Home: A Short History of an Idea Critical Essays

Witold Rybczynski


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Witold Rybczynski’s central thesis in Home: A Short History of an Idea is simple. In his view, modern home architects fail to provide what consumers want because they ignore the lessons of the past. He is convinced that home style was, at one time, more a reflection of social practices and utility than a concern with style. As society evolved, the purposes and functions of a house/home also evolved. Unfortunately, according to Rybczynski, most twentieth century architects ignored the results of this evolution. He therefore rebukes modernists who are unconcerned with those all-important social practices when they design structures. To him, a modern house is, too frequently, not a home.

Rybczynski’s overview of the evolution of the concept of “home” is the most entertaining and readable part of his book. It is also the most useful, for it surveys the development of certain Western social customs. These include the concept of a single-family dwelling, the evolution of attitudes toward coziness and comfort, home furnishings, and the need for efficiency. Rybczynski focuses primarily on middle-class styles, but this is understandable, for it has been the middle-class family unit that has come to dominate modern Western society. Hence, middle-class development, expectations, and concerns would be a logical focus for the book.

Of particular interest is the theme of the evolution of the single family and its impact on the concept of “home.” In the Middle Ages, when the domicile was primarily a work area, it was not uncommon for there to be twenty-five or more people living in a single house. Around 1600, a major transformation occurred in the Low Countries, where Dutch urban bourgeois began building houses which divided the house into areas for day and night use. The work area on the ground floor was still the primary area of the house, but the upper floors of the house were subdivided for various family uses. Moreover, as the Dutch houses were small, they tended to become the dwelling of an individual family.

Also at this time, a major change occurred in...

(The entire section is 860 words.)