Rybczynski, Witold (Marian) 1943-

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RYBCZYNSKI, Witold (Marian) 1943-

PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1943, in Edinburgh, Scotland; son of Witold K. (an engineer) and Anna (a lawyer; maiden name, Hoffman) Rybczynski; married Shirley Hallam, 1974. Education: McGill University, B.Arch., 1966, M.Arch., 1973.

ADDRESSES: Home—7801 Lincoln Dr., Philadelphia, PA 19118. Agent—Andrew Wylie, 250 West 57 St., New York, NY 10107.

CAREER: Worked as architect and planner for Moshe Safdie on Habitat 67 and as planner of housing and new towns in northern Canada, 1966-71; in practice as registered architect, 1970-82; McGill University, Montreal, research associate, 1972-74, assistant professor, 1975-78, became associate professor, 1978, professor of architecture until 1993; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Meyerson Professor of Urbanism, 1993—. Consultant to World Bank, United Nations, International Research Center, and Banco de Mexico in Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and Mexico, 1976—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1993; Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award, 1993; honorary M.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1994; Athanaeum of Philadelphia Literary Award, 1997 and 2001; Christopher Award, 2000; Anthony J. Lukas Prize, 2000, for A Clearing in the Distance.


(With Alexander Morse) Patent Survey, 1859-1974: The Use of Elemental Sulphur in Building, McGill University/Minimal Cost Housing Group, School of Architecture, McGill University (Montreal, Canada), 1974.

(Editor) Use It Again, Sam, McGill University/Minimal Cost Housing Group, School of Architecture, McGill University (Montreal, Canada), 1977.

Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology, Doubleday (Garden City, NJ), 1980.

Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.

Home: A Short History of an Idea, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

The Most Beautiful House in the World, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

Waiting for the Weekend, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.

Looking Around: A Journey through Architecture, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.

A Place for Art: The Architecture of the National Gallery of Canada, National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, Canada), 1993.

City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World, Scribner (New York, NY), 1995.

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.

The Look of Architecture, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.

Member of the advisory board, Encyclopedia Americana, 1993—, the editorial board, Open House International, 1993—, and Urban Design International, 1995—; coeditor of Wharton Real Estate Review, 1996—.

SIDELIGHTS: In general, reviewers of Home: A Short History of an Idea conclude that architect Witold Rybczynski had two basic aims in mind: the first, to provide a survey of the gradual establishment of ease and comfort in the home over the centuries, and the second, to fault modernism with ignoring these past achievements and turning to aesthetics instead. With regard to Rybczynski's first aim, Jonathan Yardley noted in his Washington Post Book World article that "the idea of 'home' . . . may seem as old as the hills, but as . . . Rybczynski demonstrates in this exceptionally interesting and provocative book, it is a relatively modern notion that did not really begin until after the Middle Ages." As history would have it, living conditions in medieval times were sober, indeed; family members, as well as servants and visitors, had all of their activities confined to one room. According to Rybczynski, with the advent of both the separation of the workplace from the home in the seventeenth century and technological advances that were to flourish from that time on, a house started to take on the richness of a home. Privacy, intimacy, and comfort became increasingly possible and meaningful.

Rybczynski moves through the centuries recording the domestic changes that characterize this progression from public house to private home, and includes such highlights as the popularization of the extremely comfortable furniture of the Rococo movement in France in the eighteenth century and the Georgian tradition of the same time in England which consisted of a decor that was practical yet refined. In the opinion of Brina Caplan in the Nation, "as a historical survey, Home traces the technological and psychological changes that produced our modern sense of domestic ease. But while Rybczynski is explaining how we achieved comfort, he is also arguing that we are well on the way to losing it. He has a case to make against the 'fundamental poverty of modern architectural ideas.'" According to Wendy Smith in the Village Voice, Rybczynski felt the "fundamental poverty" of modern architecture is due to the failure of architects to learn from history; "unlike [Tom Wolfe's] From Bauhaus to Our House, however, Home is no hysterical polemic against modernism. Rybczynski's concern isn't with shouting condemnation from the rooftops a là Tom Wolfe, but with understanding how contemporary architects came to ignore 300 years of experience in arranging comfortable, convenient homes....It's not the appearance of older buildings he misses . . . it's the attitude they reflected: an attention to human needs in the creation of spaces that were practical as well as pleasing to the eye. His closing chapter calls for a return to the idea of comfort in the home, an acknowledgement that houses are places for people to live, not forums for architects' aesthetic manifestos." Rybczynski, for example, criticizes the domestic deco of French architect and theorist Le Corbusier, describing it as cubelike, austere, and conducive to mass production, noted Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. Lehmann-Haupt further maintained that "Rybczynski knows the way out of the dilemma that he believes Modernism has led us into. It is, simply enough, to rediscover what is comfortable, and to do so not just by recapturing bourgeois styles of the past, but instead by re-examining bourgeois traditions."

