Witold Rybczynski at Politics and Prose (21 cents)

Witold Rybczynski (I have finally learned how to spell is name – don’t ask me to pronounce it), architecture critic whose pieces often appear in The New Yorker and other periodicals, spoke tonight at Politics and Prose about his new book, “How Architecture Works”. I didn’t think that he said very much of import, or that he sold his book very well, and (because I want to be positive) I decided not to write about it, but then I said to myself:  “Wait a minute.  This guy’s a critic.  He spends all day criticizing others.  The least I can do is criticize him back”.

He said that, in his latest book (his 18th), he did not talk about any building that he has not visited.  Fair enough.  I have not read his new book, or any of his old books, so I won’t speak to them.

But I will tell you some of the profound things he said.  First, he likes some buildings better than others, but buildings are really backdrops to functions, and architecture is an empirical, not an aesthetic profession.  Second, there are types of buildings (brutalism, for example) that critics like better than other people.  Third, when an architect builds a building, he has a responsibility to the public, because the public will drive by the building on the way to the office, whether they like it or not.  Fourth, buildings last a long time; they add to the “cannon”, and don’t replace other buildings.(Not exactly true, is it?)  Fifth, tastes change.

Get the idea?

Things did get a little more interesting during the question period. The audience members who asked questions all asked very good questions.

What does he think of Frank Gehry?  He likes the Disney concert hall.  He does not worry that it does not seem to fit into its surroundings. (“It’s in downtown LA, after all, not Florence.”) It’s is much more conservative on the inside and fulfills its function well.

Why don’t schools of architecture teach architectural history; isn’t that like teaching how to write without reading Shakespeare?  This one surprised me because I assumed that architectural history was a required academic subject.  Rybczynski agreed with the questioner, and says that this does not bode well for newer architects.

What about tear-downs in residential neighborhoods?  Here, he simply fell back on “tastes change”.

Why aren’t there more women in the profession?  He said that he wasn’t going to discuss this, because this was not an issue that affected him (Huh?).  And then he discussed it.  He said that about half of all architectural students are female, but ten years after graduation, the profession is decidedly male.  He says that he does not know why that is, and has never read anything answering the question.  He said that he understands that for some, this is a concern.  But for him, just a matter of interest.  He does not worry, for example, that there aren’t more Polish architects in the United States.

He is suspicious of “green” buildings.  He does not think we yet know how to do computer simulations sufficiently accurately to really know in advance what the economic effect of particular buildings will be.

He also talked about the East Wing of the National Gallery (it looks good, but it was not successful due to the recent failure of the facade), and the competition for the design of the African American Art Museum, now being constructed on the Mall (he thinks that the best design was chosen).

Rybczynski’s speaking approach is more “Aw, shucks” than authoritative, with many more “I think”s than “I know”s.  But he did handle the questions well and, who knows, perhaps he was just having a bad day with his opening statements.  Although I must say that, by the way he was rambling along, it did not appear that he had a clue what he was going to say before he said it.

Had I asked a question of him, I think it would have been:  “What is your goal as a writer and critic of architecture; what do you try to accomplish?” Perhaps had I heard him answer this question, I would have a better appreciation of his overall presentation.



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