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Home: A Short History Of An Idea

June 2024
1min read

by Witold Rybczynski; Viking; 256 pages; $16.95.

During the six years of the author’s architectural education, he writes in the foreword to this arresting book, the subject of comfort was mentioned only once—by an engineer talking about air conditioning. That such a basic need should be ignored in teaching students how to design buildings seemed so surprising to him that he set about exploring the history of comfort.

The concept is not an old one. In fact, the word in the sense we use it did not even exist until the eighteenth century. The precursors of comfort—privacy and intimacy—first became important in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and flourished with the growth of a middle-class devoted to family and home. The first comfortable furniture appeared in the eighteenth century, and when people accepted the idea of arranging chairs and sofas in the room instead of along its walls, “a landmark moment in the evolution of domestic comfort” had been reached.

What constitutes comfort is not universal either. To Westerners, sitting in chairs is comfortable. Most of the rest of the world finds squatting the most comfortable position, and in spite of a lot of theories about climate and poverty, no one really knows how the two different cultural traditions arose.

Certainly fashion has nothing to do with comfort. Rybczynski feels that the current architectural taste for large, open interior spaces is essentially an anticomfort concept, and that budget permitting, most people would, in fact, choose to live in rooms that resemble their grandparents’. This is an intriguing thesis, argued with clarity and wit.

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