Customer Reviews: How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit
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on November 17, 2013
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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on November 19, 2013
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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on November 22, 2013
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. Following Rasmussen’s example, Rybczynski writes only about buildings he visited personally — with two exceptions — and it is clear that the influences are predominantly Western architecture. The carefully selected images rightly focus on the built work of architects, not the architects as individuals. However, Rybczynski sometimes lapses into anecdotes about Le Corbusier’s influential eyewear and the clothing preferences of architects. Missing is any discussion about the role of female architects, with only a few references to women currently in practice.

Rybczynski draws interesting parallels between how architects approach practice in the public realm and their own residences. The homes of Marc Appleton, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, and Peter Bohlin provide insight to their professional approach to history and materiality. Rybczynski argues that architecture lasts longer than any fashion or popular cultural item, spanning generations; therefore, its longevity has great social impact. Although the practice of architecture may appear to be simply based on function and aesthetic, it is also a social practice. Architects learn their craft from other architects, and the author’s focus on the personalities that create the buildings and the result of their creations strikes the right balance.

I fell into contemplative states as I read, attempting to reconcile my own concepts of architecture with Rybczynski’s ideas. Then I realized that a great teacher presents you with just enough information to spark independent ideas. There are no judgments in his writing, only positions. Two exceptionally well-written chapters, “Detail” and “Style,” gave me a renewed appreciation for the subtlety of details. Rybczynski stops short of providing answers, thankfully so.

The book opens with a quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.” Like my beloved brick, I consider How Architecture Works a useful item to add to my understanding of architecture.
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on July 6, 2014
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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on July 10, 2015
Maybe the author, Witold Rybczynski, should have concentrated on how books work more. The first chapter does grab you but after that he loses the plot and becomes so repetitive. I mean, how many times can you mention the Seagram Building or Disney Hall? Also, any book on architecture needs more visuals and many of the photos are of, what seems to my eye, incredibly bland buildings with no sense of style.

I do think the concept was there but something was just missing. Having said that, the section that talked about staircases was unintentionally hilarious. Maybe they were worth discussing among architects but looking at the pics, I laughed at much ado about really nothing.

For building and structure design (and this may be more of an engineering angle that architecture), I think following the lead of Henry Petroski and his entertaining yet very informative way of presenting topics such as this was the model Rybczynski should have adopted in writing this.
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on September 24, 2015
Good ! It helps me make principles and concepts of architecture clear.
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on July 1, 2014
On architecture for the layperson, there is none better than Rybczynski. He analyzes architecture in a way that encourages further study. You'll never look at a building the same again.
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on November 19, 2014
Personal observations enlightening anyone interested in architecture
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on June 3, 2015
A must read for architects and students
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on January 30, 2014
the evenhandedness, clarity, and organization of the material demonstrates the author's intent; explaining how architecture works and how we can evaluate it. ,
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