The Most Beautiful House in the World

by Witold Rybczynski

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The Most Beautiful House in the World

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1622

Readers familiar with the engaging and informative essays of early nineteenth century writers such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb will no doubt be delighted to see the charming form of the English familiar essay resurrected with such elan in the book The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski (pronounced rib-SHIN-ski). Like those grand old men of English letters, Rybczynski has the ability to mix personal experience with scholarly reflection, to delight as well as inform, and to bring arcane topics into the compass of humane understanding. He has positioned himself in this book, as well as in his previous book, Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986), as a welcome ombudsman between the profession of architecture and the sometimes bemused and often bewildered layman.

The Most Beautiful House in the World begins simply enough with the dream of a boat, and it ends simply enough with the completion of a house. In between, however, Rybczynski considers such diverse topics as the essence of architecture, Daniel Boorstin’s law of historical survival, the Chinese practice of feng-shui, the invention of Lincoln Logs and Erector sets, Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture (1570), the simple houses of the villagers of Formentera in Spain, the history of barn building in America, the relationship of the architect to his client (and, in this case, his wife), the homes of famous author/architects Samuel Clemens and George Bernard Shaw, and, finally, the question of what makes a house truly beautiful. To say that the book is catholic in its concerns and eclectic in its method is perhaps an understatement.

Rybczynski, a practicing architect and an associate professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, brings the full wealth of his varied professional life to bear, in The Most Beautiful House in the World, on the problem of building a boat shed. Re cannot begin, however, until he has settled in his mind whether the project on which he has embarked is truly an architectural one. To do this, he must first answer the even more fundamental question, What is architecture? Is architecture, he wonders, the addition of aesthetic elements to what would otherwise simply be a plain building? Is architecture dependent on scale, with larger buildings being more architectural? Is architecture those buildings which have managed to survive, regardless of their original importance? Is architecture any building designed by an architect? This last begs the further interesting question of who is an architect, a topic on which Rybczynski ruminates with equal energy and iconoclasm. The Most Beautiful House in the World is more a book about the quiet contemplation of intriguing questions than about the satisfactions of having arrived at doctrinaire answers.

Rybczynski’s next, somewhat more practical, question is where to construct his boat-building workshop. His quest takes him, first, to a circle of properties within one hour’s driving time of Montreal and, second, to the philosophers of China’s Han Dynasty (202 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). In the periphery of Montreal, he finds an abandoned orchard with a delightful meadow, a meandering stream, and a renegade apple tree. In the writings of the Chinese philosophers, he discovers the ancient art of feng-shui, a complex way of finding a construction site and positioning a building so that it will be in harmony with the Taoist principles of yin and yang, the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching (c. 500 b.c.e.), as well as the Chinese astrological signs. By focusing on the interconnectedness of all things and on the basic validity of different cultural perspectives, Rybczynski is able to find a building site which is congenial by both Western and Oriental standards.

Always in The Most Beautiful House in the World the personal, practical dilemma segues into a philosophical digression or a historical overview, as in the chapter entitled “The Building Game.” Here Rybczynski, having decided not only to design but also to build his own boat shed, applies Dutch historian Johan H. Huizinga’s theory of play to the profession of architecture. He notes with considerable glee “how much the disorganized and chaotic atmosphere of the design studio resembles that of a children’s nursery.” He recounts as well the history of children’s building games: the classic house of cards, the mass production of wooden building blocks, the popularity of Lincoln Logs, the introduction of the Erector set in 1920, and finally the invention of Lego bricks in Denmark in 1949. It seems quite appropriate to Rybczynski that Lincoln Logs were invented by John Lloyd Wright, the son of the well-known architect. It is one of the singular pleasures of Rybczynski’s book that the salient, captivating detail never escapes his notice.

