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The Radiant City

Witold Rybczynski
Mysteries of the Mall: And Other Essays
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

Geoffrey Scott, in his seminal work The Architecture of Humanism (1914), said that “the art of architecture studies not structure in itself, but the effect of structure on the human spirit.” If this emotional component of how, where, and why we demarcate private and public space is central to architectural practice, we might be forgiven our insensitivity to its ethos. After all, our response to constructed space is often muted by virtue of its everydayness, a habitual immersion in the built environment that induces a kind of perceptual anesthesia. It is therefore sometimes astonishing to consider that, from the lowliest fast-food restaurant to the latest avant-garde museum, from the suburban home to the high-rise apartment, from the strip mall to Central Park, to say nothing of roads, freeways, farms, and parking lots, it is architecture—that is, thoughtful and deliberate design—that frames and enhances so much of our day-to-day lived experience. That fact makes it all the more curious that architects do not command greater public interest: they literally govern the fantasies, aspirations, and possibilities of shared space. 

Into what we might call this spatial sleepwalking, Witold Rybczynski’s new collection of essays, Mysteries of the Mall, drops with the concussive effect of a thunderclap. This is not to imply that Rybczynski is a flashy or flamboyant writer; on the contrary, he eschews literary exhibitionism for the kind of measured, intelligent prose that immediately earns a reader’s trust. Rather, it is the attention he pays space—an enthusiastic and highly infectious kind of attention, something close to an architectural evangelism—that both freshens our eyes and grants new perspectives on the intentionality of our environment. Rybczynski, who is an architect as well as a writer, proves himself uniquely suited to the task. Mysteries’ thirty-five essays, which the afterword states were culled from more than 350 written since 1992’s Looking Around, are divided into four sections: “The Way We Live Today,” “Our Urban Condition,” “The Art of Building,” and “Place Makers.” These broad groupings allow Rybczynski to engage with a wide range of material in a way that never feels forced or contrived. His extended meditations on, among a great many other things, shopping malls, shrinking cities, the Paris Opera House, suburban sprawl, and Le Corbusier, are mercifully free of jargon, and made me—an architectural novice—feel completely at ease. A deft and sensible guide, Rybczynski charms, challenges, and, finally, welcomes us into a world we may never have realized could be so enthralling.

That sensibility—call it civility or even propriety—is a hallmark of Rybczynski’s writing. Near the end of his piece on the Chicago Public Library, he states that “civic monuments enshrine values that we hold dear, and publicly proclaim these values to us and to our children.” It seems to me that Rybczynski has located a moral dimension in architecture, arguing that its inviolable features—elsewhere he mentions “clarity, utility, and beauty”—underpin the lasting aura of a work, outstripping the vagaries of trends and -isms. In clearheaded pieces like “When Buildings Try Too Hard” and “Show Dogs,” he reasonably, if earnestly, asserts that “great architecture carries many messages, about society as well as individuals, about our values and our dreams. It should have more to tell us than merely ‘Look at me.’” If there is a unifying thesis of the collection, this is it: that great icons (see also: the Bilbao effect) do not necessarily make great architecture.

Lest I make him out to be a rank traditionalist, Rybczynski has no qualms with the avant-garde so long as its chief aim is not merely “to entertain, titillate, or shock.” In discerning pieces on thoroughly modern architects like I.M. Pei, Moshe Safdie, and Robert A.M. Stern, he shows he is more than capable of appreciating the icily angular, the whimsical, and the monolithic—so long as they are in service to the beautiful and the useful, rather than the architect’s ego. Indeed, throughout the collection, Rybczynski builds a compelling case for architectural humility, something demanded of both the built and the builder. He argues convincingly that good architecture is a collective endeavor, and in essays like “Call Arup” he shifts the limelight from the architectural prodigy to the oft-forgotten engineers that design, build out, and implement the theoretical scaffolding of their more lauded peers. Many of the essays echo the words of Canadian architect Bing Thom: “Good architecture is the result of active collaboration.” This call for a humble, synergistic approach is a refreshing, even disarming take on the function of architecture, restoring a human and civic dignity to the sometimes gaudy proceedings.

And Rybczynski is nothing if not similarly modest. In his essays on shopping malls, vacation homes, and Disneyland, there is never a whiff of haughty disdain or contemptuous elitism; rather, he approaches each locale with sensitivity and a down-to-earth perceptiveness that goes a long way towards finding the aesthetic or practical merit in that which is often derided or overlooked. It is easy to be fascinated by the spatial and programmatic complexity of the latest urban mega-structure; it is far more difficult to locate the charm and utility of the suburban tract home, the laundromat, or the drive-through restaurant. “If we are to improve our countryside and our cities […] we must understand them,” he says in the titular essay. “We must put aside our prejudices and see it, and ourselves, clearly, as we really are, food courts and all.” If Rybczynski sometimes falls prey to what James Howard Kunstler accused another architectural writer of—namely, being unable to make judgments due to “the empirical dazzle of his observations”—one forgives him easily, as this openhandedness never comes across as anything other than a generous and authentic curiosity about how we live, what we build, and what we deem worthy of preserving.

In the end, given Rybczynski’s capacious intellect and prodigious output, the book’s title ends up being both a disservice and a fitting capstone. Though the book in toto is a fairly exhaustive survey of architecture’s history, its prodigies, and its obstacles of theory and practice, it is also about cafeterias, warehouses, and, yes, malls. This advocacy of the architectural idiom in both its profound and prosaic manifestations is what stuck with me long after I’d finished reading—a habit of attention that I wanted to emulate in the pursuit of my own passions. This is one of the many lasting gifts Rybczynski gives his readers. Early on in Mysteries, he says, “houses intrigue us because they tell us so much about their owners.” To that, I would add: books intrigue us because they tell us so much about their authors. This one is required reading for anyone interested in the story of architecture—or the shape of the modern world.


Dustin Illingworth

DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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