WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI, architect, professor and author of more than a dozen books, made a name for himself in the late 1980s as a man who brought architectural criticism to the masses, who could explain to readers the inner world of designers and builders and bring us all to question (and then accept) the tropes we live by: the comfort of our homes, in his 1986 book, “Home”; our habit of lying about on Sundays, in 1991’s “Waiting for the Weekend”; and our great respect for grand city parks, in “A Clearing in the Distance,” his 1999 biography of Frederick Law Olmsted.
But Rybczynski’s books have never gone very deep. Instead, they skim and skate and often, in the end, leave you wondering exactly what it is you’ve just read. In his latest, “Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville,” Rybczynski has not only given up depth completely but also surrendered critical thinking in exchange for marketing. As you descend with him into the dark world of the residential subdivision developer, you might begin to mistake yourself for a potential client checking out pre-fab houses. “Last Harvest” is about as rich with genuine inquiry as a four-color brochure for a time share in Vegas.
RYBCZYNSKI’S new book is a developer’s-eye view of subdivisions -- specifically, the rising exurb of New Daleville in the rural township of Londonderry, Pa. As a “neotraditional development,” New Daleville differs from other residential plans both in its greater density and its architectural diversity: Each lot occupies a mere eighth of an acre, on which sits one of six separate models of $300,000 two-story houses, about as much architectural diversity as builders dare allow and a striking departure from suburban-development uniformity. As the author’s friend, residential developer Joe Duckworth, puts it: “When people buy a house, they want to be able to sell it.... They want what everyone else has.”
Duckworth himself is a proponent of neotraditionalism, believing that density fosters a stronger sense of community. He takes over the development of the obsolete cornfield after a less progressive developer, Dick Dilsheimer, fails to win over Londonderry’s mercurial planning commission. (Dilsheimer’s plan called for a whole acre per house.) But even with Duckworth’s high-minded ideals, securing civic approval proves a maddening business for his three-man company, Arcadia, which includes his son and a rambunctious lawyer. Much of “Last Harvest” follows the company’s struggle to shake off the meddling interest of one of the township’s indecisive commissioners, a landscape architect named Tim Cassidy.
Clearly, a story could be told here about how neotraditional development (an offshoot of New Urbanism a.k.a. Traditional Neighborhood Development), with its narrow, low-speed roads and houses tucked close together, improves on the sterile sprawl of the typical American suburb. But Rybczynski doesn’t tell that story. Instead, he composes manifestoes about Americans’ right to free-standing houses and focuses on vindicating the hardworking developer at whose side he steadfastly stands.
A neutral observer might well be inclined to sympathize with Cassidy’s interest in sturdy houses made of real brick and mortar, but not Rybczynski: Whereas Cassidy talks as though his own community had never been developed, the author reminds us that “the American wilderness was opened not only by pioneers and settlers but also by real estate developers.” Cassidy, with his twee bias against plastic railings and vinyl siding (“middle-income home buyers like it,” chirps the author), is something of a relic.
But then again, so is Rybczynski. How else can one explain his obdurate refusal even to consider, in his step-by-step demonstration of the hurdles that real estate developers must surmount, any concern for the world’s resources, climate or remaining open space? Rybczynski himself lives in a sturdy 1908 house in the historic Philadelphia neighborhood of Chestnut Hill (no pre-fab vinyl-sided house in the boonies for him!), a structure that, he admits, lacks “proper insulation.” As long as he can afford the fuel bills, though, he’s fine with frittering away precious energy; he leaves it to the next guy to fix the problem, and then only if “energy costs continue to rise.” He waves away complaints about development encroaching on open space with the bold claim that “America is not running out of land,” supported by the simple fact that “food prices have dropped, not risen.” (Food? That’s all undeveloped land is good for?)
And finally, plodding deeper into his time-warped oblivion, Rybczynski explains that “[t]he construction of a typical house requires thousands of board feet of lumber, hundreds of sheets of plywood, and many cubic yards of concrete, square feet of exterior siding and wallboard, bundles of insulation, gallons of paint, reels of wiring, and lengths of copper piping.” Does he suggest, then, that perhaps new construction squanders resources (and, when the short-lived vinyl siding comes down, crowds landfills with waste that doesn’t decompose)? No, the only reason he mentions any of this is to show how the heroic national home builder must coordinate “a dozen different trades to put all this together in a timely and efficient manner.... “
That is not to say that “Last Harvest” is a complete bust. Rybczynski has laced the book with dioramic histories of residential construction and the various competing philosophies that have guided it, some of which are interesting. He instructs us in the intricacies of sewage infrastructure, regional differences in lot prices and the politics of developer versus gatekeeper. In the process of shilling for the suburbs, the author revisits America’s first planned communities -- the postwar Levittowns designed and built by Alfred and William Levitt -- and such “classic garden suburbs” as Palos Verdes Estates. He also makes an impassioned case for the virtues of vinyl siding.
And some of “Last Harvest” is actually funny, though perhaps not in a way Rybczynski intends. Toward the book’s end, Rybczynski eavesdrops on New Daleville’s first residents. “Are we happy?” a wife asks her husband. Rybczynski observes the husband’s nodding head and answers on his behalf: “Yes, yes, they are.”
If such naivete is curious in a man of Rybczynski’s intellect, the ease with which the author accepts astonishing statistics to bolster his arguments is infuriating. At one point, in denying the prevalence of Los Angeles’ sprawl, he announces that “the population density of its built-up metropolitan area is actually greater than that of metropolitan New York.”
HIS source for this bizarre statistic? An article by two professors at USC, Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson, both notorious sprawl enthusiasts, who complain that the environmental movement “puts insects before people, trees before jobs and green fields before affordable housing.” If Rybczynski had instead consulted something less opinionated, like the U.S. census, he would have discovered that New York, with nearly 27,000 residents per square mile, is three times as dense as Los Angeles. That statistic, of course, would not have played well in his book.
Such counterintuitive revelations, propped up with cherry-picked research and unburdened by the anecdotes of real life, make “Last Harvest” somewhat hard to digest; add to it supplied dialogue that sounds nothing like authentic human utterances and the book is an even more difficult read.
Those of us who grew up stewing and ruckus-raising in the postwar suburbs that Rybczynski is championing in “Last Harvest” could tell him first-hand how life played out on those Pleasant Valley Sundays in homes made of ticky-tacky (and they all looked just the same). It’s unlikely, however, that this blinkered architect, who believes that “New Daleville is not simply about money, it’s about creating a community,” could bring himself to listen.
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