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One Good Turn:
A Natural History
of the Screwdriver and the Screw

Witold Rybczynski
173 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Witold Rybczynski

Architect, historian and urbanism professor Witold Rybczynski names the best architect of the millennium and discusses the historical record, ideological impurity and New Urbanism.

Over the course of ten books, you've explored everything from airport design and the history of the weekend to Frederick Law Olmsted and now, with the publication of One Good Turn, the history of the screwdriver. Is there a common thread that draws these seemingly disparate subjects together? And do you, in fact, have a favorite among them?

Rybczynski: I guess that I'll have to leave that answer up to future scholars or biographers, should there be any. If there is a common thread to my books, it is probably curiosity—I write about things that perplex or, at least, intrigue me. The main drawback to this literary self-indulgence is that my books tend to be scattered around bookstore shelves, since they don't fit neatly into a single category. I never know where to find them.

WAG: One Good Turn began as an article for the New York Times, and much of the book is devoted to recounting the extensive research (and travel) you did to document the earliest appearance of the screwdriver. Do you usually do this much legwork for a relatively short magazine article?

Rybczynski: No, I don't. Some of the research described in the first two chapters—the visit to the Mercer Museum, for example—was done after the article was written, to fill out areas that I had not had time to explore. Everything after Chapter 2 was done for the book, not the article.

WAG: One lesson to be learned from your research for One Good Turn is that the established historical record isn't as complete as we might expect. Important facts can be buried and spread across a series of disparate resource sites, and once they're finally pieced together again, we find history has to be re-written. Do you think this is true for a lot of historical subjects--do we, in fact, have a surprisingly incomplete history when it comes to mechanical objects, for example? Or is the historical record fairly accurate?

Rybczynski: The historical record is not so much inaccurate as skewed. That is, what we have recovered from the past tends to give a one-sided picture. What tends to survive is either large (cathedrals), or valuable (crown jewels), or visually interesting (paintings). If you go to a museum to look at arms, for instance, as I did, you are more likely to find aristocratic hunting guns, or beautifully wrought suits of king's jousting armor, than ordinary arquebuses or a journeyman soldier's armor. A lot of things from the past simply don't survive: ordinary houses, ordinary clothes, ordinary implements. So we get an incomplete picture.

An example of this that I came across in my research was the Romans' use of nuts and bolts. Nuts and bolts are described in their literature, but the only record of an actual artifact in existence( in a museum) that I could find was a single threaded nut—not even the accompanying bolt. The explanation? Perhaps nuts and bolts were simply recycled by later generations, the way that one reuses old nails (and bolts were relatively hard to make). Or, perhaps ancient nuts and bolts, because they simply looked like old nuts and bolts, did not (at least at first) attract the archaeologist's attention.

WAG: You write in One Good Turn that you had originally hoped the New York Times editor would offer a bigger subject than the best tool of the millennium—"The best tool," you write, "is hardly as weighty a subject as the best architect or the best city." Would you care to throw out candidates for either category here?

Rybczynski: The best architect of the millennium? Probably Andrea Palladio; it's hard to think of any single architect who had that sort of influence--lasting several centuries. The best city? Much harder. Would one choose a biggie like Rome or Paris, or a more human-scaled city like Venice or Florence? If "best" means "most influential," as I think it should, I wonder if New York City qualifies, since while it has been influential since about the 1930s, that gives it a run of only 70 years, compared to Rome's several hundred. So I'd probably go with the Eternal City.

WAG: Turning from screws, what do you make of America's ever-growing trend toward home remodeling and home decoration? And is there a downside to this sort of inward-looking?

Rybczynski: I can't think of one, unless you see the spread of bourgeois values as a bad thing (I don't). People create the sorts of surroundings they like, they have a greater understanding of how these surroundings work. They can also afford more than if they depended entirely on professionals. All good things.

Incidentally, I don't think people realize how unusual the do-it-yourself movement really is. It is largely confined to Britain, the US, and English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia.

WAG: Seven years ago, in Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture, you predicted that "[I]n a decade or two, the living room may disappear altogether, replaced by a combination of kitchen and 'eating area,' by a 'media room,' or by some other sort of family room." Do you still think we're fast approaching the moment when 'great rooms' as they're commonly called will replace the living room altogether? Or will our need for a more formal space simply be subverted into the (still popular) formal dining room that is only used on special occasions, much as the Victorian parlor was?

Rybczynski: In many new houses the living room has disappeared already, or has become so small that it is insignificant. Of course, since most of us live in old houses, this "trend" should be taken with a grain of salt. Interestingly, there is a reverse snob effect at the top of the market, and expensive homes always have living rooms (as well as dining rooms and "libraries"), even if they also have family rooms.

WAG: What is the hottest concept in urban planning now? Is it 'neo-traditional' planned communities like Florida's Seaside or England's Poundsbury? And if so, do you find the results heartening?

Rybczynski: Yes, it is probably the most influential urban design idea to come along since the urban renewal movement of the 1950s and 60s. Put that way, it's a huge improvement over the simplistic theories of the architectural modernists who made such a hash of things. Still, I wish that New Urbanists could be a little more pragmatic in their approach, and find places for Home Depot, strip malls, and drive-by convenience stores in their plans. Not just because these things are part of the way that we live today, but because messiness and ideological impurity are an integral part of American urbanism.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. First, if you could be an architect at any point in history, what era would you select? And second, if you could live at any point in history (regardless of your profession), which era would you select? (Given the enthusiasm you express in One Good Turn for the last years of the classical world, I'd think you might choose it.)

Rybczynski: A great period for architects was the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy (15th century) when there were supportive and intelligent clients, wealth, and a great interest in building. Architects combined scholarship and artistic abilities and created some of the most beautiful buildings ever made. The downside? The competition among architects could be brutal, there were so many good ones.

I don't think I can answer your last question. There are simply too many things to consider. How do you trade off modern medicine, for example, against the attractions of the past? Or modern social mobility—since presumably I don't get to choose into which social stratum I would be born? No, this is much too complicate—it would need, well, another book.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted November 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Sigrid Estrada

Witold Rybczynski is the author of nine books, including A Clearing in the Distance and his most recent, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw. He is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books. He is currently the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.



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