The Judicious Eye: Architecture against the Other Arts

July 24, 2008

This is a very curious book. It purports (according to the press release) to be a "lucid account of how architecture became separated from the visual arts, and how that breach is being repaired today", but there really is no sign of any repair, nor is such a repair adequately demonstrated. It is also supposed to describe that "separation during the Enlightenment, the reconnection during the twentieth centure (sic), and what the combination of art and architecture implies for the future". The trouble is that there was no "reconnection", least of all in the 20th century, and Joseph Rykwert fails to make a case for it. Furthermore, his book should have had decent illustrations in order to make clear any points, but although there are 140 images, they are uniformly grey and dim, some lean to one side or the other, and some are uncomfortably cropped. In any case, there are not enough of them.

There are only 374 pages of prelims and text (which include the illustrations), but 121 pages are devoted to references, bibliography, acknowledgements and the index. I wish publishers (and authors) would realise that these days there really is no excuse for not putting references where they can be easily connected with the text: that is, as footnotes. It is a major chore (and bore) to have to turn to the last 100-odd pages of the book to look anything up.

The bibliography reveals that Hermione Hobhouse published Thomas Cubbitt (sic): Master Builder in London in 1971, but nowhere do we get to know who the publishers actually were. "Thomas Cubbitt" recurs throughout the book: Rykwert should know that Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) spelt his own name thus, and not as it is given in this publication.

Nowhere was the sundering of craft-based artefacts, sculpture, painting and decoration from architecture more pronounced than at the Bauhaus: yet Rykwert does not spell this out, and seems to write of that curious institution in reverential tones. There is no mention either of those taught at the Bauhaus (under Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe) who went on to carry out an excremental assault on the denizens of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a hellhole deliberately underprovided with basics such as latrines, but liberally endowed with triple-muffle furnaces for the disposal of murdered inmates.

Rykwert has attempted to chronicle "the gradual separation between the arts throughout this book", but he has rather breathlessly skated over the problem, and he has never quite got to grips with it, despite his massive array of references. He has also, he claims, "tried to take account of artists' awareness of the broken sensibility they have suffered and attempted to remedy", but in this he has failed: he is too deferential to received opinion, and there is really no evidence that artists are capable of doing anything to remedy matters. If one takes Classicism, for example, the vast range of decorative possibilities was closely interlinked with the architecture. If one considers what passes as "architecture" nowadays, however, it becomes clear that it has no vocabulary, grammar, syntax, serenity, repose or beauty (a word never used by relativists), and that, compared with the great language and mighty vocabulary of Classical architecture, it can offer only the equivalent of monosyllabic grunts. "Art" is stuck on afterwards, as a sort of afterthought, wholly unrelated to the "architecture" at all.

Rykwert writes on the last page of his unsatisfying and confused book that "architecture has ... been gradually separated from such activities as we consider more or less 'cultural'". Quite so: this contradicts claims on the wrapper that the arts and architecture have begun to come together again.

The Judicious Eye: Architecture against the Other Arts

By Joseph Rykwert
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781861893581
Published 21 July 2008

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