Designs for Escape

Witold Rybczynski

Mysteries of the Mall

In 1995 Witold Rybczynski published his first article in The New Yorker. Afterwards Tina Brown, the magazine’s editor, invited him to join her for lunch at her famous table at the Royalton where she asked him what he would like to write about next. Completely unprepared for such a question, Rybczynski mentioned that he had just visited the new town that Disney was building in Florida. “That sounds interesting,” she said. “Go ahead.” The rest, as they say, is history. Both pieces are included in Rybczynski’s new book, Mysteries of the Mall, which collects thirty-four of the architect’s essays on the role of global metropolises in an age of tourism and the kinds of places that attract us in the modern city. For a taste, we are pleased to offer that first piece that caught Ms. Brown’s attention, “Designs for Escape.”


Mysteries of the Mall
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Last summer, I was in Montreal on a brief visit from Philadelphia, where I now live. I had some small business to conduct there, but the visit was mainly an opportunity to look up old friends. I called Danièle, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and we arranged to have dinner together that evening. She promised to take me to a new bistro, and I looked forward to it; Montreal is no longer the premier city of Canada—that role now belongs to Toronto—and it was a little shabbier than I remembered, but it still has more than its share of exceptional restaurants.

“Shall we meet there?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “you must come by the apartment first.” She told me excitedly that she wanted to show me the plans of a weekend house that she and Luc were going to build. Danièle is not an architectural neophyte: she had been married to an architect for twenty years. True, the marriage had ended in divorce—Luc, her current beau, is in public relations—and I didn’t remember her having expressed strong ideas about architecture in the past. But I knew her ex well; he had been a student of mine. You can’t live with someone for twenty years and not be influenced by what that person does. At least, that’s what my wife tells me. So I was curious to see what sort of house Danièle had come up with.

She and Luc and I sat around the kitchen table, and they showed me snapshots of the site, which was in the Laurentian Mountains, a popular recreation area north of Montreal. The Laurentians are an old volcanic range, and the worn, rounded hills recall the Catskills or the Berkshires, but they’re wilder, with fewer signs of human habitation. Though I prefer pastoral landscapes—rolling fields and gentle slopes—to mountains, I could see that Danièle and Luc’s land was beautiful: a wooded hilltop with long views in several directions.

I sensed that Danièle was a bit nervous about showing me the drawings of the house. That was understandable. She knew that I teach architecture and write about domestic design. She and her husband had helped my wife and me when we built our own house in the country. Now it was her turn. Building a house for yourself is exciting because of the feeling of possibility that a new house carries and because creating shelter is a basic human urge, whether or not you are an architect. It’s the same urge that makes children erect playhouses out of blankets and cardboard boxes and build sand castles at the beach. But building a house—a real house—is also scary, and not just because of the money involved or the fear of making mistakes. A new house is revealing. It tells you—and everyone else—“This is how I live. This is what’s important to me. This is what I dream about.” I think that’s why home magazines—from Ladies’ Home Journal to Architectural Digest—have always been popular. It’s not just a matter of looking for decorating hints. Rather, houses intrigue us because they tell us so much about their owners.

Danièle spread out the sketches, which had been prepared by a local architect. Siting is always a crucial consideration for a country house. I could see that the house would stand at the top of the hill, and so would be approached from below, as, ideally, houses should be; walking down to a house is always unpleasant. The hilltop had obviously been chosen for the views it offered, but it also meant that the house would be some distance from the road and would require a short walk through the trees to arrive at the front door.

The floor layout of the house was simple enough. Because of the sloping site, the lower level, containing two bedrooms and a bathroom, was dug partly into the ground. The floor above, which could be entered directly from the upper part of the slope, would contain the living areas, and there would be a sleeping loft in a sort of tower. Danièle explained that they wanted to be able to rent rooms to skiers during the winter season, which was why the lower level would have its own front door and could be cut off from the rest of the house. The exterior was mainly wood, with several sloping roofs. It was hard to put your finger on the architectural style of the house. It didn’t have the curved eaves and dormer windows of the traditional Breton style, which continues to be popular with many Quebecois. Although the functional-looking window frames and rather spare exterior couldn’t be called old-fashioned, neither did they seem aggressively modern. I suppose most people would describe the style as contemporary.

The three of us got into a long discussion about how best to rearrange one of the bathrooms. I pointed out that if they moved the door to the other side and changed the location of the toilet, they could gain space and improve the circulation in the kitchen area as well. Not very inspirational stuff. I could see that Danièle and Luc expected something more. I had unconsciously fallen into a bad habit of architecture teachers: if you really don’t know what to say about a project, focus on some practical improvement, no matter how small. How often had I sat on design juries at the university, taking part in interminable discussions about fire exits and corridor widths, when the real problem was something else entirely.

It wasn’t that Danièle and Luc’s house looked boring—quite the opposite. “The architect told us that she worked hard to make each side of the house different,” Danièle explained. Differences there certainly were, and, I thought, that was part of the problem. The little house was trying too hard to be unusual and interesting.

