The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski

Book Review by Jackie Craven

Expressionist painting by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee
Detail from Rose Garden, 1920, Paul Klee. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Author Witold Rybczynski seems to be the kind of person who makes everything difficult—not because he's a difficult person, but because he appreciates the complicated and does not back away from the world's labyrinth. He is like the World Wide Web before the WWW even existed—he grasps the connections between everything, and, then, everything appears less simple.  More complicated.

So it is with The Most Beautiful House in the World, where the author sets out to build a sailboat and ends up building a house.

Born in Scotland, raised in England by Polish parents, and schooled in Canada, Rybczynski is a registered architect with a sharp pen and an even sharper eye for detail. As a university professor, he has written some of the best books and articles on architecture and urbanism.

The autobiographical tale told in his 1989 book has long been a personal favorite. In a compelling narrative, Rybczynski describes how he started out to build a boat shed and ended up with a new home. Along the way, the curious teacher in him sweeps through 2,000 years of architectural history, hopping from ancient Greece to Renaissance Italy to 20th century America. Why is that? Because the author knows that all architecture is connected—when man designs and builds, the past becomes present.

Look Inside An Architect's Mind

If you're looking for a quick course in architectural history, you may wind up a bit confused. The Most Beautiful House in the World is a story about the creative process—and creativity can be chaotic.

Peering inside Rybczynski's consciousness, we are taken on a giddy ride through childhood memories, adult passions, and conflicting desires. We leap from metaphor to mundane domestic decisions and back to metaphor. Moving back and forth through centuries, we explore ideas that influence the ways we build. Scattered through the text are sketches to illustrate Rybczynski's thinking processes as he designs—and redesigns—his structure.

Written in Rybczynski's usual, lyrical style, The Most Beautiful House in the World reads like a novel. Like any great novelist, the architect is a keen observer who recognizes a problem, creates a context, suggests connections, and designs solutions. Many of us do this—we just don't do it consciously. Like the year my father bought his first stereo system and then proceeded to build a den around it, carved out of our large dining room. That's our family's story.

This book is a lesson in thoughtfulness, true thoughtfulness—the architect's study of space and light and the placement of designed things. It's a story that's sure to appeal to anyone who ever started building one thing and ended up with—uh, well—something else. That includes all of us.

And what is the most beautiful house in the world?  "The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself."

"Oh, and by the way," he writes on his Website, "…it’s pronounced Vee-told Rib-chin-ski."

The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski
Viking Penguin, 1989

More Books by Rybczynski:

Witold Rybczynski is an architect, professor, and lecturer who has published several best-sellers. His commentary on architecture and design is timeless.

  • How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, 2013
  • Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, 2010
  • The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum, 2011
  • Last Harvest - How a Cornfield became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway, 2007
  • The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio, 2002
  • The Look of Architecture, 2001
  • City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World, 1995
  • Home: A Short History Of An Idea, 1986
  • A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, 1999
  • Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture, 1992
  • Mysteries of the Mall And Other Essays, 2015
  • Now I Sit Me Down—From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History, 2016