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.

how-architecture-worksVirtual Memories Show:
Witold Rybczynski –
Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes

“An architect doesn’t build something just because he wants to build it. But as a writer, you can say, ‘I have an idea for a book.'”

Witold Rybczynski joins the show to talk about architecture! The renowned writer, scholar, and former architect discusses his newest book, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, and talks about that humanist approach to buildings, the problems with Brutalist architecture, the importance of having a canon of great buildings, the ways that digital technology are changing the practice of architecture, why there’s no such thing as a ‘theory of architecture’, the reasons Philadelphia has such marvelous buildings, what it means to ‘review’ a building, why the ‘Starchitect’ phenomenon doesn’t make for better buildings, and whether it’s possible to improve the appearance of malls. Give it a listen!

“There was an enormous excitement about concrete in the early 20th century.”

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We also talk about the joys of architecture school, why he got out of the practice, the farthest he’s ever traveled to see a building, how he got started as a writer, his favorite period for American architecture, and how architectural criticism differs from that of other forms (and why it’s a pointless exercise)!

“[The impact of digital technology on teaching and practicing architecture] is like reinventing the English language. You know what a disaster Esperanto was.”

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

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

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.

Mr. 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. His most recent book is How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, and he is the author of many other books, including, Home: A Short History of an Idea, The Most Beautiful House in the World, A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture, and My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life.

He lives with his wife Shirley Hallam in an old stone house, the Icehouse, in Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. He says, “I don’t think of myself as someone with hobbies — I garden under pressure — but the artifacts I’ve owned for longest are well-used hand-tools. I don’t collect anything, but I have a lot of books.” He is on Twitter at @witoldr.

Credits: This episode’s music is I’m Goin’ Home by The Rolling Stones (because Witold wrote the book, Home, and because this song shuffled up on my iPod while I was driving to his home). 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 Samson Meteor Mic USB Studio Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Rybczynski by me.