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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Who is the greatest architect who ever lived? It's an impossible question, of course. Perhaps one that might get closer to a real answer is, Who is the most influential architect who ever lived? Witold Rybczynski has an answer, and it is a convincing one: Palladio. In _The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio_ (Scribner), Rybczynski looks at the villas Palladio produced around the mainland of Venice in the sixteenth century, not as historic monuments but as useful and beautifully architectured homes. He places Palladio firmly within his times, but drawing on the classical architecture of Rome and drawn on by Inigo Jones, Thomas Jefferson, and countless others. It is hard to disagree with Rybczynski's conclusion about Palladio's influence, and after this book, a reader is likely to see Palladian themes not only in grand homes, but in diminished form in modern suburban ones as well.
Palladio was merely the son of a miller or maker of millstones; the historical record is not clear. He was trained as a stonemason, and early showed enough talent that Count Giangiorgio Trissino, of an old Vicenza family, noticed his ability. This was his introduction to higher things, especially his ticket to Rome, where the ancient buildings proved a continuing inspiration for his villas. He designed about thirty of them, several of which never were started and if started were not completed; clients of architects then and now faced over-optimism and reversals of fortune. Seventeen survive, some in excellent preservation and some a bit seedy. They are Palladio's main legacy, and remain beautiful and durable; most are still lived in. Rybczynski gives a wonderful introduction to the tools at Palladio's disposal - pediments, porches, entablatures, apses, and more. These were all juggled and adjusted in each specific case. And while there is a unity to the composition of the villas, Rybczynski demonstrates that there is no such thing as a "typical" Palladian villa: "Some of his designs incorporate temple fronts, some do not; some have pedimented windows, some have plain openings; some porticoes are supported by elaborate Corinthian columns, others by unadorned piers. His fertile imagination brimmed with ideas." Architects and artists have been learning from Palladio ever since. The book has the author's line drawings of each of the buildings, and some reproductions of Palladio's sketches or plans, but they are really not sufficient to understand the massings of space Palladio so expertly managed. When I read the book, I checked up on various websites to get fuller pictures.
Rybczynski has lived for a short time in one of the villas, and his words on what make them special are worth reading, although no one will fully be able to explain it. He gives enough examples from all over the world (in America, Monticello, the White House, local courthouses and countless southern mansions are Palladian buildings) to make entirely sufficient his argument about the architect's influence. It is easy to catch Rybczynski's enthusiasm. Those who don't know Palladio will find this book, which is a capsule biography, travelogue, and architectural appreciation, a fine introduction. Those who are already Palladians will rejoice in the clear descriptions and the first hand accounts, coming from an experienced observer and an entertaining storyteller.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2006
I'm sure anything I say about the scholarship of Witold Rybczynski's `The Perfect House' would be superfluous. Mr. Rybczynski has written several books (most of which I've also had the privilege to read) on the history, techniques, and important personages of the architectural trade; he holds a professorship at Penn; he clearly loves his subject matter. I therefore really can't quibble with the fundamental material here; the book is literally stuffed with facts. I did, however, have difficulties with the author's style and structure--which ultimately affected some, though gratefully not all, of his story.

To say that Mr. Rybczynski has an eye for detail would be the grossest of understatements. The book's very format--a visit to nearly every Palladio-designed villa still standing in Italy--seems to encourage the author to discourse on every entablature, frieze, and architrave in sight. If you don't immediately recognize these terms--and would be annoyed by constantly referring to the endnotes--Rybczynski nearly compensates by conveying his clear love for these centuries-old designs. Without sounding defensive, he lets the purpose of his journey (see below) unfold.

As with his other books on architectural history, the author clearly shows in `The Perfect House' how historical, even ancient work remains relevant to 21st century architecture. Palladio's work fits this pattern well: his residential villas - as opposed to, say, royal palaces or working factories -- ooze domesticity and we can attempt to identify with their inhabitant's daily lives. Keeping with this theme, Rybczynski strains to discover by the last chapter what he hints throughout the book as Palladio's "secret"--why his buildings are so *good* (i.e., livable). I'll leave the review-reader in suspense but can assure you the reason is neither overly technical nor actually much of a secret, architecturally-speaking.

