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Cultural Constructions

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LOOKING AROUND: A JOURNEY THROUGH ARCHITECTURE By Witold Rybczynski, Viking, 301 pp., $22.

THE ARCHITECTURAL UNCANNY: ESSAYS IN THE MODERN UNHOMELY By Anthony Vidler, MIT Press, 264 pp., $25.

IF we concede that ideas determine the course of our actions and much of the world we make for ourselves, then a look at current architectural criticism should give us some idea why we live in what we do and what we are likely to live in next.

Probably no two books concerned with the criticism of the same subject could be more different than Witold Rybczynski's "Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture" and Anthony Vidler's "The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely."

Rybczynski writes for architects and for any interested reader. Vidler writes exclusively for architects and only for those architects familiar with the sampling of projects and theoreticians cited within his book. Both authors attempt to unveil the underlying cultural conditions that determine the form of architecture. Yet they differ dramatically in what each ultimately expects of architecture.

In his series of essays, Rybczynski considers all scales of architectural effort - from furniture to city planning. As is implied by his book's title, he bases his criticism on observation and then proceeds to weave an unusually well-presented historical context around them.

One essay, "Art Inside the Walls," is a cogent look at the contemporary art museum and its evolution from the Victorian picture gallery 100 years ago. He frames the contradiction between the consideration of art as an act of private contemplation and the overwhelmingly public and commercial context within which we have come to view it.

Ultimately, what makes this book valuable is his insistent requirement that architecture fulfill its complete role as beautiful, lasting, and appropriate public work. Rybczynski develops an appreciation for the delicate balance that a fully successful work requires. Architects will think him quaint as he closes by suggesting that architecture might profit from a return to the criteria of "Commodity, Firmness, and Delight" first stated by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

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