THE LOOK OF ARCHITECTURE By Witold Rybczynski, Oxford University Press: 130 pp., $22
“It seems to me that style is one of the enduring--and endearing--aspects of architecture.” Witold Rybczynski, not the humblest of critics, sets himself apart from the mainstream architects (practitioners and academics) who insist that serious architecture has “nothing to do with style.” They’re just being “dishonest,” he says dismissively. Rybczynski often tries to sound grand and ends up sounding a little shallow and, again, dismissive. “For the truth is that a building--no matter how useful or well built or beautiful-that is not sympathetic to the way that people dress, risks looking not merely anachronistic, but downright silly.” When was the last time you found yourself in a public building in which everyone dressed in the same style? “Buildings are sometimes referred to as timeless,” he writes. “That is nonsense.” (You write a few good books and they give you too much rope.) Architecture is slavishly dependent on fashion. Style is defined by fashion. Does this sound a little elitist? A little ivory tower?
THE BOTANY OF DESIRE: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World By Michael Pollan, Random House: 260 pp., $24.95
Meditative books are much in vogue, and I am all for them. The delightful mental rambling that can happen in these freewheeling books best reproduces the sense of epiphany and discovery we feel when we have an idea. A real idea, all pearly and fresh and new and only ours. But they demand two things: careful, clear use of language (so that we can better follow the writer’s mind) and humility. It is only an idea. It is not a scientific principle or even the grand theory of the philosophers. It does not result in a policy statement or a new natural law. Michael Pollan begins in his own garden with the moment of realization, planting potatoes, that he was involved in a co-evolutionary bargain with plants. “Human desires form a part of natural history in the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew. I think of them as the human equivalent of nectar.” Pollan explores four plants and the particular “nectar” that they have evolved in order to get humans to do their bidding: the sweetness of the apple, the beauty of the tulip, the intoxication of marijuana and the addictive illusion of power and control that agricultural produce (he chooses the potato) give us over our environment. “There can be no civilization without wildness,” Pollan writes of the old-time bitter apples, before grafting. With the tulip, Pollan enters a kind of spiritual rapture, a meditation on how the flower has made itself more beautiful for humans and so guaranteed its propagation. In the section on cannabis, Pollan marvels at the biochemical sophistication of plants, creating chemicals that work on the brains of animals. These chemicals can either poison and kill or create a stupefying, memory-erasing state, what Nietchze called “nature overpowering mind.” For the good old potato, mutated to better serve our machinery, Pollan looks at the history of genetically modified foods, at our efforts to exert power over creation. Of course it backfires,for Pollan is the legendary literary green man, in touch with his wild nature. Gardening is just something a few plants conspired to make him do so they wouldn’t have to depend on more capricious elements.
THE TALE OF THE ROSE By Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, Random House: 308 pp., $24.95
This book began as a letter to a pilot from his wife after he disappeared on a reconnaissance mission over Nazi-occupied France in 1944. Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, who looks and writes like Anas Nin (never straying far from herself and her powers of attraction over other people, referred to by one biographer as “surrealism made flesh”), married Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a count, in 1931. He was her third husband (the first two died shortly after they married her). He had to have her. He pursued her through Buenos Aires and Paris until he got her. Then, according to Consuelo, he proceeded to cheat mercilessly, with a brazen sense of entitlement and stunning cruelty. Every time she tried to leave, he would pursue her and she would return. She is perhaps the best example of an abject love slave that I have ever seen on paper. She gives up everything. She insists on packing his bags for him, even when he leaves to see another woman until even he can’t stand it and asks her to stop. According to Consuelo, she was the reason he persisted in writing, the reason he finished “Night Flight.” She is the Rose (his nickname for her) in “The Little Prince.” For some readers, this may be a romantic tale. I’d rather read about the mail routes in wartime between Casablanca and Mauritania than see Consuelo prostrate herself in front of “the great man.”