Tradition 2: Rybczynski & Modernism

The same friend (a cultural geographer) who recommended Fussell’s book as we began remodeling also suggested Home by Witold Rybczynski. This wonderfully compact book begins with our nostalgia for the past (exemplified in the period-piece offices of Ralph Lauren, Estee Lauder and Malcolm Forbes). He asks: “Is it simply a curious anachronism, this desire for tradition or is it a reflection of a deeper dissatisfaction with the surrounding that our modern world has created? What are we missing that we look so hard for in the past?” (13)

Rybczynski’s critique (done with wit and wisdom) reminds us so many modern projects assume our minds define our body’s experience. For some of us, pure aesthetics has a strong hold. But, frankly, he would say, no matter how beautiful a chair, if it cuts into our thighs and leaves us immobile & set back amidst chrome and stretched leather, we are neither a comfortable guest nor a comfortable host. This as well as his chapter on “efficiency” prompts a couple of posts.

To answer his initial question, he traces the history of an “idea”–that of the home. He begins with St. Jerome in His Study set, as was the custom, not in the Bethlehem nor fifth century of St. Jerome but the sixteenth century and the Nuremeberg of Durer. Devoting chapters to intimacy & privacy, domesticity, commodity & delight, ease, light & air, efficiency, style & substance, he leads us, in the end, to “Comfort and Well-being.” But this trajectory is sidetracked in the twentieth century. First, by the grandiose plans of Stalin & Hitler, discussed lately by Wretchard, and secondly, by the clean skyscrapers of the international style. As beautiful as these towers stand against skylines, they are not “human” in scale. Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” became increasingly austere; bracing; it cries out “style” but imposes distance and order.

He finds an extension in contemporary minimalist interiors. The subject of a 1985 House and Garden article, “Living in Zen” is an art dealer’s flat: in it lights, children’s toys, kitchen appliances are hidden.

[T]he bathroom is so pristine that it is not provided with shelves or cabinets—the owner is obliged to carry the toothbrush and soap with her in what she calls a “wet-pack.” If this sounds awkward, we are assured that she “cheerfully insists that the minor inconveniences of her disciplined way of living are worth putting up with for the sake of a highly refined way of life” (196-7)

Well, yes, “refined.” The word reverberates, echoing its source of “finis” – the end. The end of man, we think. But this is a paradox: this environment with so little sign of man is at the same time the most man-made, the most “unnatural” of environments. Indeed the very thought of raising a flock of children in such a house strikes us as funny – or sad. Any evidence of man’s body, his physical nature, his dusty fallibility, his tendency to forget the idea and be the man stains the purity of line and metal. This style negates our natures in sharp contrast to the periods we often see as prohibitionist (the Puritans & the Victorians). They recognized and even relished the power of our bodies while acknowledging that the tainted fecund energy properly directed civilizes.

In the thirties, Le Corbusier

deplored the bourgeois habit of collecting furniture—he derided their homes as ‘labyrinths of furniture’—he had to admit that some pieces—tables and chairs—were necessary. But he had the answer to that as well: New Spirit homes would no longer contain furniture, instead they would be furnished with equipment. (188-9)

This led to the rejection of decorative art, often the province of the nostalgic & sentimental, but also of the human and specific.

Rybczynski contrasts this with the long American movement toward efficient and comfortable homes governed by a pragmatic aesthetic. Lillian Gilbreth, an earlier advocate of time-saving domesticity, argued the “first two rules for improving the layout of the home were ‘Be guided by convenience, not convention’ and ‘Consider the personalities and habits of your family, yourself included.’” (191). The simile another writer in this tradition, Ellen Richards, uses is “the house as a home is merely outer clothing, which should fit as an overcoat should, without wrinkles and creases that show their ready-made character.” As Rybczynski observes, at first glance this resembles Le Corbusier’s remark twenty years later that “one can be proud of having a house as serviceable as a typewriter,” (190) but differs in an important way: the relation of the human to the house was reversed. Material is cut and sewn to fit the human, but the human adapts to the metal machine. Rybczynski, in an observation freighted with lessons of the twentieth century, concludes “No wonder everything must be put away. It is not only clutter than has been removed from this interior, but all signs of sloppiness and human frailty, and even of design itself” (198).

