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,...

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HOME COMFORTH would be a more appropriate title for this engagingly written and well-organized book. “Domestic well-being,” Rybczynski asserts, “is a fundamental human need.” Yet contemporary architects and interior designers give less consideration to matters of comfort than to decor, efficiency, and convenience. Comfort being an elusive concept, the author suggests that history can offer guidance, not so much from a stylistic point of view but in regard to the idea itself.

Gleaning material from the paintings of Dutch masters, the theories of French architects, the writings of English novelists, the principles of American home economists, and the whims of contemporary designers, Rybczynski surveys the gradual development of various concepts--domesticity, privacy, physical ease, leisure, and intimacy--that, like an onion, reveal various layers of comfort. “One-dimensional, technical definitions of comfort, which ignore history, are bound to be unsatisfactory,” he concludes.

Rybczynski believes that the influence of women and of bourgeois values were crucial to the concept’s developments. Medieval castles were public, ceremonial, work-oriented, unsanitary, male-dominated places. The feminization of the home advanced markedly in seventeenth century Holland, where there was less dependence on servants, more consideration toward children’s welfare, and an emphasis on moderation and simplicity. In the eighteenth century, the French...

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Form and Content

Witold Rybczynski, a professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has written an interesting overview of the history of the idea of “home.” He states that the book originated from his experience in designing homes for clients. He learned that conventional architectural designs were frequently unwanted, unloved, and perceived as uncomfortable. In his foreword he notes,During the six years of my architectural education, the subject of comfort was mentioned only once. . . . This, apparently, was all that we needed to know about the subject. It was a curious omission from an otherwise rigorous curriculum; one would have thought that comfort was a crucial issue in preparing for the architectural profession. . . .”

The more he worked, the more he wondered about the omission.

Rybczynski begins his history by looking at how homes were viewed in the Middle Ages. Focusing exclusively on bourgeois, middle-class townhouses, Rybczynski presents his understanding of the medieval household. In a building which had little heat or light, no running water, a minimum of furniture, few rooms, and afforded essentially no privacy, “People didn’t so much live in their houses as camp in them.” Moreover, the focus of the building was the work area, which occupied the majority of the space within the house.

Only in the houses of the seventeenth century Dutch bourgeois did work space become separate from living space. This distinction led to a sense of domesticity that existed in few other homes in Europe at this time. A strong sense of family life, and of comfort, began to emerge. Visitors to the Low Countries carried these “ideas” home with them, and residences in other areas began to be built with comfort in mind. Having established that historic change, Rybczynski shifts his focus to England, for it was there that the Industrial Revolution was transforming society. It also provided the means for the middle...

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