If only more developers read this book ♦
PATRICK D. HAZARD
Witold Rybczynski’s 14th book is a narrative of how the noted Penn architecture professor learned to study land development at the feet of a former student, Joe Duckworth, the head of Arcadia Land Company.
It all started about a decade ago when Duckworth was Witold’s student at a Harvard summer seminar. So congenial was Duckworth at explaining his specialty that he became a standard opening lecturer in the professor’s Penn seminar. Rybczynski freely admits that what he is telling us about what he learned from Joe the student is now Joe the professor teaching Witold. It’s pure Rybczynski— the personalist architecture criticism that has made him the laureate of the field. Joe’s son Jason is also learning the ins and outs of land development from Dad. And Tim Cassidy is the hero of this architectural melodrama, as local Brandywine Valley Ph.D. from Texas A & M tries to keep the high standards of his region’s past from being mucked up by a developer.
This is all hugely interesting to me, whose first house was a National Home prefab by neglected AIA whiz Charles Goodman in a post-World War II cornfield outside East Lansing. And a grand step up from the married wartime housing at Michigan State. As a cadet teacher with a salary of $3,600, I could afford its $6,000 price— $400 down and $40 a month.
The intellectuals hated Levittown, but….
Alas, a Ford Fellowship to New York cut short our joy as my wife and I perched in a Flushing Apartment, where Robert Moses was already preparing the World’s Fair of 1964. A Carnegie postdoctoral fellowship put us in Levittown, Pa., and in touch with our Penn colleague Herb Gans, who was testing the Levittown across the Delaware River for his classic study, The Levittowners. The egghead flak against Levitt was so coarse and unyielding that the New Jersey village changed its name to Willingboro. Rybczynski proudly defends all three Levittowns as straight gains for working-class families moving up.
But the joy of his book lies in its explaining the almost heroic tasks of preparing land for builders to use. Take a simple choice between septic tanks and an irrigation field. If you choose the latter option, you are confronted with intractables like the permeability of soil vis a vis the local water table. And Pennsylvania is a special nightmare, because it has so many local jurisdictions to make a land developer’s plans almost impossible to negotiate. Cassidy keeps complaining. And Duckworth’s son Jason learns as he goes along— with such imponderables as design guidelines! In this era of Seaside Florida neo-traditional developments, you’ve got to worry about such things as curbside appeal— in which vinyl picket fences are better than no fence at all. And you cut corners as a builder if you made the façade an around-the-corner simulation and the rest of the outside pure malarkey. Rybczynski takes a more “the consumer pays the price and does what he wants” attitude than I do, poisoned as I’ve been by studying the Bauhaus’s agonies over design for the past decade.
Our founding father’s dubious development credentials
That George Washington allusion in the title is comic relief. We find that the Foundering Fathers were not hot shots at land development, even though our George began as a surveyor’s assistant in Alexandria, Va., at age 17. There, Rybczynski concedes, it was no big trip to name the streets: You just used Prince and Princess, Duke and Duchess, and so on down the line. Rybczynski slyly notes elsewhere that when he was 17, he did his first "design job" in his family’s crowded Montreal house by turning the basement into a "rec room." I love his visual dedication. Elsewhere Rybczynski notes that he and his wife Shirley (to whom this major opus is dedicated) used to take daily three-mile hikes in Chestnut Hill, all the while studying the morphology of their urban suburb and those adjacent to it.
The epigraph is from William Cowper: "God made the country, and man made the town." They would have better total makeovers if more Joes read this book before they started "developing" more land.
The oddest datum of all: Zoning started in Los Angeles, today’s capital of urban sprawl. This book is full of such instructive paradoxes.
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