Witold Rybczynski is the Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the architecture critic for Slate. His book on American building, Last Harvest, was published in 2007.

Genius in Concrete

Behind every great architect there is a great engineer. Or more accurately, behind every great modern architect there is a great engineer, for until the twentieth century, the two professions were one. The accomplished—and largely anonymous—medieval master-masons who built the Gothic cathedrals, for example, were responsible equally for ornament and …

Shipping News

Multicolored shipping containers are everywhere: piled up in stacks in ports, rolling down highways behind tractor trailers, and rumbling by on railroad flatcars. Most people don’t give the ugly, utilitarian objects a second glance, except perhaps to note the names stenciled on their sides—Maersk, Hanjin, Evergreen—and probably to wonder where …

How Things Work

“In London, Dissent Roils Design Museum,” reported The New York Times a few months ago—a piece of light-hearted news amid the general turmoil. The roiling dissenter turned out to be James Dyson, known to many Americans as the inventor of a newfangled vacuum cleaner. Dyson had resigned as chairman of …

The Triumph of a Distinguished Failure

The Architecture of Humanism was first published in London in 1914. Its author, Geoffrey Scott, a twenty-nine-year-old British architecture school dropout, had been living as an expatriate in Florence, where he worked for Bernard Berenson. Scott’s book was reprinted in Britain in 1924, and in the US in 1965. Now …

Palladio Forever!

In New York City last summer, there were two shows of the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one at the Whitney, the other at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a Frank O. Gehry exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In addition, the Philadelphia Museum …

City Lights

A magazine editor compiling a millennial list recently asked me which city I thought would qualify as the Best of the Millennium. This is a frivolous question that leads to serious reflection. To begin with, what exactly does “best” mean when it comes to a city? Once, the answer was …

Partner in the Park

Poor Calvert Vaux, even the title of his own biography gives him second billing. The story of his life. “To F.L. Olmsted, everything; to C. Vaux, the cut direct,” he once complained. F.L. Olmsted was Frederick Law Olmsted, with whom Vaux designed and built some of the best-known—and best—urban parks …

The Fifth City

Of the cities that currently serve as backdrops for most television drama, New York dominates; San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago are runners-up; Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Baltimore recently have all made at least one appearance. Dallas lent its name to a long-running show; so did Miami. Seattle is the setting for …

This New House

I seldom watch instructional television. Listening to someone pedantically explain landscape painting, or watching an earnest woodworker cobble together a Colonial-style night table, has never caught my fancy. Still, whenever I come across a show on “home improvement” I must admit I usually end up watching. This is a narrowly …

Losers

A characteristic series of images in Camilo José Vergara’s remarkable book portrays Newark Street in Newark, New Jersey. The first photograph, taken in January 1980, shows three row houses. The buildings are typical of the blue-collar, inner-city housing built in the early 1900s when booming cities like Newark were a …

Design for Living

Big bridges are not as big as tunnels, dams, and canals, but they hold a special place in the human imagination. It is not just that the experience of crossing a bridge is memorable (in a different way, so is driving through a tunnel), or that a bridge, like a …

Mysteries of the Mall

Most of us don’t attach much importance to the mundane architectural settings of our everyday lives. We go in and out of supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations without a second thought, perhaps because we understand these places so well that they seem merely a part of our natural surroundings.

The Mystery of Cities

There is so much bad news about American cities that it’s surprising to discover that they are not shrinking but growing. According to the last US census, the twenty-three largest cities, which have populations over one half million, grew by 6 percent in the period between 1980 and 1990; the …

Pale Fire

Writing about the art of building has a long tradition. Inspired by the ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, who wrote On Architecture, the oldest surviving dissertation on classical architectural theory, Renaissance architects like Alberti, Vignola, and Palladio all produced theoretical treatises. So did Jacques-François Blondel in the eighteenth century.

Collapsing Modernism

A stroll down a city street will convince even a casual observer that something has changed drastically in the world of architecture. Where buildings used to be gray or brick-colored or, in exceptional cases like the CBS building in Manhattan, black, they’re now shiny gold, acid green, shocking pink, anything …

Getting Away from It All

Every American city is surrounded by a curious mirror image of itself: cottage country. Each Friday evening people make their way to their rustic retreats; on Sunday, the exodus is reversed. The precise magnitude of this periodic emigration remains undocumented, but if one includes not only beach houses, mountain lodges, …

Good Housekeeping

I was recently shown a house whose interior was being renovated. The house was in a prosperous part of the city, and I was curious to see what sort of changes and alterations had been specified by owners who had enough money to have a wide range of choices. It …