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Rybczynski–Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home: A Short History of an IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short history of an Idea. 1986

I’ve been troubling over the notion of home since our Center for Public Humanities’ excellent Humanities Symposium on the topic this past February, partially out of the interest to punch up the substance of my own presentation on the idea of Home and the Pratice of the Humanities. Partly because I’ve been troubled by the contradictions between the ethic of welcoming the stranger and alien that is so central to Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) codes of ethics, and the fact that Christians proved to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of our country’s recent draconian policies against immigrants and refugees. A people who takes pride in family values has found it relatively easy nevertheless to support the destruction of the children and families of other people (even their fellow Christians’), and to support as well as a dramatic reduction in aid to identifiable refugees, to say nothing of the aggressive expulsion of wayfarers among us who are tagged as “illegal” because they were born somewhere else. Less painfully, I’ve been mulling over what it means for an institution of higher education to talk about itself as a family, for us to use language about our “home institution,” for us to think of our disciplines as “homes”, to have departmental homes, or indeed what it means for us in the humanities when we say we no longer feel “at home” in higher ed as it is currently practiced. I plunged into Rybczynski with these questions in mind. He did not answer my specific questions, since they are my questions and not his; he did, however, help me think a little harder about the idea of home and where it comes from.

Rybczynski’s book is, as the title of the book suggests, a history of the idea of home. At least it is partially that. In the first half of the book, Rybczynski makes clear that our current conceptions of home and all that it entails are cultural and historical constructs that tell us something about our period and not about a timeless entity. This kind of thing is obviously a given of cultural history for the past fifty or so years, but it was still good to think through this given our current obsessions of home, as well as with the dramatic transformations of home as a lived practice given changes in economy, entertainments, religion, and the like. Rybczynski approaches this topic as an architectural historian, and so much of his attention is given to space and how it is constructed, decorated (or not), and used. Among other things, he points out that the notion of the house as a private and intimate space for the nuclear family is a modern development, really almost unknown in the late middle ages, and only gradually developing through the early modern to Victorian period. Among other things, according to Rybczynski, there were no private spaces in medieval houses, even among the propertied classes—the space of the merchants or other clerics home itself being shared by servants and family alike, usually in one or at most two rooms that served as kitchen, dining room, office, and bedroom depending on the time of day.

For Rybczynski, this collective feature of the home reflected a certain cast of the late medieval or early modern mind, one that was not oriented toward intimate self-consciousness or toward private relations but towards one’s assigned place in the public world.

What mattered then was the external world, and one’s place in it. Life was a public affair, and just as one did not have a strongly developed self-consciousness, one did not have a room of one’s own. It was the medieval mind, not the absence of comfortable chairs or central heating, that explains the austerity of the medieval home. (35)

For Rybczynski, then, there is not real need for our modern conception of the home, or for our modern development of homes and neighborhoods with elaborate private spaces, precisely because our houses (and later homes) reflect the nature of the culture in which we are living. It was only later, as the consciousness of the modern European turned toward individuation that we began to conceive of the need for smaller, intimate, and more private spaces. Rybczynski put a great deal of emphasis on the development of the idea of “home” to cultural and architectural developments among the Dutch that gradually—given the relative power the Dutch exercised economically and culturally in the modern period—influenced much of the rest of northern Europe and England. For Rybczynski, the Dutch and those they influenced gave us the dominant idea of home that continues to influence how we think of it today. As he puts it, “[‘Home’] brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. ‘Home’ meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home” (62). Moreover, this transformation accompanied a new sense that the home was exclusively for the nuclear family unit, and that unit was housed in a separate private space separate from and independent of the rest of society in some crucial respects. “[In the Bourgeois period] the house was no longer only a shelter against the elements, a protection against the intruder—although these remained important functions—it had become the setting for a new compact social unit: the family. With the family came isolation, but also family life and domesticity” (77).

To some degree, after establishing the new power of the idea of “home in the 17th through 19th centuries, Rybczynski’s book becomes it’s second half a more straightforward analysis of the changes to houses themselves. That it, it becomes less a cultural history of the idea of the home and more an architectural history of the houses that provide the material ground out of which homes are imagined. He provides extended discussions of the development of the idea of comfort in the Victorian period, and on the notion that houses should be efficient in the industrial period of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he reflects extensively on the potential meanings of various kinds of décor and architectural transformations in the latter part of the 20th century, most of which he seems to see as negative developments. But in these later chapters there is very little discussion of the ways in which different kinds of home/houses reflect different dimensions of being human in the modern and late modern periods of the 20th century. To the degree that they do not, I found them less compelling, as if the thread of the narrative had been dropped and Rybczynski was not sure of what to make about 20th century and the kinds of people who made the homes that they did. This is a flaw in the book’s conception and execution as a whole, it seems to me. And I have read other books, using or building on or disputing with Rybczynski that do a better job of thinking through the cultural formations of houses and homes in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, people interested in the ways that the structure and design of houses has changed over time and reflect the times in which they are built will find the entire book a worthwhile read.

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