The homes people live in evolved out of simple need or grand design, or both, then were inevitably polished by the urge to change.
Buildings are subject to the same whims as last season's hemline, argues Witold Rybczynski in his upcoming, tenth book, "The Look of Architecture" ($25 hardcover, May 24, 2001, Oxford University Press), which compares architecture to fashion.
"When old buildings are torn down, the motive may be expediency or crass commercialism, but it may also be a desire for something new. This is as true of buildings as it is of women's hats," he writes.
Witold Rybczynski (VEE-told Rib-CHIN-ski) is known for his opinions about the kind of houses and community structures that people create and how they infuse them with meaning.
Rybczynski, Martin and Margy Meyerson professor of urbanism at Wharton/University of Pennsylvania, established this reputation in a series of notable books, including "Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986)," and "The Most Beautiful House in the World" (1989), which describes how he personally constructed his own house -- a reaction to decrees of mass builders.
Reflecting on current styles, Rybczynski says, "Have you noticed how many young architects are using tensioned wires as balusters in stair and balcony railings? Or bare polished concrete for floors? Or covering buildings with zinc, or titanium, and other unusual metals? These are all examples of how fashion makes itself felt in architecture."
Rybczynski approves of a trend to intelligent planning, as exemplified in the exclusive community of Windsor in Vero Beach, on the central east coast of Florida.
It includes a shift toward pedestrian villages, planned for people rather than for cars. Windsor demonstrates this idea with shell rock roads and narrow lanes and garages discreetly out of main view.
"Windsor is not a true community. It is unique, being a collection of second and third homes for extremely wealthy people. I think the buildings themselves are very handsome. In addition, the town plan, by Andres Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, creates a sense of urbanity that rivals that of St. Augustine -- buildings close to streets, overhanging balconies, courtyard gardens," he says.
At the other end of the economic scale, Rybczynski celebrates the positive inventiveness of people inhabiting Third World slums -- subject of much of his work during the 1970s and 1980s studying slums, building materials and sanitation facilities of China, India Africa, and Latin America.
He points to "the inventiveness and resilience of the persons living there," and to "the variety of building solutions, the dynamism -- I mean inventiveness -- in using scrap materials and odds and ends to fashion their houses."
Flattened oil drums and sheets of tin are used for walls and roofs, and auto windows are used for windows. "These people are poor, but in the context of developing countries, they are not the poorest of the poor but have got a foothold in the city -- they are usually from the country -- and are starting the long move to prosperity."
These people probably are taking part in the evolution of the home, a process Rybczynski described in "Home: A Short History of an Idea."
For example, he notes that the chair segued from a ceremonial piece to a decorative object gracing the walls of a room and only later became functional furniture we use today. And for much of history, there were no such things as specific living rooms, bedrooms or dining rooms. Rybczynski writes that a room served all purposes, with furniture moved around to accommodate the activity of the moment. Privacy was unknown, and houses often were full of people sharing common sleeping quarters.
Seventeenth-century Holland ushered in domesticity, as houses became subdivided with rooms for specialized purposes. Even then, "the thermal charms" of the Dutch house were still medieval, writes Rybczynski. "And the only way to achieve some comfort under such circumstances was to wear many clothes...Men wore half a dozen waistcoats, several pairs of trousers, and heavy cloaks; their wives wore as many as six petticoats under their skirts."
His own ventures at homebuilding were chronicled in "The Most Beautiful House in the World, describing how a workshed became a boathouse and finally his full-fledged dwelling. "It began with the dream of a boat," he writes.
Rybczynski's worldview has been colored by an especially peripatetic life. He was born in 1943 in Edinburgh, Scotland, son of Polish parents who had fled the Nazis. He spent his early childhood in Surrey, outside London, and settled at age 10 with his family in St. John's, a small town outside Montreal.
Residing in so many places can give one the feeling of not belonging to any one of them. "I was a Pole in England, an English boy in Canada, and an English-speaking person in French Quebec," says Rybczynski, who now lives in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.
"I feel more at home now."
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