Anyone who has ever looked with admiring disbelief at the pristine modern interiors which grace the pages of periodicals such as Architectural Digest, and has searched in vain for a clue to the kind of person who lives in those neatly organized, highly polished, entirely uncluttered spaces, will no doubt appreciate Witold Rybczynski’s exploration of this, as well as many other conundrums, in his book Home: A Short History of an Idea.
Home is an eclectic book; one does not have to read very far before realizing that Rybczynski, a professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, is not so much interested in the idea of “home” as he is in the idea of domestic “comfort.” This focus on the idea of comfort is a result of several realizations: first, that during his own otherwise rigorous architectural training, he only heard the word comfort mentioned once, and then only in the most mechanical way; second, that his clients, for whom he designed homes in the approved modern style, were decidedly uncomfortable with the results; and third, that when he designed his own home, he was constantly struck by the incompatibility of personal comfort with the modern architectural idiom. What begins as an interdisciplinary, and admittedly sketchy, history of a neglected idea eventually becomes a rather impassioned criticism of modern architecture. It is as if Rybczynski must first create and define the notion of comfort before he can forcefully decry its loss.
Rybczynski begins his book with an engagingly written analysis of the work of fashion designer Ralph Lauren, whom he believes has a profound understanding of popular, as opposed to elite, tastes. Lauren’s richly textured furnishings, with names such as “Thoroughbred” and “New England,” become a kind of touchstone against which the reader can measure the comfort quotient of a succession of historical styles from Louis XIV to Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus. Lauren is important, Rybczynski argues, because his popularity shows that people are longing for a recent past and seeking not a true historical revival in domestic interiors but a renewed sense of ease in their lives.
Rybczynski’s main thesis is that domestic comfort, as it is now understood, is a relatively modern idea. It was, he says, unknown in the Middle Ages. Castles were less lived in than camped in, and the hordes of people who gathered in the great halls to eat, sleep, and entertain themselves were accustomed to an appalling lack of privacy and sanitation. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, the idea of comfort could not even be conceived, as one could not afford it. Domestic comfort would have to emerge slowly, and incrementally, and it would get its start at a much later date, in bourgeois seventeenth century Holland.
One of the most provocative ideas in Home is that comfort is the natural result of a bourgeois life-style, in which women dominate the domestic sphere. Rybczynski believes that the Dutch house of the seventeenth century differed considerably from its medieval predecessor, primarily as a result of the removal of men’s work from the house, which put a new emphasis on the home as a private dwelling, and women’s consequently enlarged role in the management of the home, which was partly the result of a Dutch prejudice against the use of servants. As the household chores fell to the woman of the house, she soon devised new and more convenient arrangements for cooking, cleaning, and other domestic chores; she also began to demand more rigorous standards of cleanliness from the other members of her family. The Dutch house was light, airy, and meticulously clean; it was the perfect place for a nascent sense of domesticity to develop. In Rybczynski’s view, the understanding of privacy and domesticity which flourished in the neat row houses of the Netherlands,...
(The entire section is 1582 words.)