Joseph Rykwert: Interviewed about modern architecture

Historians in the News

CNN spoke to Rykwert about how buildings and spaces act as a metaphor for society, our transition from citizens to customers and the challenges facing the built environment in the 21st century.

CNN: What do you mean exactly when you talk about the city and its buildings as a metaphor for society?

Joseph Rykwert: One of the obvious things is that when a new big building goes up people immediately find nicknames for it -- the "gherkin" [30 St Mary Axe] and the "testicle" [City Hall, London]. And I'm told the big new building in Beijing [CCTV Tower] by Rem Koolhaas is known as a "crotch". So they are usually given nicknames of sexual connotations. And they're usually not favorable nicknames because people don't like anything new. One of the general considerations about new buildings is that people tend to say that anything new is a monstrosity. And then after a while they either accept them or they go on thinking that they are monstrosities. Reactions vary. This depends to some extent on the quality of the building.

But otherwise, there is that famous passage of Henry James looking at the skyline of New York saying; whatever it means, it means business. So that's certainly what the New York skyline is about -- the enormous energy of American business rising in the way that Chicago did and New York did.

But all that is now over and we no longer think of it in those terms at all. Skyscrapers no longer have that kind of power. Partly because there are so many of them and partly because we no longer believe wholeheartedly in the enormous energy of capital and business as a redeeming feature of our lives. I think we've grown a bit cynical about it, haven't we?

CNN: What is your assessment of the increasing prevalence of barriers and CCTV in public buildings and spaces today?

JR: I think it is a tragic development. I think it cuts a swathe out of public space. In a way, I think the American Embassy in London led the way but other institutions have followed. It has blocked off a bit of London.

Whether embassies are entitled to do that or not, I don't know. But it certainly presents itself as a fort or a castle. That's the metaphor that occurs to one going past it.

In a way, it suggests foreign domination in a way that embassies never did before. There are other embassies on the square and they are very modest by comparison.

The growth of security areas is something which is a reflection on our society. We are a frightened lot in a way that the people of the 1920's and 1930's were not.

This is not a British phenomenon, it is worldwide. You find gated communities in India and China perhaps even more than you do in England. Partly, of course, it's a feature of the unadvertised growing inequality in our society. But obviously it is a symptom of fear. It's also paralleled by the growth of the great commercial shopping centers which also cut up public space.

Behavior has to be conformable, conforming to. Everybody has seen The Truman Papers. I think that kind of conformity is something that is imposed by turning the citizen into a customer....

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