But it began with a different context. Given the tendency toward neo-Classicism “favored by dictators—by both Hitler and Mussolini, and as it turned out, by Stalin” not surprisingly, “the new socialist postwar governments in England, Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries responded favorably to the left-leaning rhetoric of the Modern School” (202). Indeed, it became the “Free World” style-

representing democracy and America in the Cold War. In this role it was not seen as just another architectural style; not only white in appearance, it was morally unblemished as well. It was a break with the past, a past that was increasingly seen as worthless and immoral, at least architecturally speaking. (202)

Ah, the break with the past!

Europeans associate post World War II modernism with American culture. Perhaps it is fear of the soulless mechanical that (unconsciously) underlies WTO protests and permeates some Europeans’ vision of America. Certainly, Americans retain optimism about the future, about technology, about the mechanical. And this optimism can lead us, as well, to a “cult of novelty” and of disposability, which negates the very tradition toward comfort Rybczynski has catalogued. To the European, modernism is America.

However, this is hardly an extension of, say, the scientific domesticity that spawned a vast network of Home Extension agents aimed at a more efficient kitchen, better tasting meals and comfortable living rooms. At least to a Midwesterner, the spare style seemed European. And modernism was certainly influenced by the European avant-garde:

[t]hey turned Loos’s ideas inside out, and the interiors of their houses became just as white and blank as the exteriors. All vestiges of the past were removed. If ornament was a crime, so was luxury. No more rich materials, no more extravagance, no more frills. It was not long before even bourgeois ease itself came under attack. (200)

Indeed, “the more radical architects were open about it. Extreme measures were required to ‘prevent us from falling prey to dullness, to habit, and to comfort’ (emphasis added).”

Joining Netflix, I thought we’d watch some Antonioni. (I wanted my sixteen-year-old to see what influenced me in my early twenties – and now I wonder what I was thinking, both then and now.) My family got burned out quite soon, somewhere between La Notte and L’Avventura. They agree his cinematic vision is powerful; the spare music, like the spare plot, haunts our imaginations, sucks us in. Still, such nihilism, such world weariness! Did I once see that as sophistication? Watch them over and over the year before I left for Europe? What did I think I’d find? How impressionable I was! How sad. Still, they fascinate, disturb in their tight coherence, picturing a world with none. Antonioni captures with clarity this urban, mechanical, and quite, quite modern milieu, this void, the sadness of the ineffectual attempts to speak, to touch one another.

Do Europeans believe we want a world from which any sign of man has been erased and we are left with. . . what? Stainless steel and empty workplaces we call home? Or is this their vision – European modernism? Do they, do we really want to eliminate the human? (I’d thought of calling this “Why They Hate Us – And We Them.” I’m sure this hasn’t sufficient explanatory power for the gulf between us on some days, but I do suspect that the sterility of that modernism is one we both fear.) Of course, this is a new century. Have we moved on, entered the land of post modernism? Perhaps we’ve crossed the border and are standing in a new world we create as we speak. But let’s return to the not so distant past and see what we’ve brought with us.

