Mysteries of the Mall and other Essays – Witold Rybczynski

I bought this book back in 2018 during my crazy bookshop crawl. Looking at the list now, I’m pretty much done reading half of the books I bought then. Definitely not running out of reading matter anytime soon!

Witold Rybczynski is an architect and a professor, but he is mostly known for his writings on architecture. He published profusely and often aiming at the non-professional audience. Which is fantastic, since he’s doing a very good job of explaining urbanistic and architecture problems in a casual but also interesting way. He makes us look closer at the buildings around us. Scrutinize them more And be more present in our cities, with the knowledge or at least a basic understanding of why they are the way they are.

This book is a collection of essays published by Rybczynski over the years. He handpicked them and, as they were written over the years, at the end of each one provided a note that adds contemporary context to them. It also makes them more personal.

With flair, Rybczynski moves between topics. Starting with the mundane architecture around us, things we often miss. For example, who thinks of a food court as an architecture? Or even a shopping mall. He moves on to ideal homes and cities, the dream that never leaves an architect, but also one that sometimes haunts us when it becomes a reality. Another topic Rybczynski tackles is closer to urbanism than architecture. How have our cities developed, what about downtown? Did we ever even consider planned cities downsizing or will we be forever stuck in overgrown sprawl or cities which infrastructure cannot meet the needs of people living in them?

He then considers Central Park, several times. Starting from literally taking us through it all the way to why it was such a visionary concept and how it is still the lungs of the city. Since we are at landmarks why not move to the ‘Bilbao effect’ and its dire consequences. Not that Rybczynski has anything against Bilbao’s Guggenheim (it is hard to have something against it once you’ve seen it live). But why has this amazing building resulted in a wave of monstrosities? Do architects really work best when given free rein? Or are the result better with a demanding and enlightened patron fully aware of the need the building is supposed to fulfill? Why is Arup the construction designing company behind many of the most famous buildings (effectively making them happen)?

Where did Bauhaus go wrong? What happens when buildings try too hard? How deep is Palladio’s influence today? What makes a good public building? In his essays, Rybczynski considers those questions and more. And like a cherry on the cake in the last group of essays he shares his thoughts on selected architects including Andrea Palladio, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arup (the man and the company) and I.M. Pei.

As you can see Rybczynski’s scope reaches far and wide. He does not lose with it the personal touch, actually, he makes sure that every essay is grounded in a personal story or at least a very personal opinion or observations. He does not try to be objective, it’s not the point here. And I think that he teaches us an important lesson: we have to have an opinion about architecture. We have to take it personally, for it is all around us. If you don’t like a painting you can leave the gallery and probably never see it again, unless it happens to be one of a handful used in commercials. But try to avoid Walkie Talkie when you are in London (technically you could move out, but it seems a bit extreme even for me to leave the city because of a horrendous building).

As with all essay collections it is probably better to read it in pieces than in one go (which is what I always try to do). Just put it in your bathroom, or next to your bed and read one at a time. You’ll have more fun that way. And then go on your balcony, or look through your window and think about the buildings around you, how do they make you feel? Why are they the way they are? What was at play here? Just the money or some more thought? A higher function?

The architecture was always my favorite of arts, exactly because of the limitations the function introduces. Visual arts managed to escape those for the most part, but the architecture will always be bound by its function. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s a challenge that makes architects creative.

Quotes from Mysteries of the Mall and Other Essays

Violetta Kaszubowska 

3 thoughts on “Mysteries of the Mall and other Essays – Witold Rybczynski

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