In this illuminating book, Witold Rybczynski walks us through five centuries of homes both great and small, from the smoke-filled manor halls of the Middle Ages to the Ralph Lauren-designed environments of today. On a house tour like no other-one that delightfully explicates the very idea of "home"-you'll see how social and cultural changes influenced styles of decoration and furnishing, learn the connection between wall-hung religious tapestries and wall-to-wall carpeting, discover how some of our most welcome luxuries were born of architectural necessity, and much more.
Witold Rybczynski's Home: A Short History of An Idea, published in 1986, is an early forerunner of the microhistory, a recent nonfiction genre that focuses on a single idea or thing and explicates its historical relevance and evolution by bringing together multiple disciplines. (Mark Kurlansky's Cod is the premier example of the microhistory.) Rybczynski, who writes for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is a professor of architecture at McGill University. The tone of the book is that of a relaxed and confident professor's lecture, with asides, opinions, and humor while he covers the last 500 or so years of Western domestic life. Chapters tackle the key developments of each century by opening with an analysis of a contemporary depiction of a domestic interior. Today the elements of a comfortable home are taken for granted, but Rybczynski delineates how the concepts of privacy, intimacy, comfort, leisure, ease, domesticity, and the addition of modern comforts provided by electricity, central heating, and ventilation have created our modern home. He sharply criticizes some modern architecture and design styles for their lack of comfort, but does not advocate a slavish return to period interiors, either. In this book, art history, literature, social history, economics, sociology, and gender roles inform the reader's growing understanding of the place we call home.
“We can appreciate the interiors of the past, but if we try to copy them we will find that too much has changed. What has changed the most is the reality of physical comfort—the standard of living—largely as the result of advances in technology. Technological changes have affected the evolutionof comfort throughout history, of course, but ours is a special position. The evolution of domestic technology...demonstrates that the history of physical amenities can be divided into two major phases: all the years leading up to 1890, and the three following decades. If this sounds outlandish, it is worth reminding ourselves that all the “modern” devices that contribute to our domestic comfort—central heating, indoor plumbing, running hot and cold water, electric light and powerand elevators—were unavailable before 1890, and were well known by 1920. We live, like it or not, on the far side of a great technological divide. As John Lukacs reminds us, although the home of 1930 would be familiar to us, tit have been unrecognizable to the citizens of 1885. Until then recreating the past was plausible—even if it was rare—after 1920 it became an eccentricity.” pp.219-220
The main thing I took from this was the stupidity of architects and designers (spurred on by their clients). The author tells us, for example, of a long stream of uncomfortable but artistic chairs. He makes an interesting point that we don't look to the past at all when designing automobiles, and not much when designing clothes, with the result that automobile seats are far more comfortable than most seats in the home, and most clothing is comfortable.
I was particularly struck by the description of a study by Merck asking people what they disliked about their workplace, and how important various issues were.
What people cared about was physical issues, heat, air quality, light, privacy. They couldn't give a damn about visual issues like colors and decor --- yet that is what architects and interior decorators obsess about.
This ties in to Stewart Brand's observation that architects never return to the building they designed ten years ago to see how they have failed and thus learn from their mistakes.
Where it starts getting interesting is when Rybczynski gets to the 19th century and discusses how style, technology and user requirements competed to influence people's expectations of how homes should be designed and built. Architects and designers don't come out of this story very well, and Rybczynski's real heroes this time seem to be the pioneers of "domestic engineering" (later called "home economics"), people like Catherine Beecher and Christine Frederick, who encouraged American women to take control of their own workplaces and insist that houses be arranged in practical, efficient ways. That was something completely new to me, which looks as though it might be interesting to follow up further.
Rybczynski argues quite forcefully that "comfort" is the element that is most important in measuring the success of any environment designed for people, and condemns "style" as a harmful influence that leads us to overlook important usability questions. Austere modernism comes out of the equation worse than retro-styles, interestingly: he argues that 18th-century furniture designers were better at ergonomics than their modern counterparts because they worked by gradual improvement of established designs, whilst 20th-century fashions force the designer to produce something ground-breakingly different every time. He also comes out strongly against de-cluttered interiors - a kitchen is a workshop where tools should be within reach; a bathroom without anywhere to leave your soap is just silly - so it's pretty obvious that no-one has paid much attention to this book in the last thirty years...