Witold Rybczynski's Blog
April 12, 2017
Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche with model of TWA, 1957
“Dwelling narrowly on the legacy of designers gives the impression that architectural history concerns great men, not great places,” writes Lance Hosey in the Huffington Post. Hosey was commenting on an essay that I wrote recently in Architect, in which I speculated about what might have happened if certain celebrated unbuilt projects had actually been realized. It is fashionable to think that architecture is not the creation of great men—or great women—but is it true? Does anyone really believe that the spirit of Louis Kahn did not manifest itself in his designs? When he died, that spirit died with him. When Eero Saarinen died, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo continued the practice, but Saarinen’s mercurial creativity was absent. The art of building is a peculiar art that relies on team work—in that sense it resembles film-making rather than novel-writing. But as in film-making, the auteur is often present. I remember working for Moshe Safdie in the 1970s. There were a dozen or so people in the office, but when Safdie was away, a certain inertia set in as people waited for him to return and make decisions. The decisions might concern alternatives developed by someone else, but there was never any doubt about who would have the final word.
February 25, 2017
Norman Foster is building an office building in downtown Philadelphia. The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, a 1,121-foot skyscraper, will be the tallest building in the city. Passing by the other day, I noticed elevator cabs scuttling up and down the side of the building. They reminded me of the external elevators on the Pompidou Center in Paris. Typical High Tech detail, I thought to myself, before I realized that these were construction elevators. The actual core is deep inside the building in the conventional fashion. And unlike Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, the structure is concealed as well (except for a vestigial expression of cross bracing on the otherwise pristine glass facade). Like almost all contemporary office buildings, in fact like almost all buildings of any kind today, this is a glass box. How times have changed! The truth is that the exposed structure and plumbing and ductwork that characterized High Tech architecture never made much sense. It weathered badly, for one thing—the Pompidou Center required an expensive facelift after only 20 years. The goal of infinitely adaptable architecture didn’t make sense either. The time-tested way to adapt is not to change a building but to move to another one. In 2014, the London Sunday Times reported that Lloyd’s was considering moving out of its headquarters building. It had already relocated a quarter of its operations to less expensive premises, and was subletting the space. The newspaper quoted Lloyd’s chief executive Richard Ward: “There is a fundamental problem with this building. Everything is exposed to the elements, and that makes it very costly.” Lloyd’s did not move, but it did sell the building to a Chinese insurance company (at a steep mark-down because of the inside-out design), and now leases space. So much for adaptive architecture. High Tech 0, Low Tech 1.
January 21, 2017
Isabella Lobkowicz kindly sent me a copy of her recent book, Almost 100 Chairs for 100 People. “It’s curious how many designers design chairs,” she writes in the Foreword, “but nobody seems to think about the characters who are going to use them.” Princess Isabella (she is married to a Bohemian prince) rectifies this situation with a delightful sketchbook—published by Moleskine—of imaginary chairs. The first, “a chair for the explorer,” is an extremely tall chair with a built-in ladder that allows the occupant to scan the vicinity with his ever-present binoculars. This chair reminds me of the tall chairs made by the pioneering balloonist and aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932). Santos-Dumont held what he called “aerial dinner parties,” and the chairs were intended to give his guests the experience of flying, that is, seeing the world from above. He made the chairs himself, being a skilled craftsman (he built his own flying machines). Santos-Dumont was an unusually innovative character. Finding checking his pocket watch awkward while flying, he asked his friend Louis Cartier to make him a more convenient timepiece—the result was the first wristwatch.
December 24, 2016
I’ve been watching Civilisation, the 1969 BBC television series, on YouTube. It’s a refreshing experience, and a reminder of how much the documentary film form has been influenced—I almost wrote infected—by Ken Burns. Instead of a revolving door of talking “expert” heads Civilisation makes do with a single presenter. There are no voice-overs pushing a narrative along, no actors dramatizing, no staged sequences, instead we have the wise (and rather dapper) Kenneth Clark to guide us. The 13-part series is subtitled “A Personal View,” and that is one of its strengths. Clark, an art historian, wrote as well as narrated, and the text is frankly opinionated, without an attempt at even-handedness or objectivity—like the best art criticism. (Civilisation set the stage for a series of similar single point-of-view documentaries by Alastair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski, Robert Hughes, and John Berger.) The direction, by Michael Gill, is wonderfully slow. There are long sequences without dialogue—although always with contemporaneous music. Instead of jumping from one subject to another the camera lingers, long and lovingly on works of art, so that we have time to contemplate, to absorb, and to think. Refreshing, too, is the absent of the political correctness that has come to characterize so much public television.
November 27, 2016
Writing a history of seating raises the problem of nomenclature. Take the couch, for example. The Greeks and the Romans dined on couches, which were really more like beds, which may be why the word derives from the French coucher, to lie down, although to complicate matters the French don’t call a couch a couche, but rather a canapé. (You can use that word in English, if you want to be fancy.) Midwesterners used to call couches davenports, after the Massachusetts company that manufactured them. When I was growing up in Canada, we called a couch a chesterfield, a Britishism which has since gone out of fashion. The term is said to have derived from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who commissioned a heavily tufted leather couch in the eighteenth century. Couch or sofa? Sofa is a Turkish word, so is ottoman, although the latter is now commonly used to refer to a footstool. Couch seems to have prevailed; we say “casting couch” and “couch potato,” and psychiatrists have couches, not sofas. Sofas seem to be more domestic, which may be why a couch that converts into a bed is called a sleeper sofa or a sofa bed. Go figure.