When Home was published in 1986, Rybczynski "became an overnight authority on the subject of comfort," wrote Globe & Mail contributor Adele Freedman. As was the case with several other critics, William H. Gass for the New York Times Book Review felt that Rybczynski "tells the story of the development of the private dwelling from house to home . . . in a sensitive and balanced way." Additionally, remarks Gass, "Rybczynski's call for a reexamination of the bourgeois tradition is one that should be heeded, and when he remarks, for example, that the seventeenth-century Dutch interior can teach us a good deal about living in small spaces he is surely right." When it comes to Rybczynski's criticism of modern architecture, however, some critics disagree with his stance. As Gass saw it, "what remains a problem is [Rybczynski's] basic opposition of art and comfort and the question whether an artist can really come to any kind of decent terms with the values of the middle class—because if living well remains a good revenge, living beautifully is yet better, indeed, best." Freedman likewise commented that "it was in the cards, but nonetheless wearisome, that a champion of intimacy, privacy, coziness, convenience and pragmatism would blame 'modernity' for banishing comfort in the name of esthetics." Yardley, however, viewed Home as "highly persuasive," and Lehmann-Haupt considered it a "delightful, intelligent book." Moreover, New Yorker contributor John Lukacs deemed it "exquisitely readable . . . a triumph of intelligence."

Rybczynski became Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s, and also published City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World mid-decade. The work was inspired by a friend's visit to Paris and her query upon her return as to why North American cities have failed to achieve the spectacular elegance of their European counterparts. In City Life, Rybczynski chronicles the history of urban development in North America from the first planned colonial towns like Philadelphia and Williamsburg to later metropolises noted for their daunting sprawl, like Los Angeles. Though he was examining a subject that had been well-dissected by other scholars of American and urban history, Rybczynski won praise for adding some fresh perspectives. "Threaded throughout the usual stories," wrote Brenda Scheer in her review of the tome for the Journal of the American Planning Association, "are lively descriptions of the attitudes that American city builders brought to their new world."

Rybczynski explains that American planners sought space, an obvious reaction to centuries of overcrowded conditions in European cities, and such desires were also blessed by an availability of land. City Life also shows how many cities that achieved greatness in the nineteenth century were built on the grid plan—among them New York and Chicago—which allowed for flexibility and quick expansion. He also reflects upon the importance of commerce to American cities. "Rybczynski points out that we have always viewed the city as a convenience, rather than as a timeless or monumental artifact," Scheer noted, and asserted in conclusion that the author "has offered not only a look at our past but an explanation for our current state of affairs." Paul Elie, reviewing the book for Commonweal, faulted City Life for lacking a more critical approach, but termed the author "an uncommonly curious and nimble cultural critic.... Like many of the best cultural critics, Rybczynski doesn't state his case so much as give form to the virtues he espouses. Thus his book has the qualities that he most admires in urban life. It is orderly but not too planned.... Past and present are always jostling against each other."

For his next book, Rybczynski approached one of the giants of American urban history, a man whose genius was only truly appreciated well after his 1903 death. A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century charts the life of America's greatest landscape architect. Olmsted was the designer of New York's Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, an estate in North Carolina for the Vanderbilt dynasty, and several other enduring marvels of what he considered "the three grand elements of pastoral landscape": meadows, forest, and water. Rybczynski writes about Olmsted's rather accidental path toward greatness: the son of a Connecticut dry-goods merchant, he found it difficult to settle on a profession for many years. He tried farming, became a sailor, and wrote about slavery for the New York Times. In 1857, a failed publishing venture spurred him to take a job as the superintendent for what New York City authorities had deemed "the Central Park." This was acreage set aside to serve as a public area, but it was not yet designed, and an architect by the name of Calvert Vaux suggested that Olmsted submit something. His plan won the competition, and Olmsted found that the gift for landscape architecture came naturally to him.

A Clearing in the Distance charts Olmsted's rise to eminence, but Rybczynski also chronicles the almost farcical struggles with local bureaucrats that plagued Olmsted's career. He was hired as the city planner of Buffalo, New York, and completed the design in less than a day's work, but for a park planned in the center, a local politician nearly won out in his bid to build a house in the middle of it. Rybczynski stresses that Olmsted was driven by personal conviction that public greenery was essential to the quality of life for all urban dwellers. Its restorative powers, he argued, should not be available just to the upper classes.

