My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

Architect and critic Witold Rybczynski is not the most introspective of souls. His newest book, My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life, nonetheless attempts a step inward, tracing his family’s history through the destruction of Poland in WWII and along the immigrant’s itinerant path. The title notwithstanding, the book is less an essay collection and more a stop-and-go autobiography about how, exactly, a creative life comes to be lived. Rybczynski is no prose stylist, and his sentences can run flat, but he writes with a genuine sense of wonder — with an astonishment that out of the wreckages of history, he was able to land in a different world and stumble upon his talent for architecture. On buildings, in particular, he comes alive, and the best sections are those in which he works through the puzzles of his trade on the page. Even when Rybczynski fails to get inside the sources of his own originality — a “budding architect needs first to discover that he has a taste for architecture,” he muses at one point — he displays an instinctive sense for the interplay between buildings and their environment, like a tennis player whose reflexes simply fire on the serve. As for any artist, the central struggle is one of finding a voice, and in moving beyond his Corbusian influences to become a pioneer of sustainable design, Rybczynski does. He may not be the deepest writer, but he makes us believe he’s a masterly architect.