Witold Rybczynski: One of America's Most Prominent Observers of Architecture and Urbanism Opines on Suburbia, Wal-Mart, Differences between Designers and Economists, Celebrity Buildings, Do-It-Yourself, and Other Aspects of How Americans Live

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An architect by training, Witold Rybczynski is one of America's most accessible and thoughtful critics of the built world. He writes with grace and common sense on subjects ranging from city life to technology to house design. He even produced a lively book on the history of the screwdriver and the screw.

Though Rybczynski's wisdom extends far beyond mere academic knowledge, he is also a prominent scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Here again he crosses boundaries in interesting ways, serving not in the architecture or arts faculty but at the Wharton School of Business, where he is Meyerson Professor of Urbanism and Professor of Real Estate.

The books written by this immigrant of Polish parentage range from his award-winning biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, A Clearing in the Distance, and his study of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, The Perfect House, to (among many others) Waiting for the Weekend, and Home: A Short History of an Idea.

Witold Rybczynski was interviewed for TAE in Philadelphia by art and architecture critic Catesby Leigh.

TAE: Tell us a little about your upbringing and how you became interested in architecture and urban design.

RYBCZYNSKI: I was born in Edinburgh. My parents were both Polish, and in the Polish Army--which in 1939 was regrouped in Scotland. In 1953 they immigrated to Canada, and I grew up and went to high school and college in Montreal. We lived in a small town outside the city where my father worked; he was an engineer. Engineering didn't really attract me very much. Architecture seemed like a kind of compromise; it was a profession, so my parents would be happy, and at the same time it seemed kind of creative compared to engineering.

TAE: There's a very strong interest in history in your work. Is there any one historical setting that you would say has been most conducive to the flourishing of social life?

RYBCZYNSKI: The great period for cities and towns was probably the late Middle Ages, when urban places were rather small. All the art and literature that we admire of that period comes from these little places. Florence was tiny, but it produced an enormous outpouring. It has to do partly with the scale of these places, and with their independence. They were essentially city-states, so they were self-governing entities. Later the city gets much bigger, but it is subsumed into the nation state and really loses that sense of making decisions on its own.

TAE: You've pointed out that sprawl is and always has been inherent in urbanization, and has occurred everywhere throughout history. Should it concern us today?

RYBCZYNSKI: Sprawl has got good and bad sides, but it's what we've chosen as a people. It suits us, I think. If you're going to have an entrepreneurial, free enterprise society, you've got to leave a lot of room for all that enterprise to take place. And you're probably not going to put the decisionmaking in one planner's hands; that's illogical in a society like ours. So you're going to have this very diffused kind of urbanization, where there's a lot of room for individual initiative. Different cities from the past come out of a different social order.

TAE: Is sprawl a trend beyond the U.S.?

RYBCZYNSKI: Suburbanization of the modern sort is in fact a British invention, not American. And sprawl is a fact of life all over the globe. With very few exceptions, people everywhere like the idea of having a house, having a garden, having a little space, some privacy. Those things turn out to be almost universal.

My early architectural work took me to Africa and Latin America. In Africa you find that the cities are made up of agglomerations of single-family houses just like an American city. There's a business center, but people live in homes, and of course they tend to have animals and grow their own food, so their lots are bigger. It's a very low-density, spread out city. …