Early in his practice, Montreal architect Witold Rybczynski was designing a house for a young couple. After he had spent hours with them, trying to squeeze the greenhouse and the sewing room they wanted into a plan they could afford, the husband said to him, “I never realized before what it was that an architect really did.” Initially surprised by the statement, the designer eventually concluded that architecture was a mysterious profession to most people. Since then, Rybczynski, now 46 and a professor of architecture at Montreal’s McGill University, has written two refreshingly accessible books on the subject of building. The first, his 1986 best-seller Home: A Short History of an Idea, examined the evolution of domestic comfort. Now, in The Most Beautiful House in the World, he uses his own experience building a work shed as the basis for a wide-ranging meditation on the design process, the creation of successful buildings and the joys of shaping one’s own environment.
In doing so, Rybczynski covers a lot of ground with graceful economy and flashes of humor. He writes about everything from fengshui—an ancient Chinese form of divination that is still used among some Chinese people to determine the best site for a building—to the history of barns. And he offers entertaining anecdotes illustrating his conviction that the urge to shape a home in the builder’s own image is universal.
Actually, it was Rybczynski’s desire to build a boat that provided the impetus for his new book. In order to start work on the sailboat of his dreams, he first had to construct a boat-building shed. He describes how he selected a site in a meadow, developed the shed’s design and built it with the help of his wife, Shirley, and a few friends. Incorporated into the text are Rybczynski’s own sketches, which show how the project evolved. It was only when the workshop was finished that the architect realized he no longer wanted to build a boat in it: he wanted to live in the new structure. At that point, he began the remodelling job that would transform it into something extraordinary. Declares the author: “The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself.”
The architect-author smoothly dovetails the particular history of his workshop-home with general reflections on the nature of architecture. He recalls a famous remark by the 20th-century English architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who died in 1983. “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” Pevsner wrote in his influential 1943 book An Outline of European Architecture. But Rybczynski argues that a shed can possess artistry in its own right. He points out that a cathedral has a lot in common with humbler buildings—in many ways, it resembles “a great embellished barn.” In the end, he concludes, the apparently simple question “What is architecture?” yields no easy, absolute answer.
One of Rybczynski’s merits as an author is his ability to make connections. In a chapter called “The Building Game,” he traces the historical development of construction toys and explores the relationship between child’s play and design. He points out that design is fun for some of the same reasons that playing “let’s pretend” is fun: its outcome is unpredictable, and it is always possible to revise the rules once the game is under way.
But although Rybczynski is fascinated by the free play that design affords, he believes that certain rules come into play when a building actually makes the transition from the drafting board to the site. He argues that structures should fit in with their surroundings. “Builders must learn the local language,” he writes. “If not, they will be outsiders, architectural tourists.” He describes how his own design started out as a shingled Victorian boathouse and progressed through several incarnations, including an “unsentimental flat-roofed building taller at one end and shaped a bit like a shoe.” But the structure that he actually built in the countryside south of Montreal took its basic design from traditional Quebec barns.
In the poignant final section of the book, Rybczynski describes how a house ceases to be a mere building when it becomes a dwelling. He marvels at the grace of the Villa Rotonda, a 16th-century country home in Vicenza, Italy, designed by Italian architect Andrea Palladio, but he adds, “One wishes to have seen the house when it was not a revered monument but a bustling home, with bedding being aired out the windows and bags of produce piled up in the porticoes.” Rybczynski is also fascinated by the humblest dwellings—including the home of asphalt-coated cardboard and plastic sheeting that Mexican watch-maker Ramón Castrejón erected in a housing development on the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1985. Since then, the watch-maker has upgraded the materials of his dwelling as finances have permitted. Castrejón’s home, the author writes, lacks the serene beauty of the Villa Rotonda but it is still a place transformed by “the moving loveliness of human occupation.”
Such observations mark Rybczynski as an architect who is concerned with far more than buildings. Occasionally, he lapses into the tone of a professorial show-off (“If I were a Nabdam farmer living in northern Ghana and about to construct a building, I too would be concerned with providence”). On the whole, however, his book is a work of clear and luminous intelligence. What is more, The Most Beautiful House painlessly explains what it is that an architect does. It is a book to be savored—ideally, in a favorite chair, on a relaxing weekend at home.
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