The frontispiece for Rybczynski’s chapter on “Austerity” is a Wassily chair; this embodies a theme he has been advancing throughout the book – the movement from hard benches to comfortable chairs follows the history of the “home.” He notes the importance of “motility”–our desire, indeed necessity to move about. Sitting still is uncomfortable for us; it always has been. Finding the right light for a book we are reading, expressing ourselves in movement as we talk, leaning forward in anticipation of another’s response, drinking our tea as we lean back and contemplate what we’ve read, what they’ve said, what we’ve thought. Our comfort requires motility and our heart needs it for we want our body to move in union with our mind. It is that dissociation that has so troubled us, so alienated us. But motility is not possible in the “classic” chairs of the twentieth century. He contrasts the well-loved but scorned “La-Z-Boy” with the Wassily chair. Modern designers prize novelty over comfort; he quotes Philip Johnson, who instructed his students “people who liked the appearance of the Barcelona chairs in his home would enjoy sitting in them, even though, by his own admission, these are ‘not very comfortable chairs.’” (210) As Rybczynski wryly observes, “There is something charmingly naïve about this belief in the power of art to overcome physical reality.” Or he cows them; “they are simply willing to put up with discomfort in the name of art—or prestige—which is not the same thing.” (211-212) Not surprisingly, only a small percentage of Americans choose furniture “in the very latest style” in polls. He has answered his initial question: Those period room offices were for stylish entrepreneurs who could not put modern comfort in their offices – that would be too, too, ordinary. So they turn to period piece museum settings: “people turn to the past because they are looking for something that they do not find in the present—comfort and well-being.” (215)

His emphasis upon the Wassily chair may remind us of the role of the father’s chair in Frasier as well as All in the Family. I never watched the latter, so am open to other’s views, but it seemed to represent the stubborn, old-fashioned views of a narrow bigot. It reinforced both the low-brow nature of the recliner and the show’s essential argument that bigotry was not “stylish.” (Which has not led to the deepest thinking in modern America.) However, in Frasier (to which I wasn’t loyal, but watched more often) the chair represented comfort in a high rise apartment that would be harshly austere if left to Frasier’s tastes. But the chair is important to his father, Martin, the ex-policeman, who mentors with warmth and affection his two modish and conflicted sons. As psychiatrists, they may know something about the psyche but as an ex-policeman, their father clearly knows human nature – and, with his eyes open, loves it. His sons’ wives are acerbic; they are brittle, dry, ascetic – they value a modernist style over the sensual, the warm, the comfortable. Their father hasn’t, not really, approved of these marriages. They bring out one side of the brothers, he prefers the other. The chair Martin hangs on to, insisting that it remain in a room where it clearly doesn’t fit, represents the opposite—warmth, intimacy, domesticity. Its patch emphasizes the imperfection of the comfortable, a relation to a rich tradition of memories he is unwilling to give up; it offers, as does his character, an affection in which his urban and often alienated sons can sink back and relax. They are modern – often dissociated, self-conscious. He is not.

Frasier wants to eliminate the chair, to impose an austere style upon his father; Rybcznski sees in such choices

a rupture in the evolution of domestic comfort. It represents an attempt not so much to introduce a new style—that is the least of it—as to change social habits, and even to alter the underlying cultural meaning of domestic comfort. Its denial of bourgeois traditions has caused it to question, and reject, not only luxury but also ease, not only clutter but also intimacy. Its emphasis on space has caused it to ignore privacy, just as its interest in industrial-looking materials and objects has led it away from domesticity. Austerity, both visual and tactile, has replaced delight. What started as an endeavor to rationalize and simplify has become a wrong-headed crusade; not, as is often claimed, a response to a changing world, but an attempt to change the way we live. It is a rupture not because it does away with period styles, not because it eliminates ornament, and not because it stresses technology, but because it attacks the very idea of comforts itself.” (214)

But we want Frasier to fail – and suspect he does himself. As Rybczynski observes, we moderns don’t look to the past with nostalgia because we reject technology – we love central heating and electric lighting. Nor because of sympathy for another period – we often have little interest in whether architecture or a piece of furniture is Victorian or Jeffersonian. Rather “people turn to the past because they are looking for something that they do not find in the present—comfort and well-being.” (215)

In his last chapter, Rybczynski concentrates on “comfort” which is “obviously both objective and subjective.” While he defines the “nine different aspects of workplace enclosure,” each of us achieves & weights these differently. He quotes Billy Baldwin, the interior designer, “Comfort to me is a room that works for you and your guests” (229) and then discusses a relaxed and intimate moment of conversation. Next he goes to Christopher Alexander, an architect who describes comfort in terms of a light, a chair and a handy sturdy place to put down a cup of tea, while spending a relaxed winter afternoon reading. Rybczynski concludes “comfort is both something simple and complicated. It incorporates many transparent layer of meaning—privacy, ease, convenience—some of which are buried deeper than others.” (230)