Rybczynski's biography reveals that Olmsted suffered from bouts of depression nearly all of his adult life and began to evidence signs of Alzheimer's disease in his early seventies. He handed over his business to his stepson and was confined in his last years to a sanitarium whose grounds he had designed but likely no longer recognized as his own handiwork. The biography won accolades for its author. "Like all fine biographers, Rybczynski has such a profound feeling for his subject that he is often at his best when the least is known and he is forced to impose his informed speculations upon the silent places in the life," remarked Robert Wilson in a review for American Scholar. New York Times Book Review critic Suzanna Lessard also praised A Clearing in the Distance. "The author has written a transparent book, in which he is a largely retiring but very pleasant guide," opined Lessard. "Every so often, he steps forward in a delightful, casual way"—in moments, as the critic noted, when the biographer recounts his own obstacles in researching Olmsted's life. Lessard described it as "a straightforward work, thorough and respectful, yet easeful in a way that is reminiscent of Olmsted himself."

In 1999, Rybczynski was invited by the New York Times to become a panelist for its "tool of the millennium" feature. The experience prompted him to write a short book on the history of his favorite tool. One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw was published in 2000, and discusses the screw and its companion at various points in history. It was crucial to some Renaissance weaponry, he finds, but advances in technology brought innovations and more widespread usage. "Siege engines . . . the precision lathe, door hinges and the great minds of ancient Greek geometry also figure among the threads of Rybczynski's tightly wound exposition," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

The Look of Architecture, a short but succinct survey of style in architecture, came about as a result of a three-lecture series the author gave in the New York Public Library in 1999. In it, he discusses the ongoing relationship between architecture and style. He believes that, as does style, architecture mirrors the culture in which it exists and often imitates contemporary fashion. According to Michael Spinella of Booklist, he praises architects who build "with style and flair but also with firm foundations, grace, and the public interest at heart." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented on Rybczynski's "ability to puncture [the architectural profession] pretensions without mean-spiritedness" and felt that, in this book, "the intimate, conversational tone he adopts manages to convey a lot of information in a very agreeable way."



Rybczynski, Witold, Home: A Short History of an Idea, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.


American Scholar, summer, 1999, Robert Wilson, review of A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, p. 142.

Atlantic, July 14, 1999.

Booklist, May 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of A Clearing in the Distance, p. 1659; June 1, 2001, Michael Spinella, review of The Look of Architecture, p. 1820.

Business Week, August 2, 1999, "The Man Who Brought Nature to the City," p. 12.

Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1986.

Commonweal, February 23, 1996, Paul Elie, review of City Life, p. 19.

Economist, July 17, 1999, "American City Parks," p. 7.

Fortune, June 21, 1999, Andrew Ferguson, "The Man Who Gave Us a Place to Relax," p. 48.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 7, 1987.

Journal of the American Planning Association, fall, 1996, Brenda Scheer, review of City Life, p. 535.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, October 23, 2002, Inga Saffron, review of The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Architect Andrea Palladio, p. K0125.

Library Journal, May 15, 1999, Grant A. Fredericksen, review of A Clearing in the Distance, p. 104; August, 2001, Paul Glassman, review of The Look of Architecture, p. 101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 13, 1986.

Nation, December 20, 1986, Brina Caplan, review of Home: A Short History of an Idea.

Newsweek, August 18, 1986.

New Yorker, September 1, 1986.

New York Review of Books, December 4, 1986.

New York Times, July 14, 1986, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Home.

New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1983, August 3, 1986; June 13, 1999, Suzanna Lessard, "Scape Artist."

Planning, March, 1996, Harold Henderson, review of City Life, p. 33.

Public Interest, winter, 2000, David Brooks, "Designing the Cityscape," p. 99.

Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1999, review of A Clearing in the Distance, p. 76; June 12, 2000, review of One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, p. 59; June 18, 2001, review of The Look of Architecture, p. 73.

Time, August 4, 1986.

Times Literary Supplement, May 6, 1988.

Village Voice, August 12, 1986, Wendy Smith, review of Home.

Washington Post, June 17, 1980, Jonathan Yardley, review of Home.

Washington Post Book World, September 25, 1983, July 6, 1986; December 5, 1999, p. X10.

Whole Earth, fall, 1999, Marianne Cramer, review of A Clearing in the Distance, p. 86.*