The perimeter was animated by indentations and protrusions—architectural bumps and grinds. Instead of a single sheltering gable, the roof was broken up into several slopes. This is a favorite device of commercial home builders and is obviously a crowdpleaser, although the roof has always seemed to me an odd thing to spend your money on. The complexity of the roof was mirrored by the intricacy of the windows: there were half a dozen different shapes and sizes. The modest house was hardly in a league with Frank Gehry or Peter Eisenman, but it was busy.

I realized that I had to say something more substantive, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I believe that small, inexpensive houses like Danièle and Luc’s should be as simple as possible. This is partly a question of economics; complexity costs money, after all, and I would rather see a restricted budget devoted to better-quality materials than to architectural bravura. But it is also an aesthetic issue. I like plain farmhouses and straightforward country buildings. They usually look good in the landscape, and they have a kind of directness and honesty that appeals to me. True, they are often really just boxes, but boxes can be given charm through relatively inexpensive details of construction, such as bay windows, trellises, and shutters.

The simplest way to dress up a house is to add a porch. Porches, with their columns, balustrades, and ornamental fretwork, are pleasant to look at, and they are also pleasant places to sit. They are like rooms without walls, and they encourage the sort of lazy inactivity that has always seemed to me the essence of leisure. I noticed that Danièle’s house didn’t have any covered outdoor area, and I suggested that they consider adding a screened porch. This would also be a useful feature because the Laurentian summers are hot and are also notorious for their mosquitoes and blackflies.

“No,” Luc said. “A porch wouldn’t do at all. Porches and balconies are something for a city house. We want our house to look rustic.”

That was interesting. I had always associated porches and verandas with country houses. Evidently, for Danièle and Luc they were an urban feature. (Indeed, Montreal row houses traditionally do have verandas.) A little later, they asked me what sort of material I thought should be used to finish the inside walls. I said that I liked plaster wallboard: it was inexpensive, you could paint it whatever color you wanted, and, furthermore, it was fire-resistant—an important consideration when you’re building miles from a firehouse. They looked skeptical and said that they had been thinking, rather, of wood. “We want this to be a different sort of place, where we can get away from our city life,” Luc said.

A lot of architecture has to do with images—and imaginings. The image may be the result of a remembered family photograph, or a painting, or the experience of a real porch somewhere. For one person, getting away means a shady porch with a rocking chair and a slowly turning ceiling fan. That particular image has haunted me for years—I think I first saw it in a magazine ad for whiskey. And for me one of the pleasures of watching the film Out of Africa is the beautiful porch of Karen Blixen’s house in Kenya, with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto playing on a windup gramophone. Alas, for Luc a porch was just a utilitarian appendage. Moreover, the image it conjured up for him was not rural but urban. I also had the impression that he considered porches to be old-fashioned—or maybe just places for old people.

I have always liked farmhouse kitchens—large comfortable rooms where you can cook and eat and socialize around the kitchen table. (That’s probably a remembered image too, although I have never actually lived in a farmhouse.) The plans of Danièle and Luc’s house, on the other hand, showed a small efficiency kitchen, with a separate dining area. It was an arrangement that reminded me—but, obviously, not them—of an urban studio apartment. I realized that their idea of getting away from it all was more dynamic than mine: not a cabin in the woods but a striking ski chalet on a hilltop, with different views from each room, beamed ceilings, knotty-pine walls, and a dramatic fireplace. I was starting to understand why the house looked the way it did. It was not a question of money—theirs was hardly an extravagant house. It reflected a different idea of rusticity.

• • •

Getting away from it all has a long history; almost as soon as people started living in towns, they felt the need to build country retreats. In ancient times, it was the common practice of wealthy Romans to decamp periodically to country estates. “You should take the first opportunity yourself to leave the din, the futile bustle, and the useless occupations of the city,” Pliny the Younger wrote in a letter to a friend. Pliny owned two country retreats, one a large agricultural estate in present-day Umbria, the other his famous seaside villa in Latium, of which he wrote, “There I do most of my writing, and, instead of the land I work to cultivate myself.” The sentiment—re-creation—is recognizably modern. Modern sounding, too, is the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti’s advice that “if the villa is not distant, but close by a gate of the city, it will make it easier and more convenient to flit, with wife and children, between town and villa, whenever desirable.”

In nineteenth-century America, such flitting usually meant taking a steamboat or a train. Summer houses sprang up along the Hudson River, in New York, and the Schuylkill, in Philadelphia, or in places like Newport, Rhode Island. Newport has many early examples of the so-called Shingle Style, one of the high accomplishments of American architecture. The William Watts Sherman House, designed by the great architect H. H. Richardson in 1874, is irregular in composition, and the granite, the half timbering, and the wooden shingles on the exterior give it the picturesque appearance that is a trademark of the Shingle Style. Still, it is provided with a drawing room, a dining room, and a library, and so is not really a radical departure from a typical middle-class suburban or urban house of the period.

