By Witold Rybczynski. New York: Oxford University Press/The New York Public Library, 2001. 130 pages. Illustrations, index. ISBN 019-513443-5. Hardcover. $25.00 on Amazon.com.
“Commoditie,” “Firmeness,” and “Delight”-with these three terms, borrowed from the seventeenth-century English architect Sir Henry Wotton, Witold Rybczynski sets up the shorthand for this remarkable tour of the achievements and follies of (mainly) modern architecture. Rybczynski, professor of urban studies and real estate at the University of Pennsylvania and one of America’s foremost architectural critics, navigates between these three ideas (which could be rephrased as utilitarian value, structural soundness, and aesthetic integrity) with an intimate, almost elemental ease. Little wonder: his previous studies have journeyed over a vast terrain of subjects architectural, from the domestic Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986) through the utilitarian One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw (2000) to the theoretically polemical City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995). In this short work, originally a series of public lectures given at the New York Public Library in late 1990s, Rybczynski restricts his focus to a discussion of architecture as style. Style is set in a dichotomy with “vocabulary,” the latter term embodying the typical establishment view that Rybczynski demolishes with panache: “[I]f architectural style is a language-an analogy that is deeply flawed-it is closer to slang than to grammatical prose. Architectural styles are mutable, unregulated, improvised. Architects break the rules, and invent new ones” (86). In Rybczynski’s use, style must be understood as something greater than a mere metaphor for “convention” or “fashion.” It signifies a set of prescriptions and a mode of living. The thesis to be tested is that despite much theoretical posturing and jargon to the contrary, style -even to the point of flamboyance-is what modern architecture is really all about, with decidedly mixed results.
The main idea guiding his discussion is this: in its negation of the functional in favor of the formal, modernism has rendered a great disservice both to the idea/ideal of the city as a social space and to the notion of architecture as synecdoche of an organic structure. Therefore, modernist architecture is low on Commoditie. Enraptured by formal possibility, it works against life. And, insofar as the medium really was the message for the modernist masters and, perhaps worse, for their breathless acolytes, the demonstration of this thesis on more modest (read: university) budgets frequently meant, as Rybczynski points out, that the resulting buildings would be compromised from the start by poor construction materials and other shortcuts taken along the way. Thus, more often than not, they also lack Firmeness. In its giddy tendentiousness, modern campus architecture is rife with such structures. Rybczynski adduces the Richards Laboratory at Penn as a case of the kind of blatant disregard for the basics of living and working spaces that makes for a failed building, in this case a laboratory space in which excessive fenestration and other formal considerations have defeated the building’s purpose as a place to conduct experiments. My own favorite example of a similar failure is the thirty-year-old brutalist-cubist-quasifigural Robarts Library at the University of Toronto where as a graduate student I once occupied an airless and essentially windowless cubicle.
Postmodernism, much maligned elsewhere, returns in architecture like the proverbial repressed. In their selective, playful, and often parodic engagements with history and even with the discarded forms of earlier modernisms, postmodern architects-Rybczynski cites such practitioners as Frank O. Gehry and Alan Greenberg-have placed a much-needed priority to Delight in their work (e.g., the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, aka “the artichoke” [116-8]) while respecting the premise that buildings are meant to be lived in; that is, they are intended to serve not only the spatial but also the emotional and even spiritual needs of those who make daily use of them. Here Rybczynski’s discussion of Vari Hall, the mid-1990s York University Student Center in Toronto (33-35), a solid, multifunctional building in which the volumes achieved and even the materials selected seem to encourage casual “lounging” comportment is particularly germane. The point is clear: works of postmodern architecture frequently incorporate Commoditie, Firmeness and Delight as a structural imperative, even in settings that ostensibly call for budgetary realism or functionalist restraint. So it is not the people but rather the buildings that “must do the accommodating,” Rybczynski suggests, concluding that the most successful contemporary ones manage precisely that (35).
If this short tome is viewed as a metatextual demonstration of the thesis of the primacy of style, its lucidity and readability are the ultimate proof of its success. Insofar as it engages the non-specialist with its precise and incisive language and well-chosen examples, this work is a notable achievement. Moreover, the talk about style has not compromised substance here, even taking into account the fact that a series of oral lectures originally supported by a significant visual component tend to project a directness of expression that some might mistakenly attribute to intellectual paucity or a lack of analytic depth. The author’s main argument is free from repetition and rhetorical adornment, and thus liberated Rybczynski is able to take us along at a rapid pace as he tests a series of “stylistic” prepositions. The journey takes the reader from one particularly monument-rich street in midtown Manhattan to his beloved University of Pennsylvania campus (the incongruity of the Richards Lab aside), to the sites and cités of French modernist interventions such as Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamps and Cité radieuse villas. Private homes and their celebrated creators Robert Venturi, Richard Morris Hunt, and Enrique Norten feature prominently, substantiating the impression that, his discursive engagement with avantgardist gestures and lexicons notwithstanding, Rybczynski is au fond mainly interested in architecture as a domestic and domesticated space. In this context, the exegesis of architectural style as a direct correlative of broader cultural fashions, along with his potent reading of “the intimate relationship of dress and décor” are of particular value to readers who are specialists in urban studies, as well as to the historians of ideas (17-35).
In its elegant progression from style to fashion to commodity to organic space for living, the book is fascinating. After reading it you will see the city and perhaps the home in which you live from a greatly enriched perspective. For this reason alone, Rybczynski’s slim volume is a delight.
to the January 2007 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 1/9/07