Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology, 1980
Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology, 1983
Home: A Short History of an Idea, 1986
The Most Beautiful House in the World, 1989
Waiting for the Weekend, 1991
A Place for Art: The Architecture of the National Gallery of Canada, 1993
Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture, 1993
City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World, 1995
A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, 1999
One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver, 2000
The Look of Architecture, 2001
The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio, 2002
Witold Marian Rybczynski (rihb-CHIHN-skee) was born in 1943 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to which his family had fled during World War II. After the war ended they settled in Surrey, England, where Witold attended Jesuit schools. He subsequently emigrated to Canada, where he received bachelor of architecture and master of architecture degrees from McGill University in Montreal. This institution was later to receive him into its architectural faculty as professor of architecture. In 1996 he moved to The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, becoming Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism and the director of the Urban Design Program.
Rybczynski first attracted wide attention with the publication in 1980 of his first book, Paper Heroes. “Appropriate technology” (AT), of which Rybczynski is hailed as one of the founding fathers, is described by the architect as “part lay religion, part protest movement, and part economic theory.” AT has as its aim the humanization of technology, which includes adapting methods of industrialization to the particular countries to be developed (this idea is especially valid for the developing world), a process that advocates the careful planning of industrial development with an eye toward the particular needs, abilities, and native, human, inventive resources of the particular developing country. At its spiritual base, AT is concerned with redefining humankind’s relationship to the machines it creates. AT seeks to foster an organic interaction of human and machine: a relationship in which people are in control of the technology they create and in which work ceases to be a harrowing grind and becomes, rather, a fulfilling, creative task that emphasizes the creative being.
Rybczynski’s next theoretical work, Taming the Tiger, exhibits a more philosophical bent than the previous Paper Heroes. In Taming the Tiger, Rybczynski discusses humankind’s love/hate relationship with technology. Throughout the ages, Rybczynski notes, people have cautiously flirted with technological progress, moving further and further toward an ever more machine-oriented society–while gingerly protesting against said progress, afraid that the “monster” they have created may one day turn upon them. In his captivating historical overview of mechanical creativity, Rybczynski shows the reader how humans are–and have always been–technological beings. People and their tools–from the earliest stone hammers up to the nuclear reactors of the twentieth century–are inextricably linked in the fabric of intellectual and social history. He suggests that the ambivalence many people feel toward technological progress may be resolved not by turning back the clock and renouncing such progress but rather by educating people to understand technology as well as the technological impulse–educating people to make the right technological choices, so that they can remain in control of their increasingly sophisticated, “intelligent,” and almost self-sufficient inventions.
Rybczynski’s next book, Home, was all the more provocative a publication in that it concerned itself with humankind’s relationship to one of its most personal forms of expression: the dwelling place. In this book, Rybczynski demonstrated his technical erudition as an architect, as well as his gift for provocative prose and sensitive description of a subject that is often approached rather coldly. The ideas first broached in Home–the humanist, aesthetic choices to be made in the planning of a living space (and not merely a space to live in)–are given further, more personal development in The Most Beautiful House in the World, which concerns the design and construction of Rybczynski’s own house near Montreal.
The Most Beautiful House in the World is written with the same delicately philosophical, almost poetic style that characterizes Taming the Tiger. Rybczynski does more than simply describe the house, which he evolved for himself from his original plans for a workshed. He takes readers on an odyssey through space and time in an evocative history of architecture that surveys medieval Europe, Hindu India, the America of Frank Lloyd Wright, and primeval Africa. He emphasizes the spiritual bases of the impulse to design dwellings and discusses the importance that the feeling, aesthetic eye should have for home builders. Rybczynski describes the planning and building of one’s own home in The Most Beautiful House in the World as a process requiring all the delicacy and feeling of the Zen tea ceremony or Japanese flower arrangement.
In 1991, Waiting for the Weekend, Rybczynski examines leisure time from the nineteenth century to the present. In Looking Around, he examines the nexus between function and form in such buildings as New York’s Seagram Building and Columbus, Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. City Life does for the urban environment what The Most Beautiful House in the World did for the home environment; from a historical perspective as well as a functional one, Rybczynski analyzes the roles cities play and what gives them their unique identities. A Clearing in the Distance is a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, North Carolina’s Biltmore estate, and many more sites of which the casual reader may be unaware. After producing the whimsical One Good Turn at the behest of editors at The New York Times (who wanted an essay on the most useful tool of the millennium) and The Look of Architecture, a survey of the fall of modernism and the return to a more traditional look, Rybczynski produced The Perfect House, a guide to the seventeen remaining Palladian villas in Italy, from the vantage of one who knows them inside out–Rybczynski lived in one while doing research.