Virtual Memories Show 342:
Witold Rybczynski

“What Charleston did in the Colonial period with single houses, they basically just kept repeating it all these years.”

The great architecture writer Witold Rybczynski rejoins the show (here’s our 2015 conversation) to talk about his wonderful new book, Charleston Fancy: Little Houses & Big Dreams in the Holy City (Yale University Press). We get into how he discovered the stories and characters behind the Byzantine homes in a neighborhood of Charleston, the city’s unique history and its role as a pioneer in historical zoning, the catastrophe that launched the book, and the value of local architects. We also talk about how computers have changed architecture and building, how an architecture student can graduate nowadays without actually making a set of architectural drawings, the loss of tradition and continuity in architecture, how moving into Philadelphia proper has changed his perspective on the city, why he disagrees with the modern notion that every age has to have its own architecture and what he’d like to see from the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, what he culled from his library before moving house, and what single building he’d like to not see anymore. Give it a listen! And go buy Charleston Fancy!

Photo for NYT by Leslie Ryann McKellar.

“We have this warped idea that trying to rebuild something seamlessly is somehow inauthentic.”

“The mayor understood, to save Charleston you couldn’t just apply conventional thinking. You had to accept unusual things.”

“I think computers have created a certain type of architecture that you wouldn’t necessarily have made before computers.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Witold Rybczynski was born in Edinburgh, of Polish parentage, raised in London, and attended Jesuit schools in England and Canada. He studied architecture at McGill University in Montreal, where he also taught for twenty years. He is Emeritus Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. Rybczynski has designed and built houses as a registered architect, as well as doing practical experiments in low-cost housing, which took him to Mexico, Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and China. He has written for the Atlantic, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and The New York Times, and has been architecture critic for Saturday Night, Wigwag, and Slate. From 2004 to 2012 he served on the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts.

He lives with his wife Shirley Hallam in a loft in an old industrial building near the Schuylkill River in downtown Philadelphia. He doesn’t think of himself as someone with hobbies ? he used to garden under pressure. He doesn’t collect anything, but he has a lot of books, albeit fewer since downsizing. His new book is Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City, from Yale University Press.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Rybczynski’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Rybczynski by me. Beautiful pic of Charleston by Leslie Ryann McKellar for the New York Times, so it’s not on my instagram, but the other ones are.

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