Book of the week

6th April 2001 at 01:00
HOME: a short history of an idea. By Witold Rybczynski. Simon amp; Schuster Pocket. Books pound;7.99.

What are you looking forward to most at the end of term? The Ideal Home Show finishes this weekend, so will it be reading Wallpaper* magazine or Living Etc, cruising the DIY superstores or staying at home and doing as little DIY or anything else as possible?

Witold Rybczynski is a Canadian architectural historian based at the University of Pennsylvania. He was startled that the concept of comfort or enjoyment of the home was not mentioned in the six years of his architect's training.

This is a history of what human beings feel they need when they imagine a retreat of whatever scale, and feel miserable without. It charts how we have come to believe that we are entitled to comfort, privacy and intimacy - all the things we expect the staffroom to lack, for example, and hope to find behind our front doors.

The vogue for accounts of social developments surrounding the codfish or the colour purple (Rybczynksi has himself written a history of the screw) has helped this slim US-published volume find a market here. Original publication pre-dates the UK's recent wave of home embellishment TV series, but Rybczynksi would probably be as alarmed by the concept of turning the front porch into St Mark's Square or the sofa into a Roman chariot as he is by the minimalist Eighties "conspicuous austerity" bathroom, with nowhere to put the soap and toothbrush. He believes homes should be themselves.

The chronological series of chapters pinpoints the moments of most dramatic change in quality of domestic life for all social classes, mostly in Western Europe and the US. These are usually fuel-related (closed stoves for burning peat, oil lamps, gas and electricity) or labour-related (the 17th-century Dutch pioneered the conveniently arranged kitchen because they paid their servants well and could afford fewer of them, so the merchants' wives shared the chores). But what makes this book different from histories of plumbing or soft furnishing (althugh Rybczynski's speculations on the chair are riveting) is its emphasis on the drive to make home life more comfortable - to do up the house - and the battle between architects and the individual for control.

Rybczynski's glimpses of the first steps towards creating private spaces capture all the pleasure and yearning involved: it's like reading the late classic food writer, Elizabeth David, who would approve of his views on kitchens ("the pragmatism of the early domestic engineers has been lost in the emphasis on visual appearanceI a kitchen does not function like an office; if anything, it is more like a workshop").

Comfort was not a familiar concept in the medieval manor or monastery; the individual aspired to sit above the salt, and accepted that the bench would be hard. The first stirrings of the homing instinct came with 16th-century Norwegian traders who took in apprentices but kept the family sleeping accommodation separate.

The first mass celebration of the home is tied to the Low Countries' need to build on precious reclaimed land. Alongside venture capitalism and the tulip trade, the growth industry in 17th-century Holland was glazing. Large windows lightened the load on expensive foundations - and let light pour into the domestic scenes of Emanuel de Witte, Jan Vermeer and Pieter van Hooch. Art for the home was another growth industry and this, Rybczynksi points out, is how we know so much about this society's respect for home maintenance, understated taste and concern for practicality.

In a celebration of De Witte's "Interior with a Young Woman playing the Virginals", he notes: "The rooms are illuminated to emphasise their depth and distance as well as their physical, material reality. Instead of being a picture of a room, it is a picture of a home."

This book will generate ideas for teaching humanities, history of art, design and technology, PSHE and more, but it is meant to be read in a favourite chair, while whatever needs doing around the house is blissfully neglected.

GERALDINE BRENNAN


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