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Book Review: ‘My Two Polish Grandfathers,' by Witold Rybczynski

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 6, 2009


And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

By Witold Rybczynski

Scribner. 228 pp. $25

Disarming, charming, sweet-natured, large-hearted -- all these adjectives describe this little book, and I imagine they describe the architect-author as well.

"My Two Polish Grandfathers" is a collection of nine essays that touch upon terrible world events and conditions, but in the most subtle and pragmatic way. The work begins with the lives of Witold Rybczynski's parents in pre-World-War-II Warsaw, how they grew up and married. His father, a very cultivated and presentable electrical engineer, didn't quite have enough money to marry the woman he had his heart set on, the beautiful daughter of a banker. But the banker approved the marriage, settled a generous allowance on them, and they soon found themselves taking a marvelous honeymoon in Italy. Things couldn't have seemed more auspicious for them. But the year was 1937, and Hitler and Mussolini were already embarked on their terrible careers. A few years later, Rybczynski's mom managed to escape to Scotland, where he was born. His father attached himself to a branch of the Polish resistance. It was almost a miracle that the couple reunited after the war and resumed an "ordinary" life. But they were outsiders, Poles in Scotland.

Circumstances soon dictated that the family -- Rybczynski had a brother by then -- move to Quebec, Canada, where the element of French culture got thrown into the mix. Rybczynski seemed, on the whole, to be happy, although a little cut off from the larger world. This memoir, in all its brevity and seeming shyness, explains how and why the author, now a famous architect and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, chose his vocation.

In the book's third essay, "My Two Polish Grandfathers," in a bewildering context of ever-changing Polish provinces and brazen Russian and German ambitions, he takes a look at the lives of these two very different men. His maternal grandfather, the banker, was a man of action, a man of the world. His paternal grandfather, in a story that seems much more filmy and vague, separated from his wife and lived in a country house with his lady friend, more or less playing his days away. At first the reader isn't quite sure where the author is going, but the book basically asks and answers the question: Which "story" will Rybczynski take as an example? Will he vigorously advance in this world? Or kick back and retreat? Both choices have their advantages.

He attends McGill University in Montreal with the intention of being an architect but obviously carries writer-artist genes within him. He keeps copious diaries and sketchbooks and makes endless models. But he frames his youth as a series of gentle failures. He's always falling in love with ladies who lose interest in him. He laboriously builds a boat, but instead of going for a test ride he takes it 10 miles downriver and ends up with a terrible sunburn and a waterlogged vessel. He loves to have fun, discovers jazz (and the impulse for improvisation that will become essential in his later life). He becomes a huge admirer of modernism and Le Corbusier, and for his graduating thesis he constructs a model of a surreal tourist hotel with tunnels and flying gondolas and Corbusier-like hotel rooms, which are suspended "from an arched structure that spanned the valley like a huge bridge." The faculty is less than impressed. He's rueful about all this now, but not embarrassed or ashamed. We learn from our failures, far more than our successes, he discovers.

After graduation he goes on a European architecture tour, visiting the great buildings, sketching everything he sees. In the Mediterranean, on the island of Ibiza, he spots a little ferry, going he knows not where, and on impulse jumps on, ending up on the island of Formentera. He spends months there. He meets his first hippies, takes his first drugs, designs a house for someone, learning by hands-on experience why Le Corbusier doesn't necessarily have the answer to every question.

He also considers his grandfathers. Should he be practical or choose a life of reclusive pleasure? He decides to come home and after some aimless years meets the man who will become his mentor for two decades: an architect associated with the United Nations who's obsessed with providing adequate housing for the very poor. They spend their lives in happy experimentation, inventing building materials from what is at hand, improvising as they search for perfect house designs. There's not an ounce of preachiness in this. Rybczynski loves what he does.

The last chapter -- he's married now -- is devoted to the building of a boathouse, which he and his wife and friends put together over several years, only to decide they don't want a boat after all; they'll live in it instead. These essays are all so simple-seeming that you don't see the structure right away: the love of improv, the valorization of play and the final, overriding idea that even if the larger world falls down around your ears, you can begin restoring order again, creating your own patterns, priorities, fun. I'd marry this man in a minute.

See can be reached at

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