Beyond Buildings


Rybczynski and the Fear of Good Architecture

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The High Line. Courtesy: The Artblog


Witold Rybczynski does not like modern architecture much. Usually, that doesn’t matter that much, as his screeds are confined to either, Slate, that failed relic of the dot-com bubble communication confusion, or The Atlantic, the even-more-ancient remains of great journalism. On May 14, however, The New York Times gave him a chance to vent his spleen on its op-ed pages.


Rybczynski’s target this time is the High Line. Now, I had thought that project was about as controversial as the proverbial mom and apple pie, but our backward-looking critic sees many problems. First, he believes the designers see it as a “model for a new form of town planning, dubbed “landscape urbanism." Now it is true that James Corner—whose firm Field Operations co-designed the High Line with Diller Scofidio + Refro—is an advocate of what I think is an altogether sensible approach to urban planning, but I do not think that he would say that the High Line is a model of such a form of planning. It is, as Rybczynski goes on to point out, an exceptional project in a very particular location.


The critic points out that several other cities are looking at their own projects to reuse elevated tracks, and states his belief that they will fail because they are not in situations as dense as those of Manhattan. I am not sure that is the case for all examples, but even if it is, why so gloomy? It reminds me of someone who only sees everything that could go wrong when a new project comes up. The sky might fall, but it could also frame some great new public spaces.


The problem is threefold, Rybczynski says. First, neither landscape urbanism nor the idea of an elevated, linear park on a former railroad track are new, and both have been tried before. Why this is bad or a problem, I have no idea.


Second, not all situations will be perfect. True. They rarely are.


Third, the High Line is expensive. Also true, but then any physical operation in New York involves an absurd outlay of money. Rybczynski doubts that many cities will be able to raise such money, and that is also true. But perhaps they can raise the money to create either examples of landscape urbanism or ways to reuse infrastructure for public space (not the same thing) that are appropriate for their situations, and they may find inspiration and a concrete example to show funders in the High Line. So that is bad? And would we not much rather spend money on great public spaces than on, say, subsidizing New Urbanist enclaves at the edge of sprawl?


What really gets Rybczynski is that he sees the High Line as a project that might entice other cities to try a “quick fix.” It might be a model that, like skywalks or monorails, festivals or stadiums, might not work everywhere as an urban revitalizer. Many things might not work, Mr. Rybczynski, but this is one project that has worked in one location, and should be celebrated, rather than held up as a warning sign. I think the author’s real agenda is that the High Line represents the kind of architecture he dislikes, and so he is jealous of its success. I would say to him, wake up, smell the wild dandelions: We are seeing a renaissance of public space designed by good architects. Enjoy.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.