ARCHITECT got some pretty sweet news this morning, courtesy of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). One of our esteemed contributors, Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award—an Ellie, in ASME speak—in the Columns and Commentary category. Let’s just say a champagne cork or two might go flying in the office today. A big congratulations to Rybczynski and the other nominees.
Rybczynski’s nomination consists of three stories he wrote for ARCHITECT—a critique of Prince Charles’s Poundbury in England, a dual review of two buildings in Seattle (Rem Koolhaas’s Central Library and Peter Bohlin’s City Hall), and a look back at Harbor Point, a revolutionary mixed-income community just south of downtown Boston.
All three stories grew out of a post Rybczynski made on his blog in October 2012. It was a lament about the tendency of some members of the architectural press to have an unhealthy fascination with the “new-new thing,” as he wrote. A critic might tour a new building before it had opened to the public and write a fawning review, but how would the building perform after it was opened? How functional would it be for the people who used it? Wrote Rybczynski, “the time to evaluate a building is after years of use, when the rough edges have been worn smooth, and it is possible to judge the durability—aesthetically as well as physically—of the design.”
Rybczynski traveled to Seattle first, to see how well Koolhaas’s Central Library—which had inspired some unabashed gushing from critics when it opened in 2004—had aged. And he explored whether a somewhat overlooked building just down the street—Bohlin’s City Hall—might turn out to be a better building than anyone had predicted.
“Bohlin’s City Hall is different; it doesn’t put on airs,” wrote Rybczynski. “After spending a day in the building my chief impression was of craftsmanship, unruffled calm, and an even-handed sense of balance—a veritable civics lesson in glass, maple, and natural light. In a culture that is intrigued by novelty and glamour, it is perhaps inevitable that chic would trump craft. But given several more decades, I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t discount the staying power of well-made old shoes.”
In Harbor Point, Rybczynski visited a mixed-income community that had been one of Boston’s most notorious public housing projects, until a developer named Joe Corcoran worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to transform the neighborhood. The project, now 25 years old, was the inspiration for the federal Hope VI program, which has invested more than $5 billion to turn old public housing projects around the country into a mix of subsidized and market housing.
“So, what did it take to make Harbor Point a success?” wrote Rybczynski. “A visionary and committed developer + a responsive architect + the active participation of low-income residents + an experienced property management team. Not a simple formula. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill: It could be said that Harbor Point is the least likely model for public housing, except for all the others that have been tried.”
Poundbury, known as the town that Prince Charles built, has been savaged by critics for its aesthetics. But Rybczynski stayed for a week to get a sense of what it was actually like to live there, to move beyond the reflexive dismissals of the project because of the Prince’s campaign against Modern architecture.
“The place is neither anachronistic, nor utopian, nor elitist,” discovered Rybczynski. “Nor is it a middle-class ghetto. In fact, Poundbury embodies social, economic, and planning innovations that can only be called radical.”
At ARCHITECT, we’re especially proud of the nomination because of the solid reporting underpinning the three stories, not to mention how Rybczynski’s perceptive eye translates into accessible yet whip-smart prose. We hope his work for us has the “staying power of well-made old shoes.”