October 16, 2016
These days, urban buildings are playing just one penny-whistle tune: glass, glass, glass. It’s as if there were a material shortage and we had run out of everything else. I don’t miss exposed concrete, but what about limestone and brick, terra cotta and granite? But no, architecture has been reduced to one material—even spandrels and soffits are glass. What explains this phenomenon? Well, of course it’s cheap. The engineer figures out the structure, and the architect wraps it in a glass skin. And the helpful glass manufacturers work out the details for you. It’s also easier to design. No more worrying about junctions between materials, no more textures or finishes, no more colors, no more studying shadowing effects. Just wrap it up and it’s ready to go. Nor do you have to worry about energy—all-glass buildings are as green as you want. Houston, Boston, London, Dubai—it doesn’t matter. It used to be that cities had distinctive architectural characters, derived from different materials, different climates, different tastes. No more. It’s just all glass, all the time.
October 8, 2016
In connection with the publication of Now I Sit Me Down I’ve been touring around giving talks and readings. A common question from the audience is “What is your favorite chair?” I think that the implied question is often “What is your favorite chair design?” but I prefer to answer it literally. I believe that what makes a chair a “favorite” is not the way it looks, or the notoriety of its designer, but rather what it is used for. For me, and I suspect for many people, a favorite chair is the one you sit in to relax at the end of the day. In my case it’s my reading chair. When writing is done, it’s where I read for pleasure, or sometimes re-read what I’ve written that day. Sitting in my chair I gain a different perspective from when I’m working at my desk. What is my reading chair? It’s a wing chair. Not an antique, but manufactured maybe thirty years ago by Hickory Chair, based on an eighteenth-century model from Tidewater Virginia. It’s not much different than the chair that George Hepplewhite included in his Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (above). That was published in 1788. It’s hard to improve on a good thing.
August 31, 2016
I went to see the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The building isn’t open to the public yet so I could only see the exterior. Yet because of its location on the National Mall this is one building whose exterior appearance is key. It’s the last structure on the north side of the Mall, down the hill from the Washington Monument. From a distance, the museum has a nice scale and an evocative form. The corona shape has always seemed symbolically right to me, recalling both traditional Yoruba tribal art and a Brancusi sculpture. The boxy glass penthouse introduces a mundane element that doesn’t really enhance the corona, but it disappears as you get closer. Close-up, the corona shape turns out to be insubstantial—a metal shroud—which is a bit of a letdown. Moreover, the patterned screen that is meant to recall Charleston and New Orleans ironwork, instead looks like the world’s largest ventilating grille. Its flimsiness is emphasized by the contrast with the handsome stone-clad canopy over the entrance, and the irregular cut-outs that form viewing windows. The skin was originally to be bronze, but when this proved expensive—and extremely heavy—aluminum with a bronze coating was substituted. Unfortunately, it sparkles in the sun, and its brass-like finish lacks the gravitas of dark, moody bronze. Indeed, the effect is cheerfully commercial, not what we expect in a national museum. Does bronze-coated aluminum become dull with time like the real thing? I certainly hope so.
August 10, 2016
One reviewer of How Architecture Works suggested that readers should have a iPad handy when they read my book so that they could refer to images of the buildings that are mentioned in the text. The book has photos, but they are black and white, and not large, the usual format for a trade book. Now the publisher Mimesis has solved that problem. The Korean edition of the book is illustrated with beautiful color photographs, many taking a full page, and in some cases (Salk Institute, Centre Pompidou, Bilbao Guggenheim) a two-page spread. Mimesis is the art-book arm of Open Books, a leading Seoul publisher. The book is printed in Korea on matte paper and resembles a high-end museum catalog. It sells for ￦28,000, about $25. I want to rush out and buy a Kia Soul.
July 30, 2016
I recently watched an interesting lecture on YouTube delivered by Dietmar Eberle at the 2013 World Architecture Festival in Singapore. Eberle is the principal of the Austrian architectural firm Baumschlager Eberle. During his talk he referred metaphorically to Weekday Architecture and Sunday Architecture. The former are the places where we spend most of our lives, the places where we live, work, and shop. The latter, by contrast, are the special buildings that we use on weekends: museums, concert halls, casinos, and of course places of worship. In the past, “Architecture” was synonymous with Sunday Architecture, churches, civic monuments, royal palaces. Weekday Architecture was left to vernacular builders. By the early twentieth century, architects had made inroads into Weekday Architecture, and they were designing housing, factories, and department stores. The early modernists went so far as to try and abolish Sunday Architecture, with the result that it was often hard to distinguish a city hall from a warehouse. Today, it feels like we have moved in the opposite direction: we have abolished Weekdays—as if every day could be Sunday. Sunday Architecture is what the public expects, what the media covers, and what the schools teach.