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Between the Leaves

Finding the world of architecture in the universe of words.

Jeff Stein: As an architect, a teacher, and a prolific writer in print and on the Web, you’re a master of media. In one of your books, Looking Around, you talked about Vitruvius, who described his three criteria for the well-built building: commodity, firmness, and delight. I’m interested, though, in a possible fourth condition: communication. Louis Kahn brought forward the notion that architecture is a building plus an idea.

Witold Rybczynski: Architecture communicates in many different ways; an obvious example is when art is incorporated into a building — a sculpture, say, or frescoes. But I would hesitate to put architecture on the same communicative level as a book or an essay. There was a moment in the Postmodern era in the ’70s and ’80s when people were very interested in semiotics. But even Umberto Eco, an advocate, had to admit that if a building does communicate, it does so in a very crude way. A building can look impressive or scary or charming, but it does not communicate with the same subtlety or complexity as the written word.

Having said that, architecture has its own expression; it has things to say about proportion and rhythm. When you walk into a grand building, you feel something; but it’s not what you feel when you read a book. The building is palpable; there are echoing sounds, light, shadows, textures. Think of a Gothic cathedral.

Jeff Stein: Or Boston City Hall.

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. When you walk into that building, it’s not remotely the same experience that you have from looking at photographs or reading about it. It is its own experience, and that has to do with sunlight and materials and all of those things. Imagine the feeling you get when you look up in a Gothic cathedral and see all that stone suspended magically in the air. That is what architecture is about, and I resist the idea that you can reduce it to a metaphor or to a literary message.

Jeff Stein: In addition to your early architecture work, your written work consists of 17 books and over 400 articles, essays, and book reviews. Your work is very much about the stories behind great ideas, and the people who came up with the ideas in the first place. What led you from designing buildings to writing about them?

Witold Rybczynski: When I started my career, I really had no understanding about the profession of architecture. I’d been taught how to be a designer, but I’d been given no preparation for the business of architecture. I enjoyed designing, but at some point, I realized there was more to architecture than just you and a sheet of paper. I didn’t know how to get the next client, as H.H. Richardson put it. So I ended up going back to the university, drawn to research rather than teaching. The writing grew out of that.

Jeff Stein: Do you find writing easier than designing?

Witold Rybczynski: Easier than the world of building. When you’re a writer, everybody’s on your side. Your agent wants to help you find a publisher, your editor wants to help you improve your book, and the bookseller wants to sell your book. Maybe the critic is not on your side, but everybody else is helping you. If you’re an architect, you’re struggling with everybody, even the client: You’re trying to find out what the client really wants and how much money they really want to spend. Architects have to fight to get their vision of the building realized. It’s very rare that anybody is trying to help; by and large, architects are on their own.

Jeff Stein: You write not only about individual buildings and people but also about cities and urban life. Cities and communication seem to be closely related concepts. Some would even argue that the value of the city is its ability to facilitate face-to-face communication—which I suppose would make it the greatest communications medium ever invented.

Witold Rybczynski: I agree that the main function of cities is to facilitate communication, but I don’t think of the city as a medium so much as a setting for various activities, including communication.

Jeff Stein: The city is a theater.

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. It’s a backdrop, sometimes a very persuasive and compelling backdrop.

Jeff Stein: And a dynamic one. Cities seem to continually need to accommodate or adjust to changing technologies, especially communications technologies. I’m thinking of the invention of the telegraph, which, for the first time, separated communication from transportation. Suddenly, you could communicate with someone faster than a human could move. It was a revolution. Now, of course, that has morphed into telephone, radio, television, and the Internet. How do you think this shift in communications technology has affected the role of the city?

Witold Rybczynski: It’s significantly changed the importance of big cities. For a long time, the big city was the only place where you could meet certain kinds of people, the only place that offered many kinds of opportunities; so going to a big city became an important moment in many people’s lives. But I don’t think that’s true anymore. If you like Boston, you go to Boston; but no one has to go to Boston. You can go to a small city, which would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago.

The specialness of certain cities is still visible. New York City continues to dominate some industries, such as book publishing and finance. But in fact, we don’t need a lot of big cities any more. We don’t need a lot of Bostons and San Franciscos. The majority of Americans are not yearning to live in big cities, which is why today medium-size cities collectively claim more residents than do the big cities.

Jeff Stein: And now, with communication technologies, it doesn’t really matter so much where you are.

Witold Rybczynski: It matters less. I won’t argue that living in a medium-size city is just like living in New York, but it does offer many of the urban advantages. And for many people, that’s sufficient.

Jeff Stein: And in many ways, the Internet makes that possible. Your first book appeared in 1980, before most of us owned a computer and well before the Web. Now you write for both old and new media platforms. How is writing a book different from your work for Slate?

Witold Rybczynski: A book has to remain meaningful for a longer period of time. For me, writing—whether a book or a magazine essay or a blog—is a way of exploring a subject; I don’t really know what it’s about when I start.

Jeff Stein: Your books are not coffee-table books: They generally don’t have a lot of illustrations. In contrast, your online pieces for Slate tend to include lots of photographs and even slideshows. The Web is simply a more visual medium. Has it affected your thinking about books?

