Vasha7's Reviews > Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home by Witold Rybczynski
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May 29, 2011

really liked it
Read in November, 2007

This is a short book, written in a style as comfortable as its subject matter. I'm sure that Rybczynski is not the first person to have written on this subject; nonetheless, it's good to have a work for a popular audience that covers the deceptively simple-seeming idea : what is "hominess"? Although I knew in the abstract that the ways people use their living spaces has changed, still, I was surprised by having the development of privacy, intimacy, and domesticity pointed out. Rybczynski's treatment of the historical developments largely rejects sweeping theoretical explanations (based on universalizations of psychology or economy for example) -- although he clearly has read some of the theorists -- and instead favors discussion of contingent local circumstances. I found this congenial to my own way of thinking about historiography; still, I suspect that something like this might make a basis for reading more theoretically-oriented works.

One way that the author's own background (he's an architect) contributed to the book is in his understanding of the institutional forces involved in the building and furnishing of houses. His discussion of why innovations like running water and central heating took so long to be adopted in 19th-century houses even after they were available centers on the division of labor between architects and interior decorators: neither considered themselves responsible for the mechanical aspects of the house, and so those fell into the cracks. The author also points out (importantly) that it was only when the people using the house the most -- the women -- insisted on being involved in planning and designing that improvements were made, starting with Catherine Beecher's pioneering books in the 1840s and continuing with the huge contributions of the "domestic engineers" such as Christine Frederick and Lillian Gilbreth in the early 20th century.

The last two chapters concern the twentieth century, and what went wrong when home design began to be ruled by Modernism, which created spaces that were fashionable and unmistakably new, but which no-one liked to live in. He pointed out that there was an explicit moral crusade among Modernist architects that people were not supposed to be comfortable in modern spaces -- luxury and ease were anti-modern values. Yet these theorists did not succeed in changing the culture. In the middle ages, people accepted uncomfortable houses without privacy because that was the nature of the culture of the time; but the new concepts became widespread 300 years ago, and have not gone away yet. In other words, architecture cannot by itself shape culture.

One thing that Rybczynski does not mention, but I wonder about -- could it be that Modernist architecture and home design were a rejection, not just of "bourgeois" values, but of all things associated with "femininity"? That occurred to me in the discussion of Art Deco -- the way writers of the time described it was as highly feminine; and it was also the last major style that was comfortable (though not "cozy" in its more luxurious manifestations). By the 1920s, men in many professions were feeling threatened by encroachment of women; perhaps architects felt the need to assert control over the domestic environment and erase traces of "femininity".

Though this book is just a small overview, it provides good food for thought.
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