The Most Beautiful House in the World (4)

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI can finally put this one down, with one last blurt.  I find that I may want to re-read Rybczynski’s prior book, Home. I wasn’t sure, at the time I read it, what I was looking for in it. It seemed oddly disconnected to me.

This one, on the other hand, is positively filled with connections. I’m not sure if it’s me, or any difference between the books. That’s one of the things I really loved about working on my lit degree; the opportunity to revisit books from multiple angles. I think I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about seven times before I graduated.

What I find myself fixated with in The Most Beautiful House in the World are minor allusions and asides: for example, there’s a brief comparison between gastronomy and architecture.

I wasn’t familiar with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and so this necessitated a detour through The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendental gastronomy: illustrated by anecdotes of distinguished artists and statesmen of both continents. I highly recommend it. The curious thing about Rybczynski’s comparison between food and buildings is that in times of stress, these are my two go-to areas to affirm life. That, and just making stuff. If you can cook, eat, enjoy your surroundings and make things that weren’t there before, this means you’re truly alive.

The late historian Peter Collins once blithely proposed that building design could be better understood by means of what he called the Gastronomic Analogy. With tongue only partly in cheek, he went on to make a convincing case. Both gastronomy and architecture found their beginning in the fulfillment of a necessary human need—eating and shelter, respectively. Both were characterized by an unusual combination of science and artistry; they merged actual materials with intellectual conceits and depended on logical rules as well as imagination. Both dealt with questions of good taste instead of fashion, and both depended on— and served— patrons. Like gastronomy, architecture was intended to give pleasure, and since it was a social art, it relied on the active participation of the public. The art of building emerges from the art of living, just as the art of cookery can be said to be the product of the art of eating. (50)

Rybczynski points out that gastronomy emerged right around 1800; this obliquely reminded me of Bill Bryson’s book At Home. Bryson makes the case that “comfort” as a concept, something that we aspire to, was pretty much absent from any concept of domestic architecture until around 1800. The connections here, between food and living, or better, between good food and living well, also provide central topics for my my favorite creative non-fiction writer, Michael Pollan.

It’s appropriate, then, that when Rybczynski makes the shift between building a boat-shed to building a home, that the the first challenge is the design of the kitchen. It is the room in a house that has changed the most in the last two hundred years, for a variety of reasons:

This is only partly for technological reasons, although the presence of dishwashing machines, microwave ovens, and an assortment of appliances must be taken into account. But we also use the kitchen differently. We spend both less and more time in it—that is, we want things to be convenient, but we also want the kitchen to be part of the house, not an isolated workplace. Hence the blending of dining room and kitchen. This is not so much “eating in the kitchen” as it is “cooking in the dining room.” (145)

The modifications that are necessary when someone takes possession of a new home are frequently centered on the kitchen. In my case, I modified my house for the presence of serious electronics– a new floor outlet in the living room with a separate circuit for a large stereo amplifier plus several new circuits for television and surround sound in the den. My kitchen needs modifying, but I haven’t done that yet really. All this new technology required increasing the power drop into the house significantly, from a 60 amp panel to a new 200 amp panel plus subpanel. My next door neighbor’s wife demanded a new electric kitchen and had to increase the size of his power drop as well. But the changes from technology are small, compared to the social changes.

For example, virtually every room in my house had a door that could be closed or slid, even those missing by design (the living room, for example, was not framed for doors but weird little pocket doors had been cobbled in). I immediately removed all of them. There were signs of forced entry in the bedrooms upstairs as well, as if there had been many fierce arguments. The children’s bedrooms had doors that locked from the outside. All bedroom door locks have been removed, but there’s a weird vibe to living in a place that implies much drama. It’s a much more open habitat these days. But I digress, of course. Back to the kitchen!

When Rybczynski began discussing the kitchen with his client (wife), he became very aware of how the received architectural “wisdom” regarding kitchen counter sizes and storage arrangements was flawed, leading to a short discussion and end-note reference to a design analysis of Julia Child’s kitchen in Design Quarterly from 1977 (another digressive point of departure). The key take away from Child’s kitchen is that the kitchen was a place where technologies of living are deployed to meet social needs. It’s perhaps one of the most “considered” spaces in any house. Architectural wisdom spits out floor plans and designs based on a peculiar historical heritage.

That’s really been the centerpiece of my recent reading jags. Just how did we get to this? Where Rybczynski ultimately ends up, is in the transformation of buildings into symbols. This note felt really familiar, so I dug out a book I read around a decade ago, Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. In his introductory chapter on Gropius, Wolfe describes it this way:

Early in the game, in 1919, Gropius had been in favor of bringing simple craftsmen into the Bauhaus, yeomen, honest toilers, people with knit brows and broad fingernails who would make things by hand for architectural interiors, simple wooden furniture, simple pots and glassware, simple this and simple that. This seemed very working class, very nonbourgeois. . . .

Theo van Doesburg, fiercest of the Dutch Manifesto writers, took one look at Gropius’ Honest Toilers and expressionist curves and sneered and said: How very bourgeois. Only the rich could afford handmade objects, as the experience of the Arts and Crafts movement in England had demonstrated. To be nonbourgeois, art must be machine made. . . .

Overnight, Gropius dreamed up a new motto, a new heraldic device for the Bauhaus compound: “Art and Technology—a New Unity!” complete with exclamation point! There; that ought to hold van Doesburg and the whole Dutch Klatsch. Honest toilers, broad fingernails, and curves disappeared from the Bauhaus forever.

But that was only the start. The definitions and claims and accusations and counteraccusations and counterclaims and counterdefinitons of what was and was not bourgeois became so rarified, so arcane, so scholastic . . . that finally building design itself was directed at only one thing: illustrating this month’s Theory of the Century concerning what was ultimately, infinitely, and absolutely nonbourgeois. The buildings became theories constructed in the form of concrete, steel, wood, glass, and stucco. (Honest materials, nonbourgeois, theory of.) Inside out they were white or beige with the occasional contrasting detail in black or gray. (21-23)

Personally, I gravitate toward the white or beige thing (as do many people I suppose, see Pintrest). The original Bauhaus manifesto of 1919 sounds reasonable enough, but in the end if the craftsmen are pushed out in favor of superior technology (as Wolfe argues) and the expensive buildings are a form of self-loathing asceticism, then somehow we’ve jumped the shark. The concept of buildings as theories is an extension of Wolfe’s earlier book, The Painted Word, where he made pretty much the same claim about modern art. I don’t totally disagree, but Rybczynski takes a more muted approach: rather than arguing that buildings developed a signifying function, he argues that features of buildings signal their function through signs.

We usually think of signs as being written—FIRE EXIT or TRADESMEN’S ENTRANCE—but the visual clues present in architectural forms are also signs. Unlike written signs, however, architectural objects usually convey several messages at once. A brass object located in the center of the door at roughly eye level signals “door knocker.”If it is shaped like a hunting dog, it also suggests “country house” or simply “old fashioned.” The vertical metal plate that protects the door’s surface from excessive wear and tear signals that this is a swinging door, and if the plate is made of a precious material such as plated silver or ivory, it also conveys a sense of wealth or prestige; it would be natural to presume that such a door leads to somewhere—or someone—important. In that sense, Louis Sulivan’s famous dictum “Form follows function” could be recast as “form follows function, but it also designates function.” (162)

Rybczynski invokes structuralist theory from Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes to suggest that buildings both denote and connote in their signs. The capstone of his description of his final design for his house highlights his wife’s difficulty in recognizing the building he constructed as a home until he grafted a screened porch on the front.

The Most Beautiful House in the World was ultimately a short and pleasant read that lead me on a merry chase through memories of other books I’ve read, and some new ones I haven’t. It’s time to finally turn it loose and move on.

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.