The Most Beautiful House in the World (3)

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the first two chapters in Rybczynski’s book. The rest of it (so far) has been less interesting to me.

To recap, the first chapter dealt with the general plan to build a boat building shed and site location with a consideration of feng-shui. The second chapter was about his education as an architect, and education in general. The third chapter deals with architectural manuals and guidebooks, with some space devoted to a book that I requested from the library a few weeks back and returned unread: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

Michael Langford mentioned it in passing a while ago, and mentioned that it dealt with the patterns of everyday life. When I dipped my toe in it, it seemed almost completely conjectural and of no real use to me.

Rybczynski refers to Alexander’s work as a whole as a sort of manifesto, noting that he’s built very little: “It is Alexander’s controversial thesis that all great traditional buildings, despite their evident cultural and technological differences, have shared certain objective attributes, which have been combined and recombined throughout history” (61). He compares it to sentence-combining, noting that though other architectural theorists had compared architecture to language, “no one has ever followed the linguistic analogy to this extreme conclusion” (61). The arbitrary relationships noted by Alexander as “universal” dealt, at least in my short look at the book, as much or more with community design than shelter design. That’s why I reshelved it.

The third chapter, “Making Space,’ gives some context on architectural writing across the ages observing in the end that the art of building is an art of compromise that unites “the beautiful with the practical, the ideal with the possible, the ephemeral with the concrete” (66). Most importantly,

Unlike sculpture and painting which produce objects in space, buildings contain space. Moreover, it is space that is intended not only to be experienced and admired but also to be inhabited. Making space is a social art; and although architecture consists of individual works, these are always parts of a larger context—of a landscape, of other buildings, of a street, and, finally of our everyday lives. (66-67)

Social and cultural spaces, for me at least, are not reducible to language. The arbitrary modules proposed by Alexander seemed very culturally specific; a bit like trying to divine through numerology, arbitrary coincidences, something universal about relationships. The real context for these space containers, I think, is better understood by their “fit”—The piece of the architectural puzzle considered in Chapter 4, “Fitting In.”

By this time in the “historical present,’ Rybczynski has been offered help by a friend in pouring the foundation for his boat-building shed, although he has not really finalized the design. He recalls a commission to build a home on Formentera island, which he extensively researched with an eye for fitting into the general atmosphere of the island.

Years later, I have sometimes shown the drawings of the little Formentera house to my first year class, as an example of stone construction. Once, after a lecture, a student came up to me and asked about the house, something to do with the materials or the building technique. After I answered, he said, “I didn’t realize that this was one of your designs—when you showed it to us I thought it was just an ordinary farmhouse.” The house differed from the local examples in several important details, but the general impression was as he had described it: the house was unquestionably plain. There was a beauty in its plainness, at least in my eyes, but it was not a striking beauty that dazzled; it would take time to understand its unassuming charms. It was ordinary, or, rather, it was not extraordinary (which is not the same thing). In this plain and homely place, it fitted in. (85-86)

Rybczynski’s point in this chapter, ultimately, is that in order to create meaningful buildings one must pay attention to the particular local circumstances that they will be situated in. A Porsche is a Porsche no matter where you park it, but a building removed from its context is ugly and meaningless.

The chapter that follows, “Just a Barn” is dedicated to a survey of barn architecture in general, and specifically the area around Montreal where his boat-building structure was going to be located. Eventually, he settles on a design and begins constructing it in the following chapter, “Chrysalis.” That’s where things get interesting again.

Wood frame architecture, like building a house of cards, is unique in its flexibility for rethinking design. After spending a lot of time building the structure, swinging a hammer, Rybczynski decides that he really doesn’t like construction that much; it’s a chore. Therefore, his fantasy of building a boat is best likely left a fantasy.

Looking back on it, I can see now more clearly what had originally impelled me on this nautical enterprise. The weeks of sawing, fitting, and hammering had been an enjoyable diversion from the intellectual work that normally occupied me. I had needed that change. After years of designing on the drawing table—both as a student and, later, in my practice—I had wanted to build something, anything, with my own hands and with proper tools and real materials; with hammer and nails instead of with an Exacto knife and cardboard, and not in miniature, but full size. This I had done. Unfortunately, as far as the boatbuilding was concerned, what had originally attracted me to maritime construction had found fulfillment in landlocked carpentry. (134)

So, then, what to do with his boat barn he just framed in? He had thoughts early on about building a house to adjoin it; at this point he decides to convert what he’s already constructed into a home. With his wife as a client, the project changes shape.


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