Mysteries of the Mall and Other Essays

Witold Rybczynski. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-26993-7
Reviewed by Anthony Paletta

Rybczynski’s latest essay collection, a sharp culling of his previously published work, may seem at first glance like a World’s Shortest Books entry (how many mysteries have you found at the Gap?), but the best detectives find much in overlooked corners, and this, as usual, is Rybczinski’s work here. An eloquent critic with a range of interests as broad as his voluminous published work, Rybczynski is unusually willing to go sleuthing into the architecture and design of the everyday.

A strong interest in the lived experience of architecture—not its aseptic uninhabited condition—undergirds the essays in the volume, whether concerning museum “starchitecture” or Disneyland. The titular essay explores the work of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, a theorist heterodox in his enthusiasm for the built suburban environment and a notion of vernacular architecture sympathetic to actual vernacular conditions—namely postwar suburban growth. Rybczynski notes, “Few of my architect friends share my interest in food courts.” Many espouse notions about form following function, but few seem interested in spaces where function radically defines form, namely that food court.

In an essay on homes, Rybczynski offers perceptive and praiseful accounts of premier 20th century residential construction, but is bold enough to answer the question, “Do many experimental houses make good homes?” with “Many don’t.” He mulls over the varied functions of a performance space in a review of the Opéra Bastille in Paris; acoustics and sightlines take obvious precedence but the function of lobbies and interactivity with the city also receive significant attention.

Rybczynski’s perennial personal enthusiasms crop up: there’s an essay on Central Park, one on Palladio, another on Wright. Other essays shine light on more unfamiliar names: Bing Thom’s supple Canadian work and the eclectic small-scale builder-architect George Holt, in Charleston, S.C. Rybczynski is not so much of a contrarian to ignore or dislike larger names: Le Corbusier and I.M. Pei are the focus of graceful accounts.

The most interesting selections are on more esoteric topics. There’s a superb piece on the nearly 70 years of unsung work that the engineering firm Arup has done to make countless iconic buildings actually stand. Another essay unspools the longer history, and current blight, of those bollards that have come to fence civic structures since 9/11.

The prose sparkles: “When Richard Meier amplifies and extends the architectural elements that infuse his houses with a retro-modern charm into larger buildings, the effect can be deadening, like listening to a Chopin étude that never ends.” In discussing Disney’s planned community, Rybczynski quips, “the credits for the design of Celebration resemble a Hollywood screenplay.”

In his acknowledgements, Rybczynski notes he has written some 350 essays since his last collection, Looking Around (1992); this book features 34 of those works. Over the course of his career, Rybczynski has proven a deft guide to the work of countless architects; here, he is just as sage a curator of his own criticism. (Sept.)

Anthony Paletta writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal.

Reviewed on: 05/18/2015
Release date: 09/08/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
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