WAG: 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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.