Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: Mysteries of the Mall

Mysteries of the Mall: And Other Essays
Witold Rybczynski
Architecture, sociology

Witold Rybczynski is a deep-thinking cultural critic as well as an architect; this collection, however, is a shallow one, and mostly somewhat antiquated. There are some good bits in here, particularly in the essays that plumb the neglected intersections of architecture, art, and engineering. Overall, however, I'd have been more impressed if the book had been more ... analytical? argumentative? Something like that.


  1. What are the intersections of art, architecture, and engineering? I can imagine, but I'm curious about how Rybszynski discussed it.

    1. He's talking about things like:
      * The emergence of "starchitects"--he calls them "show dogs", which I think is a good if unflattering analogy.
      * The so-called "Bilbao effect", whereby a single high-profile building is credited (rightly or wrongly) with revitalizing a city or a district
      * Arup, the one structural engineering firm that all the major architects turn to.
      * The scourge of the post-9/11 protective bollard.
      * The fact (one which I had also independently noted) that "modern" buildings tend to look laughably dated within a few decades of their construction.

      Our conversation last year about the "look" of the stereotypical Japanese balconied apartment block would fit right into this book.

    2. I have a friend who was an architect. I say was because he doesn't do the work anymore. He's transitioned into real estate development. Not by choice. He tells me that the grunt work of architecture is being outsourced. That means the tile architects get he fame, but it's harder and harder to ale a name for yourself, since the grunt work is where you start.

      The architecture background really helps him in real estate development, however.

    3. That's depressing, though not very surprising.

      It seems to me that something has changed since (roughly) the first quarter of the 20th century in the relationship between client and architect. They've switched power positions. Traditionally a building was an expression of the client's taste, and the architect was the professional engaged to make it real. Now a building is seen as an expression of the architect's genius, with the client's role merely to humbly accept what he's given. Hence the glorification of the show dogs, and the humbling of the working mutts.

    4. Makes me wonder where the next genius will come from if the grunt work is outsourced. Genius is genius, but you need to do the work, too. I'm sure you read Malcolm Gladwell's _Outliers_. Interesting stuff there about talent, but also timing,mand simply lots of hard work.

      In software, a lot of the grunt work is outsourced to India and China, no?

    5. I've read a good bit of Gladwell, but not Outliers. He's an engaging writer, but I've found he has a tendency to be a bit shallow.

      A certain amount of software grunt work is outsourced. It's a long way from taking over the industry, as many people predicted ten to fifteen years ago. In my current position, we initially outsourced our UI development to contractors in various Eastern European countries--not because we wanted to, particularly, but because we didn't have the hands to do the work in-house. It was convenient ... and we ended up deeply, deeply regretting it.