Brideshead and the Tower Blocks

Patrick Wright

  • Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski
    Heinemann, 256 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 434 14292 1

Witold Rybczynski introduces his book with a telling anecdote. During the six years of his architectural education, ‘the subject of comfort’ was only mentioned once. He finds this ‘a curious omission’, since comfort should surely be central to architecture – like justice to law or health to medicine. The point is a strong one, and Professor Rybczynski duly piles it on. Bitterly deprived by his own education, he can only write from a position of ‘ignorance’. As he sets out to discover the ‘meaning of comfort’, he is at pains to differentiate his own ecological approach from the high-rise proclamatory style, full of arrogant expertise and alienated technique, with which his profession still tries to hide the ‘fundamental poverty’ of its modern ideas. Here, then, is another architect going all human on us, eating humble pie and sending himself on a remedial course to find out what everyone else has always known.

This is a familiar rhetorical ploy. Rybczynski’s genial investigation of the domestic interior is stretched, like so much chintz upholstery, over a polemical framework which is all the more effective for being padded and partially covered. As William Gass pointed out in 1986 when this book was published to rapturous reviews in the United States, Home contains an assault on the ‘modern’ that conforms to type. It appeals to ‘us’, the long-suffering public, and it points the finger at ‘they’ who have deprived us of everything we love best. ‘They’ have taken the ‘tunes’ from our music, the ‘real people’ from our novels, the ‘figures’ from our paintings and the ‘comfort’ from our homes. Never mind, as Gass continued, that it remains easier to publish and sell a 19th-century novel than a 20th-century one, or that symphony societies exist largely ‘to ensure that each season the same dead horses will be ritually flogged.’ Never mind that the modern house is a rarity even in the United States – ‘there may be two in town’ – or that the truly modern interior only turns up with any frequency in ‘watch the rich’ magazines. It is the ‘backyard barbecue’ and not the back-breaking Wassily chair which is ubiquitous. But the well-rehearsed sense of threat persists.

Rybczynski opens his quest for comfort by introducing his reader to Ralph Lauren, the tycoon of ‘life-style marketing’. Here, and as shown in a million advertisements, is the ‘comfortable man’: close-cropped greying hair, a ‘half-smile’ on a tanned face and a silver Rolex peeping out from behind a jacket sleeve. Lauren may pull in an eight-figure income, but he pictures himself in Levis, a frayed shirt and whatever else may ‘feel good’. Launched in 1984, the Ralph Lauren Collection offered a ‘total home environment’ in which clothes and furnishings were matched. Rybczynski found it at Bloomingdales in four different lines, each one assembled round a nostalgic theme of its own. ‘Log Cabin’ was full of rough-hewn beams, brushed flannel and allusions to the frontier. ‘Jamaica’ was a ruffle – trimmed Sunbelt dream fully fitted with verandah and Planter’s Punch. ‘New England’ was restored Vermont and rather staid. ‘Thoroughbred’ was sourced in Brideshead televised: a cluttered Anglophilic fantasy with mounted pheasants and mahogany.

Ralph Lauren is the ‘comfortable man’ who has made fortunes selling homely nostalgia to the affluent, and Witold Rybczynski squares up to him as the user-friendly professor of architecture who will offer a more genuinely historical account of these invented traditions and the enthusiasms to which they speak. With a quick reference to Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in his Study he plants his reader at the door to his own study in Quebec. There on the wall is old Saint Jerome in Nuremberg circa 1514, bundled up against the cold with his inkpot and quill, his slippers and his crucifix. Despite the centuries which have passed (to say nothing of the lion which is snoozing on the floor), we could still walk into this room and feel at home. Meanwhile, back in the 1980s here’s our author at work in the house that he designed for himself in rural Quebec. The wooden ceiling slopes down ‘like an upturned boat’, but though the room resembles a ‘Parisian attic’, it actually looks out over an orchard, a line of poplars and the Adirondack Mountains. Rybczynski swivels on his creaky wooden armchair, another comfortable figure in Levis and frayed shirt as we must surely presume, and introduces us to the whole funky scene: the phosphorescent glow of the word-processor, the grey dhurrie, the Gujarati wall-hanging, the mementoes scattered about, the creative disorder of the desk ...

Insisting that ‘not so much has changed in over four hundred years,’ Rybczynski whisks us off on a brisk historical tour designed to prove this thoroughly anti-Modernist point. Our guide has studied his sources closely – Huizinga, Braudel, Giedion, Ariès. Praz – and he quibbles agreeably with these higher authorities as he shows us round selected buildings of the old world. First on the itinerary is a Medieval town house: a public place full of the ‘crush and hubbub of life’, where living and work are combined, and where the inhabitants are just camping out in scarcely-differentiated space. By the time we get to 17th-century Paris, the bourgeois house has four or five floors and an internal courtyard. Cooking has been separated out, and there is greater distinction between servants, tenants and the main family. There may have been panelling and frescoes in the residences of the Parisian nobility, but there was no stimmung: no sense of interior intimacy about the place. For this we must travel to late 17th-century Kristiana in Norway, where Frederik Jacobsen Brun lives with his wife Marthe. The Bruns have installed smoke-free stoves, and these allow considerable decentralisation of space. There is a proper differentiation between upstairs and downstairs, and it is only the infants who share the parental bed. After settling the older children upstairs, Frederik and Marthe come down to chat over the day’s events by candlelight. After listening in to their homely conversation, Rybczynski reports that the values of intimacy and privacy have at last come into the world: ‘the husband and wife have begun to think of themselves – perhaps for the first time – as a couple.’

Treating ‘home’ as an evolving amalgam of architectural style, domestic technology and cultural values, Rybczynski traces it through various formations – the ‘feminised’ domestic interior of the 17th-century Netherlands, Rococo at Louis XV’s Versailles, the ‘masculine’ style of the Georgian country house in England – before bringing it to perfection in the late 19th century. The housewife may only just be starting to whizz around in busy harmony with her labour-saving devices, but the architect has already come up with the revivalist style that can best accommodate her. Like ‘Shingle’ in the United States, English ‘Queen Anne’ offered a small-scale house in which comfort, style and convenience were combined. And there, like so many of us, Rybczynski would have been glad to leave the story of ‘home’: a tale of ‘gradual evolution’ which has successfully accommodated the disappearance of servants, the coming of electricity, and the advent of household management. All could have been well, but for the catastrophe that comes next.

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[*] As Lynn Pearson shows in a fine new study, The Architectural and Social History of Co-operative Living (Macmillan, 274 pp., £33, March. 0 333 40620 6), women have not just ‘broken out’ of the home: they have attempted to re-design it with a different distribution of domestic labour. At least 15 co-operative housekeeping developments were built in England between 1874 and 1925. The co-operative living movement was concerned with working women’s housing (the ‘ladies residential chamber’) but also experimented with the more affluent family home. Arts and Crafts or ‘Queen Anne’ architects like Woysey and Godwin were involved, but there was also a Fabian interest in buildings which combined ‘flats’ with communal kitchen, dining and nursery facilities.