If that sounds like a demerit, it's not. This conclusion is actually a great relief from far too many minute spatial descriptions that repeat themselves, villa after portico'd villa. Rybczynski makes every attempt to help the reader *see* what he's seeing in these historic sites, but I ultimately found it a failed exercise. Without the jargon--and the painfully banal personal travel notes ("I munch contentedly, stared outside at the villa ...")--one is left with a well-padded visual journal, full of dimensions and data but far too few images or even straight-ahead descriptive prose.

In a self-defeating note - at least relative to his overarching purpose--Rybczynski even quotes Goethe saying "you have to see these buildings with your own eyes to realize how good they are." In a similar vein, a front jacket perp from The New York Times extols it as "... the perfect traveling companion". Ultimately I have to agree with Goethe and The Times: Palladio's villas should be seen, and this book would be a fine traveling resource. Reading it at home was an informative, inspiring, yet visually frustrating experience.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2003
Excellent prose. Fantastic selection of villas. It would be helpful if subsequent editions had more illustrations. I found myself constantly flipping back to try to determine what the author was mentioning. All in all, though, a worthwhile read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2007
Prof. Rybczynski does it again - elegant prose makes a stylish match with its subject, excellent drawings by the author illustrate and clarify architectural concepts, biographical details enliven the text with elements of human interest. This book presents residential architecture of Palladio, but also it presents Palladio the man, a person with family life, career, accomplishments and setbacks. It does great credit to the author that he does not try to develop this personal area beyond known facts, even if those facts are few; we are spared fanciful conjectures and "educated guesses", and as a result Palladio seems truly human, someone we can understand and relate to in spite of the distance in time and geography.
There are ten chapters, dedicated to ten villas. There are a lot of illustrations.
Drawings are extremely important, because it is impossible to evaluate a work of visual art without visual aids. We get several plans, always a front view of the villa, sometimes a view in perspective. This device allows even casual reader to trace development of Palladio's ideas and understand various phases of design.
Rybczynski is an obvious fan of Palladio and does not try to hide his admiration for the famous colleague. He does stress the fact that many of the villas were just better farmhouses, where such considerations as location of the threshing floor constituted major project guidelines. And it is amazing that anybody would want to endow the center of a working farm, with granaries, barns, dovecotes and farmyards built into the arrangement, with imperial grandeur borrowed from antique Rome. The villas are no doubt remarkable, since it takes tremendous talent to create a building which is at the same time a utilitarian homestead and a grand residence but does not look outright ludicrous. We must remember all the constraints under which Palladio had to work - his clients' unwillingness to spend, their quite mundane needs, aspirations well above the budget - and his own desire to create unusual buildings, resuscitating architecture of imperial Rome. Master Andrea did succeed in infusing ordinary buildings with elegance and dignity. That could be the original appeal of his art - grand architecture taken out of the realm reserved for the popes and kings, and offered to the merchants and lesser members of the ruling class. The villas were a material proof that one needn't be the ruler of a powerful state to afford a stately residence.
And perhaps because Palladio was forced to build with basic domestic utility in view, the villas remain habitable till now. Perhaps the classicist style enjoys lasting popularity due to this graceful union of convenience and beauty, made available to practically every prospective house buyer. Would this be the "Palladio's secret" - genuinely royal splendor for everyone? (I don't really buy the argument that the attraction lays in the excessive height of the ceilings. If it did, it would be widely imitated, just like the idea of attaching a Grecian portico to a dwelling. Very high rooms feel cold, inhospitable and out of proportions with human scale. They are suitable for formal spaces, even in a private home - entry hall, library, dining room - but in the bedroom feel outright spooky).
I have one complaint: the book could do with more photos than the solitary picture of Villa Chiericati on the back jacket. While the drawings show us the process of creation and ideas entertained by the designer, photography better captures the effect. Anyhow, Rybczynski himself at one point makes the same observation - drawings and photos show different aspects of the subject. But this is the only flaw, otherwise it is an excellent book for anybody with interest in architecture.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2005
This is a surprisingly lazy effort for Rybczynski, whose other writing on architecture I've found to be quite good, even exceptional. "The Perfect House" is a travelogue and collection of notes on the work of the 16th century Veneto architect Andrea Palladio, with a handful of sketches and photos sprinkled in to illustrate the works discussed. While Rybczynski does get an important point right -- that Palladio's work ought to be experienced first hand to be properly appreciated -- his pedestrian observations and low-key, easygoing style seem drastically mismatched to the drama of Palladio's architecture. And if Palladio must be directly experienced to be understood, why not provide proper photographs and drawings of the buildings to support the argument?

