The Magazine

Uprooted Man

A chronicler of housing in search of a home.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By THOMAS SWICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"It was," he writes, "our most effective way of communicating."

At McGill, Rybczynski studied architecture, choosing the field not out of any long-held fascination (homemade train scenery notwithstanding) but because it satisfied both his parents' wish that he have a profession, and his own desire to do something creative. It was Bauhaus time:

We were taught that proper buildings had flat roofs, color was to be used sparingly, and decoration was to be avoided altogether. Materials were to be used "honestly," that is, plainly, without extraneous ornament. .  .  . Beauty itself was never mentioned.

One summer he accompanied a classmate to Europe. "Architectural travel," he writes, "is a long-standing tradition that derives from the so-called Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries." In France and Switzerland they sought out buildings designed by Le Corbusier--or Corbu, as he and his friends called him--and admired their sculptural qualities. But the real revelation came in Greece. Rybczynski had gone there unenthusiastically, convinced from his studies that classical architecture was "repetitive" and weak on "structure and function."

Yet seeing it in the context of its surroundings, which was rarely possible in photographs, inspired his awe. "I had never before," he writes of the Parthenon, "been so moved by a building."

A year later, the recipient of a scholarship, he made a housing tour of North America that included, among other places, Quebec's Lower Town; Reston, Virginia; Harlem Park in Baltimore; and Mill Creek in Philadelphia. At the University of Pennsylvania, his future employer, he came across a new word written on the wall of a studio in the architecture school: KAHNFUSED.

It is always encouraging when the successful speak of failure. Rybczynski's thesis, a hotel on the Gaspé Peninsula, sounds like an early Canadian version of Atlantis--with more architectural integrity, for sure, but just as spectacularly out-of-place. The appreciation that eluded him when he presented the thesis should now be his for unflinchingly writing about it.

After university, and some time spent in architectural offices, Rybczynski went back to Europe, ending up by chance on the Balearic island of Formentera. It was a carefree place--with more of a hippie than a Franco vibe--but he made use of his time there by designing his first house. It proved to be a personal breakthrough. After great anguish and self-doubt, he realized that he didn't have to come up with something revolutionary; he could take traditional features--like the high ceilings in big rooms--and work with them in a way that would produce a pleasing, workable variation on the local style.

This project also introduced him to a lifelong passion. Though he would spend two decades on minimum-cost housing, an understanding of the family house would become an architectural and literary pursuit.

The island listlessness eventually got old--"my banker grandfather .  .  . asserted himself"--and Rybczynski returned home, gradually making his way up the architectural ladder. He worked for a time with Moshe Safdie, designer of Habitat for Expo 67, and joined some international housing projects. And he continued, like all young architects, designing houses for friends and family.

As for his own living quarters, he did more than design. "Sooner or later," he writes, "an architect should build a house for himself." The construction of what was to be a boathouse takes up the last and least satisfying chapter of this book, and not just because it is adapted from a previous one ("The Most Beautiful House in the World"). There is a lot about logistics and workloads--"It took us only a few weeks to complete the framing and to nail on the sheathing that braced the spindly studs and rafters"--that only a fellow builder could love. Intensely focused on his task, Rybczynski skimps on his wife, who appears suddenly and fleetingly (after a couple ex-girlfriends have been properly introduced).

But the chapter does succeed in conveying the tedium of construction, a tedium so great that it killed his desire to build a vessel. Instead, he turned the boathouse into a home, nicely extending the theme of duality in his life.

Thomas Swick, the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania With a Maverick Traveler.