Looking Around

by Witold Rybczynski,
ISBN: 0002157934

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Brief Reviews - Non-fiction
by Rhea Tregebov

HAVING HEARD good things about Witold Rybczynski's earlier books, particularly The Most Beautiful House in the World, I looked forward to reading his latest, Looking Around (HarperCollins, 2 56 pages, $24.95 cloth). I imagined that Rybczynski's writing on architecture would act as a bridge between experts and non-experts in the way Carl Sagan's work does for astronomy.

And Looking Around is not entirely without charm. Rybczynski's reputation as a skilled, readable stylist is indeed well deserved. Furthermore, it is easy to see why readers are seduced by his apparently iconoclastic approach to architecture, which combines social criticism with historical analysis.

The book is a collection of 3 5 essays culled from magazine and newspaper articles written between 1986 and 1991. Perhaps "culled" isn't quite the right word, because by volume alone these essays must represent just about everything Rybczynski wrote over this five-year period. There is no sense that the essays have been updated or edited for the anthology; as a result, several seem stale and far too many are repetitious. Substantial winnowing and editing would have produced a much better book.

However, my disquiet with Looking Around goes beyond the publisher's evident desire to crank out another book from a best-selling author. While Rybczynski is a good investigative historian,

his bland evaluations of problematic works such as Habitat and Seaside undercur one's faith that he has the ability to judge contemporary work. Slightness of substance in one particular newspaper article is forgivable; when repeated, however, such slightness becomes both cumulative and damning, perhaps because Rybczynski's theory is, in the end, thin. Rybczynski is at his best with evocative and well-written descriptions of the tried and true; but if you're interested in a solid read about contemporary architecture, look elsewhere.


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