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Midway through Rybczynski’s new collection, the Canadian/American architect visits the Opéra Bastille in Paris, which, he writes, “resembles a beached supertanker.” Its design, by Toronto’s Carlos Ott, was the only entry to an architecture competition that met each of its crushingly detailed specifications. As a result, Rybczynski laments, the “obsessively arranged” monochrome building has no character; it offers “the architectural equivalent of bread and water . . . not even a crusty baguette; this is American-style sliced bread.”
For Rybczynski, architecture without dialogue is grim ideology; his own practical, generous approach makes him a worthy layperson’s guide to the last 20-odd years in architecture. This gathering of occasional pieces attacks narrow-mindedness. He takes to task Ivy League students (including at his own school, the University of Pennsylvania) for conforming to the avant-garde, as well as “show dog” architects and their “iconic” buildings insensitive to context—Daniel Libeskind’s “slightly scary-looking” Royal Ontario Museum extension, for example, and Rafael Viñoly’s Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, an “alien presence.” He dismisses competitions, and deplores utopian attempts to make over public housing without consulting those who will live there. […]