The Most Beautiful House in the World

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI don’t remember much about Rybczynski’s book Home, though it’s only been a month or so since I read it. I suppose that’s one of the main reasons why I started creating reading notes again. I don’t want to lose the many thoughts that I have while doing the sort of reading I’ve been doing lately.

I’m about halfway through The Most Beautiful House in the World now, and there’s a lot to say about it and the way it connects with other reading I’ve done in the last few years.

The book bears a striking resemblance to Michael Pollan’s A Place of My OwnPollan’s book was perhaps what started this whole vein of inquiry for me, and I read it just after moving to Upstate New York. This was the first “home” that I’ve ever owned, and though Pollan’s book is really about building more of a “tiny house” (a shed/office space for writing), it has much to recommend it.

Pollan’s book is from 1997. Rybczynski’s book is from 1989, so it might be considered to be an ancestor. The premise is almost the same. Rybczynski is building a shed to build a boat in, and along the way discussing broader issues of making and architecture (exactly like Pollan’s book).  They aren’t copies of each other, nor are they focused on the same issues. I’d like to return to Pollan, but I really can’t read everything at once even if I sometimes try.

Rybczynski’s first chapter, “Wind and Water,” begins with the issue of histories, both personal and of buildings, and ends with feng-shui.  He tells the story of his education and how he came to be an architect. He also touches on the beginnings of architecture, with a caution from Daniel J. Boorstein about historical narratives. Retellings of the past always involve bias, “the historical record is all too frequently not only incomplete but skewed: not exactly survival of the fittest but survival of the richest— of the immovable, the valuable, the durable, the collected and protected, and the academically classified” (6). Architecture, as a category, is first an evaluative judgment that a structure qualifies to fit into the category of “designed” buildings. We know little of the homes that the builders of the great buildings or homes of the ages lived in because the simply don’t fit our preconceived ideas of architecture:

Architecture has been described as the art of building, but this is a judgment of effect rather than cause. If we call buildings that move us “architecture,” then we leave open the question of whether they are grand or small, known or unknown, sheds or cathedrals. And we leave open the question of who designed them. What finally distinguishes members of the winner’s circle from the uncouth mob of “mere” buildings is not their architectural quality but their social standing, the sanction of the critic and the art historian, and the effect of Boorstin’s Law of Historical Survival, not any intrinsic attribute. (12)

One could easily substitute “furniture” for buildings in this construction. I like his definition of architecture as “buildings that move us.” That also makes a good definition for “furniture” over commonplace crates and boxes: good furniture moves those who live in its presence, or even those who pass by in proximity. Saying that buildings or other objects “move” us invests in them a certain sort of emotional content; it’s not purely a mystification of “art,” but instead the addition of a human motive to these pursuits. Design of these objects is not simply engineering; designs that move broader audiences imply social functions, not simply individual eccentric aesthetic responses.

Extrapolating from that makes it easy to speak of objects as embodying (or containing) care. It’s not necessarily about precision in execution or virtuosity of talent (“art”), but rather focusing on social objects—utilitarian structures or utilitarian objects— as repositories of the concerns of social groups.

Though Rybczynski doesn’t extrapolate from his definition in this way, he does move toward an exploration of the relationship between the physical world and social function in his discussion of feng-shui. Though it’s obviously not out of place (after all, it’s about placement, and he’s discussing the location of his boat building shed) it was a bit of a surprise to me. I found myself wanting to read more about it.

Unfortunately, feng shui has the status of astrology and other sorts of new-age claptrap. A search of the local library turned up over 100 books and videos. I decided to poke around the academic databases instead. I found a lovely definition of feng shui in a text from 1873:

What is Feng-shui? Sinologues looked through the Chinese Classics for an answer to this question, searched through their dictionaries and found none. Merchants asked their compradores and house-boys, What is Feng-shui? but the replies they got were rather obscure and confused, and at best they were told that Feng-shui means “wind and water” and is so called “because it’s a thing like the wind, which you cannot comprehend, and like the water, which you cannot grasp.”

I found many academic articles in business journals, as well as historical explorations of the deployment of feng shui in its Korean form (pongsu) that all point to its penetration deep into asian cultures. Most for arguments for taking it seriously, not as pseudo-science, but rather as a valuable form of folk wisdom. All the best articles were written by non-westerners, unlike the popular press books that are filling up the local library. Ernest John Eitel*, a 19th century missionary, highlighted the cognitive dissonance of considering it:

Well, if Feng-shui were no more than what our common sense and natural instincts teach us, Chinese Feng-shui would be no such puzzle to us. But the fact is, the Chinese have made Feng-shui a black art, and those that are proficient in this art and derive their livelihood from it, find it to their advantage to make the same mystery of it, with which the European alchemists and astrologers used to surround  their vagaries. Every resident of China, however, requires by a few years practical intercourse with the Chinese a tolerable idea of what Feng-shui is, and most of my readers no doubt know, that practically speaking it is simply a system of superstition, supposed to teach people where and how to build a tomb or erect a house so as to insure those concerned everlasting prosperity and happiness.

Since my arrival in China I have had a great many practical collisions with Feng-shui, and having for many years collected notes on the subject and studied its literature in all its branches, I now propose to lay out the result of my studies before the public. Feng-shui is however, as I take it, but another name for natural science; and I must as therefore the indulgence of my readers for introducing a general outline of Chinese physical science in order to make the system of Feng-shui intelligible. (Feng-shui: Or, The Rudiments of Natural Science in China by Ernest John Eitel)

Eitel wants to treat it as a folk-science rather than superstition; for Rybczynski, the importance of feng-shui is not its validity or relationship to Chinese science, but rather its democratic nature. It applies to all forms of architectural practice in China:

Feng-shui continues to be used widely in Hong Kong and surreptitiously in mainland China, although the regime there has declared it illegal, at least for local consumption. That is curious, since feng-shui has always ignored wealth and social rank; it has determined orientation and placement and identified the particular spiritual characteristics of a site, both for the grave of a simple peasant and for the tombs of the emperor’s family and retinue. The same spirit walls I observed in simple farmhouses I also saw in the Forbidden City in Beijing, shielding the entrance in the living quarters of the last empress and protecting her from sha-ch’i—the death spirit—a spirit that apparently drew no distinction between palaces and sheds. (19-20)

While the consideration of protecting residents from “spirits” through architectural features may be quaint and not particularly unique (Pennsylvania Dutch barn stars, for example), what seems more interesting to me is the implication of something more deeply rooted in pre-industrial science. Eitel describes it better:

They see a golden chain of spiritual life running through every form of existence binding together, as in one living body, everything that subsists in heaven above or in earth below. What has so often been admired in the natural philosophy of the Greeks—that the made nature live; that they saw in every stone, every tree, a living spirit; that they people the sea with naiads, the forest with satyrs,—this poetical, emotional and reverential way of looking at natural objects, is equally so a characteristic of natural science in China.

The whole system of Feng-shui is based on this emotional conception of nature. (ibid.)

This opening chapter, by its emotional implications at least, connects strongly with my prior reading in Sennett. If architecture is a thing that not only houses humans but also moves them, then feng-shui might not be so crazy after all.

*Postscript: looking through the footnotes, it turns out that Rybczynski used Eitel as a primary source as well.