It's unclear who the audience is for this book since its discussions (while well written and earnest) are introductory, yet the few postage stamp black and white images don't give much of a sense of the material to a newcomer. I imagine only in architecture could one get away with such laziness, where chatting about the friendliness of an historic house's current owner has some place, perhaps. I can't imagine there would be any use for a book on Rembrandt, for instance, that would describe a visit to a painting, maybe the coffee one had afterward with its owner, and then include a quick little sketch instead of reproducing the painting itself.

This book conveys the author's enthusiasm for Palladio's work, but the repeated assertions that Palladio made houses that are well-built and comfortable to live in can hardly be counted as a great insight. If you want a decent introduction to Palladio's work, "Palladio" by James Ackerman is a classic, and Taverner's "Palladio and Palladianism" is good too.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2002
Witold Rybczynski does it again. This book is definately up there with Home, A Clearing in the Distance and One Good Turn. Rybczynski's travelogue style suits his subject matter perfectly, turning a potentially dry academic subject into a gripping read for anyone remotely interested in history or architecture or both. In this hard-to-put-down book Rybczynski describes the genius and creativity that was Palladio, a man who is to architecture as Shakespeare is to the English language. Rybczynski uses this one telling comparison to make a clear point that as we walk through our world of 2001, echoes of Palladio are all around us. I'd recommend new readers to Rybczynski to follow this up with Rybczynski's One Good Turn.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2003
Rybczynski has written a book that is part social history, part art history, and part travelogue, as he describes his journey through Northern Italy visiting and discovering the remaining country villas created by the great architect Andrea Palladio.
Rybczynski manages to write about the "art" side of the architecture in a way that is both scholarly and accessible; however, the best feature of this book, from my perspective, is the insight he brings to architecture and the role of the architect in creating spaces for living. How did the Pisani family live in its villa? How did Palladio integrate the main house of the Villa Badoer with its farm buildings? How did Palladio himself interact with his clients? Above all, what did it feel like to live in buildings that were both magnificent designs and truly "home" to their owners?
The book is so vibrant and Rybczynski's passion for his subject so profound you will want to jump on a plane tomorrow to see what he has seen!
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2003
Witold Rybczynski is the best contemporary writer on architecture as a mundane philosophy, and the genius of this quiet book is to merge travelogue and andecdotal memoir with the more monumental history of art and place in which studies of Palladio usually traffic. Rybczynski's dilatory and patient, witty and earthy prose is, in my view, the writerly equivalent of the best buildings architecture has to offer. Like the best buildings, his writing creates a "comfort zone" we as readers would gladly inhabit. I encourage anyone to read this book who has an interest in--but vague suspicion or fear of--architecture as a discipline. Through a subtle yet finally forceful style, Rybczynski demonstrates how the demotic and practical dimension of the architectural "science" always trumps the obscurantist and elitist postures of those who make--as well as those who can actually afford to buy--a designer building.
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on September 13, 2013
Renting a car in the Veneto and following Rybczynski's footsteps to see numerous Palladian villas, first hand---is the perfect way to devour this book. Enjoyed every word and kilometer of the journey when I did it!
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on December 1, 2014
I enjoyed the entertaining reading this book. It is entertaining and very easy to ready for an architectural topic.i would recommended for all architects to read.
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