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How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit Hardcover – October 8, 2013

4.7 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Prize-winning architectural writer and University of Pennsylvania emeritus professor Rybczynski (A Clearing in the Distance) follows in the spirit of Steen Eiler Rasmussen's classic Experiencing Architecture to supply an ideal layperson's handbook on the fundamentals of modern and contemporary architecture. Focusing on the functional and aesthetic considerations that define a building, and often calling upon his experience as an architect to illustrate major concepts, Rybczynski vividly explains particulars such as how to read architectural plans and how sunlight figures into designs, as well as discussing issues of style, history, and taste. While the book tends to address structure after structure at a speedy clip, the upshot is a commanding view of the field for beginners. An especially rich example is the walk-through of several designs submitted to the competition for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture: this not only illustrates how different architects respond to constraints, but also how such competitions function. Rybczynski is not a polemicist, but he effectively argues certain basic principles, and makes a cogent analogy to typography to show how the past always influences the present. Here, architecture is treated as craft executed with prudence and conviction. The author doesn't care much for theories, or buildings that fail to be practical, but welcomes a variety of design approaches, all of which make him a model teacher. 140 b&w illus. (Oct.)

From Booklist

*Starred Review* “Architecture, if it is any good, speaks to us all.” With this maxim, the first of many clarifying observations in this conversational and invigorating treatise, Rybczynski deepens our understanding of all that goes into the design and construction of buildings. An architect, emeritus professor, and outstanding and prolific architectural writer, Rybczynski takes palpable pleasure in throwing open the doors to reveal the complex, often contradictory demands of architecture, illuminating “the practical as well as the aesthetic.” His “toolkit” contains 10 fundamental topics, from ideas to structural matters, the difference between a building’s setting and site, and the importance of such seemingly prosaic details as balustrades. As he instructs us in the implications of the fact that “new buildings almost always have old neighbors,” for example, he describes how Frank Gehry dealt with this challenge in funky Venice Beach, and the diverse approaches taken by top architects competing to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and a new ballet-opera house in St. Petersburg. With fluent analysis of buildings by architects ranging from Louis Sullivan to Louis I. Kahn, Mies van der Rohe to Renzo Piano, a sweet absence of “isms,” and an invaluable glossary, Rybczynski’s expert, holistic, down-to-earth guide awakens us to architecture’s profound humanness. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374211744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374211745
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #662,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a unique book, one that examines the requirements, needs and tools of an architect and how this public art has an impact on us all. Rybczynski `s great skill as a writer is to see the complexity and detail of the ordinary. As great artists do, he shows us the beauty in the mundane, and the value of the ordinary.

To be honest, the book does not have a strong narrative line, which is usually a major drawback for me. But the author wisely organizes his story around architectural considerations, which roughly follow a project from beginning to completion. Chapter titles are Ideas, The Setting, Site, Plan, Structure, Skin, Details, Style, The Past and Taste.

Each chapter offers numerous real world examples of the author's point, and almost all are supported with black and white photographs, which occur every 2-3 pages. (This refers to the hard cover print edition.)

For the most part his observations are appreciative. Rybczynski's observations on the buildings discussed are informative and insightful. I feel I learned a lot about a topic that has always interested me, but which has seemed too complex for a layman like myself to penetrate.

I highly recommend this, and would say the same for another book by the same author A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century , his biography about the man who designed New York City's Central Park.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How architecture works: A humanist's toolkit.---+

This is the seventeenth and most recent (at the time of this writing) of Witold Rybczynski's books on my bookshelf. Each has offered a different, and useful, perspective on architecture.

"How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit is an extended love letter to the world of architecture and some of its notable examples of built architecture. The love is objective, as he observes in the introduction that "the rationalizations of architects are usually unreliable, intended to persuade others rather than to explain." Explaining is one of the author's notable strengths. The book touches on his professional education and tells about the design of houses, skyscrapers, bridges, public buildings, their illustrious architects, and some personal architecture. All this is written with rare grace and intellect. One learns how some famous buildings succeed and others fail, and why. When faced with a siting conflict between orientation and sun, the author designed a house of angled sides, one toward a road and the other toward the sun.

I recommend the book for anyone with an interest in architecture and building design. Home planners and buyers can find numerous tips and insights to help achieve the best possible outcome to their search. Quibbles are few. I seem to recall that architect Jeremiah Eck, referenced in the text, wrote "The Distinctive Home," not the `Distinctive House,' but books are sometimes printed with more than one title. I read "How Architecture Works" from the viewpoint of a non-architect and found that I had gained a deeper appreciation of the challenges and vibrancy of good architectural design. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
Below is my review from ArchitectureBoston ([...]

In my first architectural history class, each student was given a brick along with an assignment to live with it for a week. This meant never letting it out of your sight and drawing it as much as possible. The goal was to personalize it and understand its essence. (Six residences later, my brick lives on my front porch.) All architects graduate with experiences that fundamentally shape how we understand architecture and materials that make our work more than just the sum of its parts. In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski has created an educational journey for us, breaking down the elements of architecture to create a framework for the reader to build an understanding of how to see and feel things similar to how architects approach their work. It is both a toolkit for the reader and an author’s journey to uncover a topic that cannot be conveyed in words only.

The book is loosely grouped into Fundamentals, Craft, and a philosophical discussion of style, history, and taste. As with my brick assignment, architecture is presented as an assemblage of elements, each with its own meaning, function, and spirit. Rybczynski delights in considering how architects bring these pieces and their permutations together. His approach was likely influenced by the freshman seminar class he taught at the University of Pennsylvania. A reader not familiar with the many building references may do well to keep Google handy. Still, the writing is approachable, so much so that I felt I was having a beer with my professor and hearing all the back stories.

How Architecture Works is a contemporary response to Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture, a book the author studied during his own education.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is an excellent survey of the various aspects one should consider when looking at works of architecture, and very satisfying and interesting, too. There are photos to illustrate most of the examples discussed, which is good, but not all, which is the reason for the 4 (rather than 5) stars. That said, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a non-ideological discussion of architecture.
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