Witold Rybczynski has been called “architecture’s voice in the world of letters” by The Weekly Standard. He writes about design and planning for The New York Times, the Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Slate. He’s been awarded the Vincent Scully Prize by the National Building Museum, and he’s the author of a number of award-winning books. He also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, where his students are primarily MBA’s from the Wharton School of Business. His new book, Makeshift Metropolis, not only addresses the past 100 years of trends and development in American cities, but also offers a wise and perceptive look into our urban future. We talked to him recently about planning, architecture, cities and development.
What is your intended impact on the MBAs (and by implication, on our built environment) from the Wharton School through your classes at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design?
The main message of my class, which is called “Design and Development,” is that design is not a constant in the real estate development process but a variable. A lot of architectural solutions in commercial projects are formulaic. I want my students to think of design as a creative part of the development equation, as something that can add value to a project, not simply by “looking good,” but by actually finding new solutions, the way that Rockefeller Center, or Seaside, or Battery Park City did in the past.
What's the intent of "Makeshift Metropolis"?
The aim of the book is to put down on paper what I have learned about cities and city development in the fifteen years since I wrote City Life. That book traced the evolution of American cities since the Colonial period, and answered the question, “Why aren’t our cities like Paris?” Makeshift Metropolis looks at the ideas that have influenced cities in the twentieth century, and describes what we have learned about city building.
How did the book come about?
In January 2007 I received the Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Part of the prize was the obligation to give a lecture at the museum. Since Scully, a historian I admire immensely, has written so much about American urbanism, I thought I would choose that subject. As I organized my lecture, describing the big ideas that had influenced American cities in the twentieth century, I realized that the real impact of these ideas depended almost entirely on the way that they had been accepted or rejected by the American public. This became the germ of the idea that grew into Makeshift Metropolis.
It felt like a “big” book, but it turned out to be rather short. My editor complained. I struggled with this for a while, then I realized that it was exactly the length it needed to be.
Because it covers the life of American cities during the past century, it encompasses the movements that shaped our environment today. Which of these were, in your estimation, the most influential?
I think the City Beautiful, which lasted roughly from 1900 to 1930, left an indelible imprint on American cities. The great architecture of that period includes railroad stations, libraries, civic centers, and urban universities. The period 1950-1970, the era of urban renewal, was a disaster that left nothing but mistakes, some of which we are still undoing. 1970-2010 has been the age of repair, conservation, and development. I’m not sure it will be remembered as a high point, rather it is a transition.
What were the effects of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Futurama Exhibit of the 1939 World's Fair and Expo 67 on the architectural consciousness of the nation? Why are these kinds of events that once informed the public about architecture no longer needed?
Events like the Columbian Exposition, or the later fairs in Buffalo, San Diego, San Francisco, and St. Louis, introduced the American public to the idea of city planning, and grand civic architecture. I think Expo 67, which I worked on as a young architecture graduate in Montreal, was the last of the great world fairs. It had Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome, and Frei Otto’s tent. By then movies, television, and international tourism, had rendered the world’s fair obsolete.
Though untrained as an architect or planner, Jane Jacobs had tremendous impact on the life of our cities. How did she do that?
The short answer is that she wrote a wonderful book. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the most influential urban planning book of the twentieth century, even though it has actually little to say about planning itself. Jacobs was a journalist, not a planner, and the impact of her book was to make us look at cities, and how they actually work, and to learn from that. She was skeptical of planning, and felt that the city was much too complicated for any individual, or group of individuals, to manage. Cities did best, in her view, when they managed themselves. In that sense, she was something of an anarchist.
How do you measure Le Corbusier's impact on American cities?
Le Corbusier was a visionary architect who came along at just the time that the American public was ready for a “change.” His vision of the modern city was of a place where cars were separated from people, streets and sidewalks were obsolete, and the solution was to start from scratch. This fit with the technological optimism of the postwar period so his ideas found many supporters, even though they were largely untested. You have to remember that in the 1950s, World War II and the depression had effectively halted construction for two decades. The generation of the City Beautiful era had died or retired, and an entirely new generation was in control. At any other time, city-building would have been more evolutionary, but this was a real revolution, as if the aristocrats had been guillotined and the mob was in charge.
Could you elaborate on the complex relationships between planners, developers and the public, and how one reacts and responds to the others to create our cities? Who's leading the charge?
Since the 1970s, developers have assumed a central role in city building. At the same time, the public is involved (in a way it wasn’t in the early 1900s), in the form of community groups, conservancies, business improvement districts, and neighborhood associations. Most projects grow out of a dialogue between the developer and the public, often an extended dialogue that can last years. Thus the successful developers are those that can stick it out for the long haul. In some cases, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, or the Paseo del Rio in San Antonio, the public initiates the project. Otherwise it is the developer who starts the process. At this point, the planners are very much on the sidelines. They no longer have a grand vision, as they did in the City Beautiful period or even in the urban renewal era. They have become technicians.
What impact has the evolution of the shopping experience had on our cities?
Shopping has always been important in city life; think of Kasbahs, bazaars, market squares, Main Streets, the old department stores. In some ways, tracing the evolution of shopping places, as I do in a chapter of the book, is like tracing ideas about how cities should be planned. The current thinking is to integrate shopping with other uses such as housing, offices, restaurants, sidewalks, and streets. The single-function shopping mall is a thing of the past.
In the 1960s, urban planners paid scant attention to the role of water in building our cities. Now it seems an essential part of every city's urban revitalization. Why?
Almost all the major American cities have waterfronts, since oceans, rivers and lakes were important thoroughfares during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Waterfronts were commercial and industrial places that the city turned its back on. The only American cities that actually used their waterfronts as civic places were Charleston, and later Chicago. By the mid-twentieth century, thanks to container shipping, ports had moved out of cities, and disused harbors and Navy yards were available for development. At the same time, Americans had discovered what European cities such as London and Paris had long known: waterfronts, especially when equipped with promenades and esplanades are interesting places. As a result, most of the major urban development projects in American cities today are on the water.
The trend for the nation since colonists arrived in the 17th century has been one of continued expansion and growth. But limited resources now call for a reversal of that trend, and more density in our built environment. How will that play out in the next century?
We still have plenty of open land, so we could keep spreading out. There is no doubt that cities, especially large dense cities, are much “greener” than suburbs or small towns. The question is whether Americans will reverse a hundred year-old trend of decentralizing, and come together. I don’t know the answer.
What will the American city of 2050 look like? Of 2100?
Life in cities will change in unimaginable ways, but cities themselves may not. Cities like London and Paris are hundreds of years old, and still considered eminently livable places. Just as an eighteenth-century rocking chair is still a comfortable chair. I hope that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and feel that we have to reinvent the wheel—we know a lot about cities, and we know a lot about how to build dense livable cities, but suburbs are newer. Densifying suburbs, without necessarily turning them into pale copies of cities, will be the challenge of the twenty-first century.