It’s not that writers and critics haven’t won the RIBA’s Gold Medal before – John Summerson, Nikolaus Pevsner and Colin Rowe have all received it, but it hasn’t happened for almost two decades.
That makes Joseph Rykwert’s receipt of this year’s award all the more welcome as it recognises the importance of thinking and writing to a profession that may have seemed to drift more recently into image-making. Rykwert introduced a complexity, a sense of history, anthropology and meaning into a flagging late modernist era and was pivotal in reinvigorating practice by placing an architecture that had become rather tired and self-referential back in a broader cultural and social context.
Born in Warsaw in 1926, Rykwert moved to England with his family in 1939, and he studied at the Bartlett and the Architectural Association. He has taught at virtually every major architecture school, including Harvard, Cambridge, Cooper Union, the University of Pennsylvania (where he is currently the Paul Philippe Cret Professor Emeritus of Architecture), Princeton and the Ulm School of Design. As well as teaching, he has also practised; one of his few surviving schemes, the fine Inner Court housing development in Chelsea, London, was saved from demolition in 2007 after coming under threat from a large design by Foster & Partners.
Rykwert’s erudition and cosmopolitan learning seemed to give him a very un-Anglo-Saxon breadth, an idea that architecture is integrated into the wider culture. His brilliant 1972 book On Adam’s House in Paradise examined the origins of architecture, a subject that has always enthralled architects. He was also responsible, in a number of books and essays, for a reassessment of the early modernists and, notably, for the rediscovery of Eileen Gray in the 1960s, then a completely forgotten figure and subsequently lauded not only as one of the key female figures in design but also as one of the few great modernists. In Gray, Rykwert saw a sophistication and subtlety lacking in some of the more recognised, male masters; in communicating that complexity, he brought a series of nuances and layers to the history of modernism, by contrast with the more monolithic approach of Pevsner and others.
But it was his 1963 book The Idea of a Town that arguably made the biggest waves. In it, Rykwert examined the origins of the town in terms of the sacred, the foundation myths and the way in which structure related to meaning. Widely read at the end of the 1960s when the existential emptiness of mechanistic modernist notions of the city was beginning to become clear, it engendered a long (and still running) debate about the importance of a sense of place, both to the city and to the citizen. His arguments were reinforced by another book, The Seduction of Place, published in 2000: here he looked at the city as a place in which our personal and communal desires are manifested in physical form, even if they are not always realised in life itself.
His impact on thinking and practice in contemporary architecture in Britain and internationally has been incalculable and he has been a consistent and powerful force for restating architecture as an intellectual as well as a practical discipline. He receives the RIBA Gold Medal 2014 at a ceremony in London on February 25.