When the National Gallery building opened in 1941, many in the highest ­perches of the architectural establishment cringed. Though the building was dedicated to art in the nation’s capital, the architect had spurned the daring of Modernist design and instead liberally quoted the ancients: a pediment, columns and the Ionic order. The resulting structure seemed as familiar to many as a small-town bank.

“Surely the time cannot be far distant when we shall understand how inadequate is the death-mask of an ancient culture to express the heroic soul of America,” sniffed Joseph Hudnut, dean of Harvard’s design school.

In characteristic contrast, critic Witold Rybczynski declares the building “magnificent” in his latest book, “How Architecture Works.”

The question of modern vs. traditional has driven architectural debate for decades, and the sides, to oversimplify broadly, often break down into architects and everyone else. (Seen a subdivision of Modernist homes lately?)

Despite his credentials as both an architect and an academic — he is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania — Rybczynski is ecumenical, and in “How Architecture Works,” a layman’s guide to the field, he offers praise for buildings and designers of both camps. The book’s chief pleasure may be that Rybczynski, ever the engaging and thoughtful writer, offers a wide-ranging tour of the glories and curiosities, old and new, in the field.


‘How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit’ by Witold Rybczynski (Farrar Straus Giroux. 355 pp. $27). (Farrar Straus Giroux)

There are detours into historic design, such as domes — the one on the Pantheon, Brunelleschi’s on Florence’s cathedral, Christopher Wren’s on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the one on the U.S. Capitol dome. But most of the book concerns itself with designs of the last 100 years and works by some of the field’s best-known practitioners. Buildings pop up by Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, among many others.

Rybczynski also seems to spend a lot of time in Washington, and his judgments on many of the District’s landmarks will interest locals: The Museum of Natural History is “somewhat pompous,” the Department of Agriculture’s building is “ponderous,” and the Museum of American History is “trying to be modern and not succeeding very well.”

On the other hand, he offers praise for the Freer Gallery, which he finds “graceful,” and he turns to Paul Cret’s Federal Reserve Board Building and the Folger Shakespeare Library to explain what has been called “new classicism.”

Elsewhere, the narrative is leavened with enlightening tidbits about the owners or architects. For the new presidential library for President George W. Bush, for example, Laura Bush requested a look that was enduring. It is an austere modern brick building. “She did not want a building that was the new-new thing . . . that people would look back at in ten years and say ‘Oh yes, that was 2013,’ ” one of the architects says.

But the book may be the most interesting where it is least certain, where one can hear Rybczynski laboring to rebut the evangelists for contemporary design, such as Harvard’s Hudnut and the Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier, proving if nothing else the endurance of the field’s longest-running food fight.

As he confesses early on, Rybczynski has changed his stance on modern design and become less rigid in his tastes over time. “I’ve lived through both the decline and resurgence — in altered form — of modern architecture, and along the way have lost many of my youthful certainties. I consider history a gift, rather than an imposition, for example, and find historians to be more reliable guides than many architectural thinkers.”

One of the architects who appear in the book repeatedly is Robert A.M. Stern, a high-profile architect well known — and sometimes criticized — for his embrace of traditions.

Notably for a critic, Rybczynski is a self-effacing writer and often turns to the words of others to make his point. Stern was once asked whether he was trying to replicate past designs. “Not to replicate; to speak,” he replied. “There’s a difference. When you speak English you are not replicating Shakespeare’s English, or Walt Whitman’s English, or even Virginia Woolf’s English. You have your own diction, but you’re still using most of the same words, most of the same grammar.”

The architect of the National Gallery, John Russell Pope, may have approved of that explanation. He also designed the Jefferson Memorial, a neo-classical structure inspired by the Pantheon — and it too was dismissed by the avant-garde at the time, including the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard’s architecture dean and some leading architects. In fact, the redoubtable Frank Lloyd Wright, in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, called Pope’s proposed memorial an insult to Jefferson.

But for all the condemnation from academia and other privileged positions, the prediction that such historical designs would be found out of step with modern America seems to have been premature at best. As Rybczynski points out, a 2007 survey of architects and the general public by the American Institute of Architects placed both buildings among the nation’s 150 most popular: The Jefferson Memorial was fourth, the National Gallery 34th.

This allows Rybczynski to taunt, if just in a footnote, Hudnut’s rejection of Pope’s National Gallery: “No buildings by Walter Gropius or Marcel Breuer, the Bauhaus stars whom Hudnut had brought to Harvard, made the list.”

Whoriskey is a writer for The Washington Post.

How Architecture Works

Witold Rybczynski will discuss “How Architecture Works” at the National Building Museum on Monday at 6:30 p.m. $20. 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448.

HOW ARCHITECTURE WORKS

A Humanist’s Toolkit

By Witold Rybczynski

Farrar Straus Giroux. 355 pp. $27

Peter Whoriskey is a staff writer for The Washington Post handling investigations of financial and economic topics.