Joseph Rykwert, born in 1926, is the author of Adam’s House in Paradise, The First Moderns, and The Dancing Column, books whose methodological originality and archival and anthropological depth won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2014, a rarity for a nonpractitioner. Rykwert has been known to have a dramatic personal history, but he usually declined to discuss it. With this memoir, he bows to requests and deploys his formidable memory—visual and otherwise—to recount his role in important developments in architectural culture during crucial years of the 20th century. The dramatic story begins in his childhood in the 1930s, within an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Warsaw, and concludes in the late 1960s in London with his first academic appointment and the publication of The Idea of a Town. In this text, which first brought him serious professional attention, he robustly reasserted the significance of ritual and myth in ancient city planning.
Rykwert’s childhood was evidently happy. But looming over his teenage years was growing anti-Semitism, with a threat that his successful engineer father failed to anticipate. The result was a panicked flight from Warsaw for his entire family in early September 1939—after the German invasion of Poland had already begun. Making use of business connections, Rykwert senior managed to get his immediate family to safety, albeit leaving almost all their possessions behind while rushing through Riga (Latvia), Stockholm, and Amsterdam, to London.
The family’s misfortunes did not end with their safe arrival in Britain. Rykwert senior was betrayed by business partners, resulting in economic jeopardy. Worse, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 48. Still, before his death, he secured entry for Joseph to attend Charterhouse, a distinguished British boarding school. There, the young Rykwert was exposed to innovative architectural scholarship in the person of the soon-to-be-eminent historian Rudolf Wittkower.
Rykwert began his architectural education at the Bartlett School at University College, London, but subsequently decided that the Architectural Association was a more intellectually appealing cultural milieu. Even more important was his immersion in a worldly intelligentsia, largely at the Student Movement House, where he met Elias Canetti, later to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as the psychoanalyst Franz Elkisch. Before he had even concluded his professional education, Rykwert’s distinctive intellectual formation blended interests in myth, symbolism, and anthropology.
Upon graduation, he worked in conventionally modern architectural practices in London but, drawn to contemporary Italian architecture for its elan and its provocative responsiveness to history, Rykwert headed south. There, his luck continued as he befriended Vittorio Gregotti, Roberto Colasso—eventually to become the Italian publisher of his books—and Gio Ponti, who made him the London correspondent for his magazine Domus, where he launched the rediscovery of the forgotten Anglo-Irish designer Eileen Gray and mounted an early skeptical critique of Aldo Rossi’s ideas.
Rykwert’s activities led to an invitation to the newly founded Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany. There he met another dissident from the school’s hyper-rationalism, Hanno Kesting, who introduced him to phenomenological philosophy. Upon his return to London, he discovered that his Ulm sojourn had made him a desirable prospective academic, resulting in his appointment as Librarian at the Royal College of Art. More or less concurrent with this was the publication—in a Dutch magazine edited by another new friend, Aldo van Eyck—of his Idea of a Town.
With that commenced Rykwert’s half-century-long publishing career. The nonagenarian has now given us a Holocaust escape thriller and an architectural/intellectual bildungsroman in one. It is quite a tale, though it covers only the first four decades of his life. Will there be a volume two? On this point, Rykwert so far remains silent.