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BOOK REVIEW

Personal essays build on ancestry

By Robert Braile
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2009
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There is an esoteric pragmatism to Witold Rybczynski, an aesthetic yet practical sensibility to his life and work, evident in his intriguing essay collection "My Two Polish Grandfathers," born of his ancestry, and manifest in his chosen profession, architecture.

These "essays on the imaginative life" reflect in one sense the exotic story of the 20th-century European immigrant in America, striving to retain the cultured ways of a prewar heritage while moving from one place to another, one life to another.

Rybczynski, who teaches urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century," calls himself "an immigrant three times over" - a Pole born in Scotland in 1943, raised in Canada, and residing in America. Having also traveled widely, he has lived a peripatetic life.

Yet there is utilitarianism in these essays, another part of the immigrants' story. It is apparent in the decisions Rybczynski tells of his life, from choosing to "go back to the world" after a flamboyant several months on the Spanish island of Formentera following college, to designing environmentally conscious affordable housing in developing nations, to designing and building a house of his own in the Canadian village of Hemmingford.

Architecture has been for Rybczynski a fusion of these contrasting expectations, a profession that "also promised to accommodate the creativity that I sought." His two Polish grandfathers - one a recluse immersed in the art of theoretical physics, the other "a classic success story" in the mercenary world of banking - symbolized these expectations.

The first several essays chronicle the lives of Rybczynski's parents and grandparents, a story interwoven with another of Poland and Europe from the genteel late 19th century through the war-torn mid-20th century, when he moved to Quebec with his family. Later essays take up his high school, college, and graduate-school years, when he became more interested in architecture, with the Formentera trip an epiphany. The final essay is on his Hemmingford house, which he initially envisioned to be a boat-building workshop.

Rybczynski's writing tends to be reportorial, whether he is discussing Germany's occupation of Poland in the 1940s, racial issues he experienced for the first time while roaming jazz clubs as a teenager in the 1950s, traveling through Europe on architectural tours in the 1960s, or framing walls and pouring concrete in Hemmingford in the 1970s. There is a journalistic restraint in his voice that runs counter to the personal nature of his stories, producing moments in the collection that cry out for deeper reflection and richer expression. These "essays on the imaginative life" could have been more imaginative.

Still, Rybczynski offers in "My Two Polish Grandfathers" an engaging portrait of the architect as descendant, in whom generations of divergent hopes and dreams circulate in stories that span centuries and continents, classes and cultures - stories of art and life that ultimately find their way into a singular creative vision.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

MY TWO POLISH GRANDFATHERS: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life By Witold Rybczynski

Scribner, 240 pp., $25

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