Although wealthy New Yorkers commuted to their villas in Newport, these were summer houses, not weekend houses. Indeed, the full weekend—a two-day holiday at the end of the workweek—didn’t appear until the twentieth century. It arrived first in Britain, as a one-and-a-half-day holiday, and by the early twentieth century more and more Americans were also working “short Saturdays.” Eventually, the five-day workweek became commonplace, and the combination of a two-day holiday with the automobile produced the proliferation of weekend retreats that we know today.

The weekend cottage continues the time-tested tradition of the summer getaway house, but with a crucial difference. Instead of being used for an entire season, it is chiefly a two-day retreat. Hence it is a place less of long and lazy summers than of sometimes frantic spurts of recreation. Perhaps that’s why the architecture is often intentionally unusual, with dramatic fireplaces, cantilevered decks, and tall spaces. That was what Luc meant when he said he wanted “a different sort of place.” It was probably the late architect Charles Moore who started the trend toward spatial excitement. In the mid-1960s, he designed a series of weekend houses, chiefly in Northern California, with deceptively simple exteriors and interiors that were a cross between barns and jungle gyms. Although designed with considerable sophistication, these houses could also be described as the architectural equivalent of the then-popular leisure suit. That is, they were intended to put people instantaneously in a different mood and also to tell the world that here the owner was off duty. Moore’s approach was influential, and versions of his houses sprang up in vacation spots from Vail to Stowe.

Like many people, I spend my weekends in a worn pair of shorts and an old polo shirt. Perhaps that’s why my ideal of a weekend house is more like a farmhouse—commodious rather than exciting, a place to kick your shoes off and relax, a place that can get scuffed up and still feel comfortable. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I think weekend houses should be Thoreau-style shacks, without conveniences or even without luxuries. I would have no objection to a Miele range and a Sub-Zero refrigerator in my country kitchen. After all, that has always been the paradoxical thing about second homes: we want to feel that we’re roughing it, but we want our comforts, too. When Richardson designed the Watts Sherman House in Newport, he made it look rustic, but he also incorporated a novel amenity: central heating. Even Thoreau, whose cabin at Walden Pond didn’t have a kitchen (in warm weather, he cooked outside over an open fire), regularly walked to nearby Concord to have dinner at friends’ houses.

I remember once visiting an Adirondack camp on Lower Saranac Lake. It was one of many in the area that had been built by wealthy New Yorkers during the Gilded Age. The house itself was typical—a charming, rough-hewn log building with a massive granite fireplace, columns made of peeled and polished tree trunks, and spartan Arts and Crafts–style furniture. Here was rusticity laid on with a trowel. When this particular camp, Knollwood, was built in 1899, it consisted of six cottages, a so-called casino (a social gathering place, not a gambling hall), and a boathouse, all designed by William Coulter, the architect of some of the buildings at Sagamore, the Vanderbilts’ famous camp. Although the ample cottages at Knollwood contained several bedrooms, there were originally only small service kitchens. That was because the six families and their guests had their meals prepared and served to them in the casino, which had a large kitchen. You went boating on the lake and hiking in the forest, but that was no reason you couldn’t have a proper dinner, prepared by your New York cook. The Knollwood boathouse contains canoes and handmade Adirondack guide boats but also, on the upper floor, a huge billiard table. I don’t think I would require a billiard table in my ideal weekend house, but on the other hand I couldn’t do without a compact-disc player. Getting away from it all has always involved compromise as well as a certain degree of make-believe.

It’s hard to comment on—let alone judge—other people’s fantasies. If Danièle and Luc wanted a house in the country, well, they would have to make their own compromises. I don’t think I was really much help to my friends; our ideas of weekend houses were just too different. Anyway, we all went out to dinner, the atmosphere in the bistro was convivial, the food was excellent, and everyone had a good time. A week later, when I got home to Philadelphia, I couldn’t resist making some sketches of my own, trying to accommodate all their requirements. I drew a little cottage, twenty feet by thirty feet, clapboard above and with a stone base—for the two bedrooms—below. The house was sheltered by a broad gable roof (to accommodate the sleeping loft). The loft looked down on the main living space, a large family room with a kitchen at one end and a sitting area at the other. In the center of the room, a Franklin stove served for warming cold toes and cold plates. A pair of glazed doors opened onto a large screened porch. It was only a sketch, just to keep my hand in, I told myself. But if I shut my eyes, I could almost hear the strains of the Clarinet Concerto in the woods.

I sent my sketch to Danièle and Luc, although I hardly expected them to follow it. Nor did they. A few years later, I visited their Laurentian cottage, which had turned out pretty much like the drawings they had shown me. No porch.

Mysteries of the Mall

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Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. He is the winner of a 2014 National Design Award, and is an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

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