Just as a practical question can lead to wide-ranging philosophical and historical contemplation, so can the ramifications of a provocative idea elicit literally concrete results. Rybczynski, always pleased to have a chance to take the Modern movement in architecture to task, reflects on how the buildings of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, while innovative and interesting on their own terms, rarely fit into any but the most unusual contexts. He thinks it a great mistake that Mies van der Rohe, for example, never considered altering his architectural idiom, whether he was designing a building for the cold, northern latitudes of Montreal or the hot, sultry climate of Havana. This line of speculation leads Rybczynski to the somewhat uneasy conclusion that the only sort of building that would be in harmony with his rural meadows and lone apple tree, and would also serve the function of a boat shed, would be a gable-roofed barn.

It is in the chapter “Just a Barn” that the reader senses that the entire book may be a kind of extended apologia; it attempts to explain why a sophisticated, well-published architect would choose to build for himself such a humble and conventional structure. By way of additional expiation, Rybczynski offers the names of numerous other distinguished architects who built barns, either for themselves or for progressive gentlemen farmers of their era, including such surprisingly famous names as Robert Adam, John Nash, Sir John Soane, and Henry Hobson Richardson. There is even a veiled suggestion that barns, with their great steep roofs, and cathedrals with theirs, are not really essentially different at all; they both deserve the rapt attention of the people who choose to call themselves architects.

If churches and barns are not essentially different, however, they are certainly functionally different, and the issue of function becomes a very serious one for Rybczynski when he realizes that his boat-building dream has lost some of its appeal: His desire for a seafaring adventure has given way to a more satisfying feeling of rootedness. In his previous book, Home: A Short History of an Idea, Rybczynski credits women with many improvements in the privacy, comfort, and efficiency of home environments, so it is not surprising that as his boat shed is transformed into a house his wife, Shirley, plays an increasingly important role in its design. With her guidance, their new home gains such amenities as a recognizable front door, a portico, and open storage spaces for pots and utensils in the kitchen. The addition of a front door leads Rybczynski (almost naturally, by this point in the essay) to a short digression on semiotics, to Umberto Eco’s ideas about primary and secondary sign functions, and to a sociological reflection on the functions and symbolic importance of a front door on dwellings throughout time. The delightful interplay of the down-to-earth and the theoretical continues to give The Most Beautiful House in the World its distinctive voice.

Having built a home for himself perfectly tailored to his own aesthetic and practical needs, Rybczynski turns his attention to others (mostly nonarchitects) whose common sense and day-to-day requirements had helped them navigate through the same turbulent architectural waters he had just traversed and landed them also high and dry on their own unique and pleasant shores. From the colorful gothic confection of Samuel Clemens’ dwelling in Connecticut to the revolving writing shed that George Bernard Shaw constructed behind his nondescript Victorian rectory to the veranda-encircled Polynesian home of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rybczynski illustrates the ultimate thesis of his sometimes rambling, but always ambitious essay:

“The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself.”

This is a statement of faith by an architect who has spent a significant portion of his working life in Third World countries such as Nigeria, India, and Mexico, where the building of houses is not always a matter of professional intervention, but is often a more organic outcropping of immediate and very personal needs for shelter. What is remarkable about Rybczynski’s view is the profound respect he has for the nonprofessional builder and for the elements of architectural design and function as they manifest themselves in the simplest forms and materials.

By sharing his own sometimes convoluted experience, Rybczynski has gone a long way toward demystifying the building process for a generation of readers who have grown up with the exalted image of Howard Roark, the profoundly highminded architect of Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, The Fountainhead (1943), firmly entrenched in their minds. For those readers who are no longer intimidated by automobile mechanics and change their own oil; who have demanded to play a more significant part in their own health management; who have decided to sell their own homes; and who have surprised the legal profession by writing their own airtight wills, this book will be a heartening sign that self-reliance, even in the field of architecture, is not only an attractive virtue but also an eminently attainable one.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

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The Atlantic. CCLXIII, June, 1989, p.97

The Economist. CCCXI, June 10, 1989, p.84.

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Maclean’s. CII, June 19, 1989, p.50.

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The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, May 21, 1989, p.1.

Newsweek. CXIII, May 8, 1989, p. 71B.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, May 7, 1989, p.3.

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