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Posted April 17, 2001
Shelter for Dreams
A wall of glass bottles was the final feature completing the house Witold Rybczynski built for himself. On the oval bottom of a brown bottle of Armagnac, he inscribed the date and the names of his coworkers and signed off like an ancient craftsman: ''RYBCZYNSKI FECIT.'' This gem of a book rewards the reader with a wealth of meaning in those words, ''Rybczynski made it,'' revealing the whole experience - esthetic, architectural, didactic, domestic, historical, laborious, linguistic, mechanical, philosophical, poetic, sensory, symbolic - contained in this house. As it takes shape in the reader's mind, the sense of building unfolds, constructing once again Heidegger's unity: building-dwelling-thinking. The book owes its arresting title to Joseph Rykwert, chairman of the doctoral program in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, who invited Mr. Rybczynski to address his seminar on the subject of a design competition sponsored by an Italian journal. The author responded, ''The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself.'' In a previous study, ''Home: A Short History of an Idea,'' Mr. Rybczynski, who teaches architecture at McGill University in Montreal, went beyond architecture to provide a fascinating historical exploration of domestic well-being. In his new book, he tells what it means to build his own home. First Mr. Rybczynski dreamed of a boat, then of a shelter to build it in - something between a shed and a cathedral. He and his wife, Shirley Hallam, decided to include temporary living quarters in the plan, with the idea of constructing a house nearby sometime in the future. They chose a site, he ruminated over designs, enlisted the help of his wife and his friend Vikram Bhatt, an Indian architect. They poured a foundation before completing the design. In vacation periods, on weekends and afternoons after work they put their energies into the project. Mr. Rybczynski assembled notes, made drawings, jotted down reflections on architecture and reviewed the experience of his practice. This building, in the reader's mind, grows larger than a shed or even a cathedral; it concretizes architecture and all its connections. As time passed the author wondered: a boatbuilding workshop or a house? The living quarters expanded and the intended boat shrank from dory ketch to catboat. The building should look traditional; it must fit the location, speak the local language. He chose the form of a barn. Vast barns dominated the landscape, he explains, ''and if my building was to fit it, it could only be as a little offspring of these heroic leviathans.'' For a year and a half he immersed himself in its paper existence, gestating a hybrid dream that looked like a barn but sheltered boatbuilding at the west end, living quarters at the east. Then these three builders, colonists in the meadow, people with little experience in construction, put up frame and sheathing in a few weeks, working with hand tools. They changed the place, occupied the meadow; it was ''the reenactment of a primeval process that began with the first hut erected in a forest clearing, and it gave me the feeling of playing out an ancient ritual.'' At sunset the glass bottles of the final wall ''blazed with the amber and emerald colors of several hundred wine and liquor bottles - a bacchanalian rose window.'' The physical house sank the maritime dream, partly in the weariness of construction, partly by fulfillment. He explains: ''After years of designing on the drawing table . . . I had wanted to build something, anything, with my own hands and with proper tools and real materials.'' The Rybczynskis turned the boatbuilding workshop into living quarters, decided to make a comfortable permanent home instead of temporary shelter. This transformation changed Shirley from an associate builder into a client, who challenged him with questions, objections, demands. She had a better knowledge of house design than he, ''not of coWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 29, 2011
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