Change Is Slow to Come Home

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By Katherine Salant
Saturday, January 24, 2009

For more than 20 years, architect and author Witold Rybczynski has focused on the houses and lifestyles of ordinary people. His books have covered centuries of regular living, from "Home: a Short History of an Idea," from 1986, in which he reaches back through the years to explain the evolution of the modern home, to the recent "Last Harvest," about a new-home community in suburban Philadelphia.

In "Home," Rybczynski connects changes in homes to evolving ideas about the place of individuals in society. In 1600, most inhabitants of European cities saw little distinction between public and private realms, and homes were often filled with extended family, friends and commercial activity. Over time, however, Dutch intellectuals developed new concepts of privacy, which slowly filtered out to the general populace. By 1800, most urban dwellers across Northern Europe had come to regard their houses as private places intended for family members, with specific areas designed for receiving visitors.

This evolution was accompanied by the gradual emergence and refinement of the material goods that we associate with house and home, including furniture, utensils, crockery and fireplaces with smokeless chimneys. Rooms also gained specific functions, and wealthy people got a room of their own.

Rybczynski has also turned his attention to himself, in the autobiographical "My Two Polish Grandfathers." Born in Scotland during World War II, he was a child of displaced Polish immigrants. He grew up speaking Polish and English, and at age 10 moved with his family to French-speaking Canada. He became a self-described "accidental Canadian" and, because his family urged him to pursue something practical, an "accidental architect." He is now a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and writes for Slate.com, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., as well as for other publications.

In "The Most Beautiful House in the World," published in 1989, Rybczynski taps into his experience to declare that the most beautiful house is not one designed by a famous architect, but one you build for yourself. And he suggests that small and humble buildings are as worthy of serious consideration as Gothic cathedrals.

Rybczynski's own most beautiful house was a shed he designed and built with the help of his wife and several friends as a place to build a boat. When the project was finally finished after three years, he confessed with disarming candor that his ardor for boatbuilding had vanished. After he decided to convert the finished structure into a house, he was shocked (!!) and exasperated (!!) to discover that his wife insisted on participating in the design for the place that they would eventually call home.

When asked Rybczynski how current upheavals in the housing market might affect new houses, he said that appearance might change, perhaps in ways that signal that the owners are green. He notes that homes' appearances are always evolving: In more than 400 years of European settlement in North America, at least 12 architectural styles have appeared, and some have been periodically recycled, including the currently popular Colonial, Victorian and Craftsman ones. However, he thinks there will be little change in the long-standing cultural habits and beliefs that underlie many of the choices homeowners make, even though they now serve no practical purpose.

The most obvious anachronism in the modern house is a fireplace, a potent symbol of what Rybczynski calls the "house as a sanctuary from the travails of the outside world." Even Modernist houses that depart from conventional ideas of home design in almost every way have a fireplace, he said, though it may be a stripped-down version without a mantel.

Another anachronism is an elaborate front door and foyer. These are so rarely used that the foyer functions as a staircase chamber in most households. Nonetheless, the front door and foyer remain must-haves, creating a clearly defined spot for welcoming visitors and a threshold between "in here" and "out there." Although many houses now have a foyer next to the garage, where most family members enter the house, the front entry will remain, Rybczynski said.

Likewise, he said, the demise of the formal living and dining room have been predicted for years, but these also tap into the public-private space tradition as well as the custom of having special places that are used only once or twice a year.

Another common feature is the powder room, which is something of a hybrid. A more recent arrival in American homes, it taps into the customary public-private split, keeping visitors out of bathrooms in private spaces. However, unlike the formal living and dining rooms, it is used on a regular basis in most households.

Rybczynski concluded by saying that the cultural traditions embedded in our houses change slowly. Thus, for example, living and dining rooms often serve as home offices.

Similarly, what used to be a stable at the edge of a homeowner's property has been repositioned, repurposed and relocated to be the garage, attached to the house. The result, he said, is "not beautiful, but most people don't object." And no matter how many architects carp about streetscapes dominated by garage doors, Rybczynski said, this latter-day version of the traditional stable is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site, http://www.katherinesalant.com.

Copyright 2009 Katherine Salant


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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