Witold Rybczynski

Critic; Academic; Writer / Architecture / United States / School of Design, University of Pennsylvania

Witold Rybczynski’s Notable Books of 2013

4 books
Léon Krier
Preface by Robert A. M. Stern

The design legacy of the Nazi regime is considerable. The Kraft durch Freude-Wagen (Strength through Joy Car), named by Hitler himself and better known as the Beetle, for example, became the favorite transport of the psychedelic generation in the 1960s, and its designer, Ferdinand Porsche, the darling of boy racers everywhere. The V-2 rocket—and its designer, Werner von Braun—was eagerly taken up by the American space program. But while Nazi cars and rockets are admired, not so Nazi architecture. Yet, as Léon Krier convincingly demonstrates in this lavishly illustrated book (originally published in 1985, but here with a new preface and an introduction by Robert A. M. Stern), there is much to admire. The New Chancellery of the Reich, for example, as well as the Zeppelinfield, stand comparison with the best work of Edwin Lutyens and Paul Philippe Cret. Speer’s intended makeover of central Berlin recalls L’Enfant. “Can a war criminal be a great artist?” asks Krier. Evidently, yes.

Bruce Katz
Jennifer Bradley

The headline in New York’s Daily News of October 29, 1975, famously read, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” characterizing the federal government’s disdain for the Big Apple’s financial woes. There have been no similar headlines recently but there may as well have been, as a fractious and ineffective Congress seems unable—or unwilling—to craft effective national policies to deal with the urban fallout of the current Great Recession.

The economic slow-down, which began in 2008, hit cities and metropolitan areas particularly hard but, as Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out in their provocative book, this time federal inaction has had an unexpected effect. It produced what they call a metropolitan revolution, a sort of power inversion in which federal inactivity in urban affairs has spurred local initiatives. “Nearly four years after the recession’s official end,” Katz and Bradley write, “it is clear that the real, durable reshaping is being led by networks of city and metropolitan leaders—mayors and other local elected officials, for sure, but also heads of companies, universities, medical campuses, metropolitan business associations, labor unions, civic organizations, environmental groups, cultural institutions, and philanthropies.”

The reshaping they describe in numerous examples—New York, Denver, Cleveland, and Houston are discussed in detail—takes political, economic, even global form, but it also has a physical component. One example is urban and suburban “innovation districts,” enclaves of mixed-use, often adjacent to research universities and medical complexes, whose urban design enables key attributes such as high density, proximity, and walkability. Jane Jacobs would approve.

Robert A. M. Stern
David Fishman
Jacob Tilove

A few years ago, when I heard that Robert A. M. Stern was compiling a book about garden suburbs, I imagined that it would be an elaboration of his and John Massengale’s The Anglo-American Suburb, a slim 96-page monograph published by AD in 1981 (now hard to find—my copy is a xerox). Instead, Stern and his co-authors, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove, have produced a 1,072-page behemoth, beautifully designed by Pentagram, that is a global Baedeker to the long and interesting history of the planned suburb.

Garden suburbs—as opposed to sprawling subdivisions—are only a part of the topic, for the book also covers the garden city movement, industrial villages and company towns, and resort garden suburbs. In fact it is a comprehensive history of suburban planning between 1900 and 1940. The scope is international. Every European language has a term for “garden city”—cité jardin, gartenstadt, città giardino, cidade jardim, tuindorp, miasto-ogród—and the book documents projects all over Europe and North America, and also ranges as far as Brazil, Israel, Japan, and Australia. There is no doubt that Paradise Planned will become the prime source on the subject.

The book is carefully researched and provides ample information about the backgrounds of scores of projects, many today forgotten, most rarely published. It shows how deeply the idea of the garden suburb was embedded in the public consciousness, and how it influenced not only garden city advocates, but architects and planners worldwide, including modernist pioneers Eliel Saarinen in Finland, Lewerentz in Sweden, Dudok in Holland, and Le Corbusier in France.

The authors include such early prototypes as John Nash’s Blaise Hamlet and Regent’s Park, but chiefly the book confines itself to the 20th century, with World War II as the cut-off date. Stern the polemicist could not resist an epilogue, however. “The Fall and Rise of the Garden Suburb” updates us to the present-day: Seaside, New Urbanism, Poundbury, and the traditional town planning movement. It also includes Stern’s own contributions such as his seminal 1976 project, Subway Suburb, and the Disney community of Celebration. Stern and his co-authors describe the 150-year-old tradition of the garden suburb as “the core of modern city planning.” A provocative claim, but then this book can be seen as a gauntlet flung—if a 14-pound tome can be flung—in the face of modernist urban theory. “Suburbs will not go away nor should they,” Stern and company write. “Planned as part of the metropolitan city, the garden suburb is the best template yet devised to achieve a habitable earthly paradise.”

George H. Marcus
William Whitaker

Between 1940 and his death in 1974, Louis Kahn designed more than 30 private residences. The majority of these commissions did not come to fruition, although eight went as far as construction drawings. But nine, all in the Philadelphia area, saw the light of day. These houses have not attracted much attention. The reason for this neglect may be, as George H. Marcus and William Whitaker write in The Houses of Louis Kahn, their elusive character. “Kahn’s houses are difficult to grasp at once,” the authors write, “for they were designed not as architectural manifestos but as buildings that express the circumstances of their creation.” In other words, for Kahn, houses were not an opportunity to experiment, but rather a considered response to the site, the program, the budget, and the (patient—Kahn sometimes worked slowly) client.

In this exemplary study, Marcus, who teaches art history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Whitaker, who is curator of Penn’s Architectural Archives, which house the Louis I. Kahn Collection, document all four aspects in detail. Introductory essays examine the ideas behind Kahn’s domestic designs, both built and unbuilt, as well as the life experiences that influenced the architect’s idea of home. The authors also write about a previously ignored subject: Kahn’s approach to furniture. Unlike his friend Eero Saarinen, Kahn did not design any chairs, but Marcus and Whitaker describe his built-in seating as well as tables and cabinets. In early houses he used furniture by Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, and Saarinen, but later abandoned midcentury modern and encouraged his clients to purchase pieces by local furniture-makers such as Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. He also favored antiques.

More than half of this book is devoted to a detailed description of the nine built houses, all extant, all but one lived in (the Esherick House is currently empty and for sale). The three oldest houses, which all demonstrate considerable architectural ambition, predate 1950 and undermine the idea that Kahn discovered his true architectural self only when he built the Yale University Art Gallery (1950–51). The detailed descriptions of his domestic commissions show that Kahn, despite his reputation as a philosopher-poet, was an experienced professional, responsive to clients’ requests, concerned with the details of construction, driven by practical considerations. This interesting book is full of such aperçus. While it contains photographs of the houses, it also includes archival material such as design sketches, details, and construction drawings. If you thought you knew all there was to know about Kahn, read this splendid book—there is still more to learn about the greatest American architect of the second half of the 20th century.

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