Joseph Rykwert, winner of the UK’s 2014 Royal Gold Medal

3 March 2014 – After receiving the 2014 Royal Gold Medal for architecture in London on 24 February, Joseph Rykwert gave a lecture in which he discussed how it is impossible to divorce politics from architecture, going so far as to declare that architecture is a political art.

Architects, he said, either work for or against the common good. Rykwert described how there are always two clients: the one with the money and the people who will experience what is eventually created.

Describing those who had in the past rejected this prestigious accolade, Rykwert detailed how debates such as of whether architecture was a profession or an art was misguided – the two could not be divorced, in the same way that designing and writing about architecture are also part of a single continuum.

Even if they choose to think and declare otherwise, he saw many such “internal” debates as evidence of architects being inherently political but misguided in directing their efforts. In many developed countries such distractions resulted in professional institutions being partly or wholly removed from professional registration.

Architectural politics, Rykwert declared, had existed long before even such international bastion institutions as the Royal Institute of British Architects, which was presenting his award on behalf of the Queen.

As someone who departed the standard architectural path many years ago to work in built environment policy-politics, this resonated strongly with me, as has Rykwert’s numerous writings for countless professionals for decades. In contrast, some leaving the venue confessed an inability to grasp how architecture could be political beyond the planning process (which Rykwert may likely describe as a key battleground, but certainly not the only one).

Born in 1926 and active throughout his career, Rykwert is no newcomer to the debate. Seen in the light of Rykwert’s work, presentation and the field generally, architectural politics is as clear and legitimate a part of the broader profession as activities such as design, detailing or specification.

His recognition with the Gold Medal, and alongside numerous Honorary Fellows of the RIBA who are not architects but have contributed greatly to it, is clear acknowledgement at the highest levels that architecture is much more than the limited scope often assumed.

Read articles by Joseph Rykwert here

Matthew Trigg is a cities and urban policy specialist based in London. On Twitter @BuiltEnvirons.

2 replies on “Matthew Trigg: On Joseph Rykwert and architecture as a political art”

  1. Wonderful piece, thanks Matthew.
    Inspiring to see this ‘elder’ so full of life and passion – an encouragement to all us ‘young ones’ (anyone under 80!). And how true re the politics and architecture statement. Not that I am really qualified to comment (I’m not an architect), but it seems to me that the built environment has an enormous influence on the ‘governing’ of society. Further, the built form has a tangible effect on our spirits and heart…and even our basic behavior (read a bit on Alan Wickers Environmental Psychology a while back). That’s politically pretty powerful stuff!
    Gold award or not, lets celebrate all our architects and planners endeavoring to provide joy and a sustainable legacy. I only wish more experienced professionals were involved directly in politics!

  2. Wonderful piece, thanks Matthew.
    Inspiring to see this ‘elder’ so full of life and passion – an encouragement to all us ‘young ones’ (anyone under 80!). And how true re the politics and architecture statement. Not that I am really qualified to comment (I’m not an architect), but it seems to me that the built environment has an enormous influence on the ‘governing’ of society. Further, the built form has a tangible effect on our spirits and heart…and even our basic behavior (read a bit on Alan Wickers Environmental Psychology a while back). That’s politically pretty powerful stuff!
    Gold award or not, lets celebrate all our architects and planners endeavoring to provide joy and a sustainable legacy. I only wish more experienced professionals were involved directly in politics!

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