My Two Polish Grandfathers

And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

by Witold Rybczynski

Scribner's, 240 pp., $25

A profession will occasionally produce people who can explain its intricacies and profundities to the outside world with such clarity and grace (or suspense and drama) that they become more famous as writers than they were in their original careers.

Medicine is particularly rich in these literary spokesmen: Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer, Oliver Sacks, Anthony Daniels, Abraham Verghese. Verghese's latest work is fiction, which is where law, perhaps fittingly, likes to look at itself, as evidenced by the novels of Louis Auchincloss, Scott Turow, and John Grisham. Joseph Wambaugh's books illuminate the world of law enforcement, while Ned Rorem's diaries are as well-known as his music. Even undertaking has its bard in Thomas Lynch.

Over the last two decades, with books like Home: A Short History of an Idea and City Life, Witold Rybczynski has firmly established himself as architecture's voice in the world of letters. Of the above two-timers, he most resembles Thomas, for his writing has the same lucid, rational, humanistic quality. He takes a subject that could be intimidating and makes it accessible. Design and urban planning are for him, as medicine was for Thomas, a means for studying, a window toward understanding, and an attempt at bettering the human condition.

The story Rybczynski tells in this slim memoir begins in upheaval and ends in a quietly triumphant domesticity. He was born in 1943 in Edinburgh, the city his parents landed in after separately fleeing war-torn Poland. The father made a rather daring journey by car from Bucharest to Paris, was posted to a military camp in Brittany, and there was eventually reunited with his wife. They were again separated, when the camp was evacuated, but found each other in Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Spanish border. A fisherman rowed them out to a Dutch collier headed for England.

"It's difficult for me," Rybczynski writes, "to reconcile my childhood image of my parents--circumspect, cautious, to my immature eyes unadventurous--with these audacious individuals."

The ensuing chapter on the war, a well-covered subject, is lively because of the personal story: The father was stationed at the base in Italy whose mission was to send support to the Warsaw Uprising. And it is noteworthy (if sobering) because of the Polish perspective. After the war, exiled Poles found themselves in the paradoxical position of having fought on the victorious side and being unable to return to a free homeland.

The Rybczynskis stayed in Scotland for a few years and then moved to Canada, where the father, having gone on ahead, had found an engineering job. Their new town, St. Johns, Quebec, was really two towns: one French-speaking, the other English. The parents did not "impose their Polishness" on their two sons--no Polish lessons or Polish church school--but Polish was spoken at home, Polish customs were observed (three kisses on the cheeks for both the parents), and, naturally, family stories were handed down.

In this way the author learned about his grandfathers. One had been a successful banker in Warsaw; the other, after obtaining a doctorate in mathematics and physics, had settled for the life of a gimnazium teacher in a "sleepy country town" in Galicia. They represented opposing types: the solid self-made man and the mysterious man of unfulfilled promise. Rybczynski found himself more attracted to the latter.

"Home is always a refuge from the outside world," he writes, "but never more so than for the child of foreigners." Yet, as he notes, a bilingual province was an ideal place for a bicultural child. (Not really a surprise that he now has his feet in two professions.) He attended Loyola College High School in Montreal, getting an outstanding education from teachers who--intellectually and morally--lived up to the Jesuit ideal.

For all its linguistic richness, his was a fairly typical North American boyhood. There was the model train set in the basement, the author "constructing the scenery out of plaster of Paris applied over fly screening." He started playing drums as a teenager and was soon going to the local tobacconist's for issues of Down Beat. On a family trip to New York City in 1959 he made the pilgrimage to Birdland. Jazz was, for his parents, one of numerous New World mysteries. Rybczynski writes thoughtfully of the enormous gulf between his father's adolescence in prewar Poland and his own in postwar Canada, and the dearth of shared, or even comprehended, interests. Yet the two of them sometimes played music together--father on piano, son on drums.

"It was," he writes, "our most effective way of communicating."

At McGill, Rybczynski studied architecture, choosing the field not out of any long-held fascination (homemade train scenery notwithstanding) but because it satisfied both his parents' wish that he have a profession, and his own desire to do something creative. It was Bauhaus time:

We were taught that proper buildings had flat roofs, color was to be used sparingly, and decoration was to be avoided altogether. Materials were to be used "honestly," that is, plainly, without extraneous ornament. .  .  . Beauty itself was never mentioned.

One summer he accompanied a classmate to Europe. "Architectural travel," he writes, "is a long-standing tradition that derives from the so-called Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries." In France and Switzerland they sought out buildings designed by Le Corbusier--or Corbu, as he and his friends called him--and admired their sculptural qualities. But the real revelation came in Greece. Rybczynski had gone there unenthusiastically, convinced from his studies that classical architecture was "repetitive" and weak on "structure and function."

Yet seeing it in the context of its surroundings, which was rarely possible in photographs, inspired his awe. "I had never before," he writes of the Parthenon, "been so moved by a building."

A year later, the recipient of a scholarship, he made a housing tour of North America that included, among other places, Quebec's Lower Town; Reston, Virginia; Harlem Park in Baltimore; and Mill Creek in Philadelphia. At the University of Pennsylvania, his future employer, he came across a new word written on the wall of a studio in the architecture school: KAHNFUSED.

It is always encouraging when the successful speak of failure. Rybczynski's thesis, a hotel on the Gaspé Peninsula, sounds like an early Canadian version of Atlantis--with more architectural integrity, for sure, but just as spectacularly out-of-place. The appreciation that eluded him when he presented the thesis should now be his for unflinchingly writing about it.

After university, and some time spent in architectural offices, Rybczynski went back to Europe, ending up by chance on the Balearic island of Formentera. It was a carefree place--with more of a hippie than a Franco vibe--but he made use of his time there by designing his first house. It proved to be a personal breakthrough. After great anguish and self-doubt, he realized that he didn't have to come up with something revolutionary; he could take traditional features--like the high ceilings in big rooms--and work with them in a way that would produce a pleasing, workable variation on the local style.

This project also introduced him to a lifelong passion. Though he would spend two decades on minimum-cost housing, an understanding of the family house would become an architectural and literary pursuit.

The island listlessness eventually got old--"my banker grandfather .  .  . asserted himself"--and Rybczynski returned home, gradually making his way up the architectural ladder. He worked for a time with Moshe Safdie, designer of Habitat for Expo 67, and joined some international housing projects. And he continued, like all young architects, designing houses for friends and family.

As for his own living quarters, he did more than design. "Sooner or later," he writes, "an architect should build a house for himself." The construction of what was to be a boathouse takes up the last and least satisfying chapter of this book, and not just because it is adapted from a previous one ("The Most Beautiful House in the World"). There is a lot about logistics and workloads--"It took us only a few weeks to complete the framing and to nail on the sheathing that braced the spindly studs and rafters"--that only a fellow builder could love. Intensely focused on his task, Rybczynski skimps on his wife, who appears suddenly and fleetingly (after a couple ex-girlfriends have been properly introduced).

But the chapter does succeed in conveying the tedium of construction, a tedium so great that it killed his desire to build a vessel. Instead, he turned the boathouse into a home, nicely extending the theme of duality in his life.

Thomas Swick, the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania With a Maverick Traveler.

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