The Charlottesville Tapes is well worth a second read. In 1983, Jaquelin T. Robertson, then architecture dean at the University of Virginia, brought together two dozen architects to a private two-day confab (pointedly, no critics or historians were invited, only practitioners). It was a heavyweight group, a mixture of American, European, and Japanese architects, among them nine future Pritzker Prize winners, and four future Driehaus laureates. Each participant presented one project; discussion followed. The book is an edited version of the conversations. Reading the lively exchanges, one can only reflect on how much has changed since. Several of the participants (Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Charles Gwathmey, O. M. Ungers, Carlo Aymonino) are deceased. Some reputations have risen (Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando), some have not (Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli). Some of the tyros, like Rem Koolhaas and Robert A. M. Stern, have become household names. Stern presented a Jeffersonian dining hall at UVA—few would have guessed its traditional style would herald a comeback of classicism. Thirty years ago, postmodernism was in full bloom with Michael Graves the man of the hour. Not all the participants at the conference were as well-known: Frank Gehry was still building houses, and Léon Krier wasn’t building anything at all. Much of the discussion centered on urban design. On this point, Robertson was not sanguine: “I have real doubts that the kind of media-hyped, consumer-oriented pluralism that we have today will in fact produce an elegant or an equitable urban environment,” he wrote. Perhaps that was too bleak. The new urbanist movement had yet to appear, and Battery Park City, Celebration, and Poundbury were in the cards. So were iconic buildings such as the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Seattle Public Library, which would influence city development. But Robertson was right: as city building in China and the Gulf would conclusively show, good urbanism remains contemporary architecture’s Achilles heel.
THE CHARLOTTESVILLE TAPES | WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI