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.