As we move into the twenty-first century, returning in some ways to the old tradition, he exhorts us: “We must rediscover for ourselves the mystery of comfort, for without it, our dwellings will indeed be machines instead of homes.” (232) He summarizes the history he has gone through in the early chapters and then observes “it may be enough to realize that domestic comfort involves a range of attributes—convenience, efficiency leisure, ease, pleasure, domesticity, intimacy, and privacy—all of which contribute to the experience; common sense will do the rest.” (231) His subtitle may be A Short History of an Idea, but his standard is “common sense.” The human need for comfort and intimacy, indeed, the human need to make a visitor comfortable, too, are expressed through personal choices which embody that universal.

Strong lines and pure form have their place, but such austerity fills us with dread. Instead of reflecting a picture of a loved child, its pure & empty spaces reflect what, our void? For a while, perhaps, the world of Antonioni with its chic worldweariness seemed attractive; we still see its art. Antonioni shows us emptiness – but not what fills it. That is up to us. And one thing we know, this austerity is no setting for a child. By negating the human, the purely linear negates the uncontrollable reality — growing and messy and unpredictable. We want toy boxes and chairs in which children can cuddle as they are read to. We want a table for a school project and cds strewn about on the carpet as our teenager seeks the right one. We want rooms that are settings for spontaneity and laughter and passionate outbursts. And, at the end of the day, we want to stretch out in the recliner or pull up next to our friend, each in a comfortable–stuffed and pillowed–wing chair that lets us lean forward to listen and back to laugh, our coffee cups on that table close by that is strewn with bookmarks and stray notes. We look at the coffee table, tainted, perhaps, by the scratch where our daughter’s cast struck the wood when she was marooned on that couch for long days. Remembering, as well, when the cast came off – remembering the life that has scarred and enriched the room. Our house, tainted by our own fallibility, our own idiosyncratic natures and interactions with one another– is softened and marked by the particular, the us. But it is also that human specificity that helps us reach the universal, our desire to comfort and be comforted.

7 thoughts on “Tradition 2: Rybczynski & Modernism”

  1. Bravo.

    Rybczynski is one of my favorite writers, and I think Home is his best book. His disucssion of the practical utility of the early 20th Century chairs, which were the perfection of centuries of skillful development, discarded by those in search of abstract artistic notions, is a case study in much of what ails the world.

    An interesting and higly critical take on Corbusier can be found in James C. Scott Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

  2. I can’t believe it, really.

    I am at my desk this morning with four or five texts on woodwork and furniture making. Specifically looking for chair-making ergonomics. I have just closed the first text and logged on Chicago Boyz just to see what’s going on.

    Man, that’s service!

    (BTW, building a large booth in the kitchen under a large window)

  3. Brilliant post. I’ll link this to my new blog. An excellent summary of the conflicts between the Modern movement and societies’ responses to it.

    Rybczynski’s name was always being mentioned during my architecture school days. Somehow I never got around to reading him, but maybe that should be my next book once I’m done reading my current Lewis Mumford epic.

    I own a Corbusier chaise lounge and a Mies Barcelona ottoman. They’re actually quite comfortable and guests of mine have been quite surprised at how the ‘machine to relax in’ is such a pleasure to rest on. Still many other mid-century moderns are uncomfortable, especially the Wassily chair. I admit my guilt in seeing these stylish pieces of furniture more as pieces of artwork for the home than as a setting for family. Still there is a lot of contemporary furniture out there that is extremely comfortable and austere at the same time.

    Maybe it’s me but I don’t think I can be truly comfortable without being enveloped by beauty.

  4. Lex,
    Wow, that’s the first time I’ve seen Seeing Like a State mentioned anywhere. I myself found it about six years ago in an architectual bookstore in San Francisco. Although the book kind of peters-out in the end; it has some fantastic chapters, for the description of the early days of the Russian revolution to his, yes, eviscerating of LeCorbrusier. I still find that I am very influenced by it.

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