kind of architectural propriety that is missing today, not only on the part of architects, but also (and perhaps especially) on the part of their clients. That is why our cities lack a satisfying background – there is no melody, no ensemble, only solo players, many of whom are, unfortunately, commonplace. To fashion the modern equivalent of the Classical city, it is not enough to incorporate Classical forms into buildings. One must learn a more difficult lesson: how to use them in a Classical fashion – with intelligence, restraint and decorum.

There is no simple formula to reach this goal. Nevertheless, achievements like Edinburgh\’s New Town and Boston\’s Back Bay were not accidents. They were the result of a unified control of land and buildings, of an intelligent plan, and of knowledgeable people – developers, architects and buyers – to carry them out. These conditions were buttressed by a collective wisdom and a shared consensus about what constituted architectural good manners. And like all etiquette, they depended on rules of behavior, rules that were often explicit.

Rules, not inspiration, have guided the growth of the new town of Seaside, a Florida resort community. The enlightened developer, Robert S. Davis, engaged Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk as architects. The pair made an unusual decision. To avoid the sterility of a ”project,” they resolved that the buildings should be designed by a variety of architects. Instead of merely preparing a master plan, however, they compiled a building design code – an architectural etiquette – that would guide all future construction. The rules dictated porches, vertical window proportions, painted wood siding and consistent roof slopes. The result, while not a historical re-creation, does suggest the comfortable sociability of small Southern towns in which the majority of buildings fit in rather than stand out.

One of the consultants to Seaside was the Luxembourg architect Leon Krier, who has made several urban proposals based on distinctly traditional rules. His designs demonstrate a special concern for identifying architectural elements that can produce satisfying and familiar background buildings. Although he is best known as a theorist and as a critic of modern town planning, it may well be Krier who will realize the first modern Classical city at a significant scale. He is currently devising a plan for Poundbury, a new town for 10,000 people in southwestern England. Preliminary descriptions, as well as Krier’s previous work, suggest that the planning will be compact and scaled to the pedestrian, while the modest buildings will be low in height, and incorporating recognizable, Classically derived forms. This will undoubtedly please the client, himself a vocal critic of modern architecture, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales – Prince Charles. One looks forward to the result of this unusual collaboration.

via Architects Must Listen to the Melody – New York Times.


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