Witold Rybczynski: I initially resisted using illustrations in my books, and I think I was wrong to do so. I believed that one ought to be able to write about architecture without including pictures. But later, I realized that the more ways you have of communicating, the better—whether it’s a caption, a footnote, or a photograph.

The great thing about Slate is that digital illustrations are actually better than book illustrations in terms of quality. And they’re quite large when displayed on a screen—larger than illustrations in most books and magazines. So online slideshows are a good way to illustrate buildings. And even though the captions and essays are necessarily brief, they work well side by side with the images. You can do things with that format that are harder to do in a book. So it’s a satisfying medium.

Jeff Stein: Are you conscious of trying to entertain when you write?

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. You have to get the reader to turn the page or click to the next screen. If the writing is tedious or somehow readers get swamped with too much information, you lose them.

Jeff Stein: Your new book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum—which certainly keeps the reader engaged. As I read it, I thought that a book that describes a whole process so thoroughly might serve not only as a document about this building but also as a way for architects to think about other buildings and their own work. But by the time I finished, I felt that we’re never going to see another process like this again, in part because the technology of making architecture is so different and in part because financing mechanisms are so different. Things happen much more quickly.

Witold Rybczynski: That’s true, although the Sainsbury Centre is not a typical building; but then the circumstances of achieving great architecture often involve uncommon conditions.

Jeff Stein: What attracted you to the Sainsbury story?

Witold Rybczynski: Partly the fact that most of the people involved were still alive; it wasn’t just history. And of course, the Sainsbury Centre is a great building by a young architect who became a great architect. The book isn’t simply about the process. It explores the question: How do you produce something exceptional? Remember that the Sainsbury Centre opened in 1978; Foster had received the commission four years earlier when he was just 38. The Sainsbury Centre predates the great museum building boom. It’s absolutely unprepossessing, and
it’s not trying to impress you with anything. It just sits there, this huge white shed, very quiet. Nobody would build a museum like that today—including Foster, I suspect.

Jeff Stein: Certainly his new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is not that.

Witold Rybczynski: It really was a different time. The whole development of museums went in a very different direction after that.

Jeff Stein: There’s a purity to the Sainsbury Centre that would be hard to replicate now.

Witold Rybczynski: Yes. Foster’s office did everything, including all the working drawings. Foster already had mechanical engineers on his staff and had worked with the structural engineer for a decade. It wasn’t a case of developing a design and then having somebody else figure out how to build it. It was this group of young people doing a rather unorthodox building, working out the problems as they developed. And it’s still a very striking building. It hasn’t aged aesthetically at all.

Jeff Stein: You write that it was never a fashionable building, and so it’s still not unfashionable.

Witold Rybczynski: People understood immediately that it was an important building, but one of the negative criticisms in the prevailing Postmodern climate of the time was, “Surely there’s more to architecture than this; there’s nothing here; it’s a warehouse.” Foster had ignored everything that was going on in Postmodernism.

Jeff Stein: It seems to me that much of your writing has been about process.

Witold Rybczynski: I’ve actually written three books about the making of architecture. The first one was about my own house [The Most Beautiful House in the World]. That was easier, in a sense, because it was about choices and why and how I made decisions. Then, with the landscape architect Laurie Olin, I wrote a book titled Vizcaya, about a grand villa in Miami that was built 100 years ago; Laurie wrote about the garden, and I wrote about the house. Vizcaya was a very interesting, unusual project including a client who was very involved, a young architect, a Colombian landscape architect, and a Beaux-Arts painter who functioned as kind of artistic impresario and brought the whole thing together. After that, I wrote Last Harvest, which, although not exactly about architecture, followed a land-development process, showing how a new planned community actually unfolds.

Jeff Stein: Is part of your success as a writer due to your natural curiosity? That you look at subjects like the Sainsbury Centre and start to ask questions?

Witold Rybczynski: It’s certainly what compels me to write. I usually start my books with a question, and I try to answer the question in a way that keeps me writing.

Jeff Stein: And as long as there are curious writers and curious readers, we will have books—whether paper or electronic.

Witold Rybczynski: For me, writing for the Internet is still writing. I put just as much work into it, including editing and fact checking. It’s a bit shorter; otherwise, there’s not much difference. All the people I work with at Slate are in their 20s, but they’re no different from the editors I used to work with at The Atlantic or The New Yorker years ago. They’re just as serious about the writing.

Let me put it a different way: When I wrote a book about Palladio [The Perfect House], at one point I wanted to see his drawings. I visited the collection in the library at the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] in London. They’re little sketches, in ink rather than pencil, but otherwise they could have been done yesterday. You can see him trying to work out a plan. So in a sense you can watch the architect working. Amazing—500 years old, yet completely familiar.

And when Laurie Olin and I were working on Vizcaya, we found working drawings for the garden—they were blueprints that somebody had then drawn over. You could actually see how the designer was working things out by looking at these drawings. And Laurie observed, “We’re probably the last generation that will understand these documents because people don’t make these kinds of drawings any more.”

The business of architecture has changed, of course, but in some ways it hasn’t. With computers, you don’t necessarily make sketches in the same way. So it’s possible that drawings like these will one day seem very odd, almost like hieroglyphics. I hope not. Similarly, writers may not be producing text or publishing in the same way. But I suspect that, although the publishing industry will be very different, what writers explore will remain the same.