The Architect and the American Country House, 18901940
The American Country House
Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes
Every American city is surrounded by a curious mirror image of itself: cottage country. Each Friday evening people make their way to their rustic retreats; on Sunday, the exodus is reversed. The precise magnitude of this periodic emigration remains undocumented, but if one includes not only beach houses, mountain lodges, lakeside cabins, and ski chalets, but also trailer parks, permanent campgrounds, hunting camps, ice-fishing houses, marinas, and houseboats, the number of second, country places is vast. The well-to-do go to Bar Harbor, the Hamptons, the Cape, the less affluent make do with less scenic, or merely less desirable, locations. The destinations vary, but the aim is the same: take a break, get away, get out of the city.
This desire is nothing new, for, as James Ackerman points out in his new book, which traces the evolution of the villa since antiquity, people have been building country places for more than two thousand years. What is a villa? “A building in the country designed for its owner’s enjoyment and relaxation,” he writes. To complete the definition, one need only add that the owner is almost always a city dweller, for the villa exists because of—and as a counterpoint to—the city. The great periods of the villa and country house, such as in sixteenth-century Italy, Georgian England, or between 1890 and 1940 in the United States, have always coincided with times of vigorous metropolitan growth. Indeed, Professor Ackerman identifies only two periods in Western history when thriving urban cultures did not build themselves country retreats: the burgeoning of the communes of central Europe and Italy between 1000 and 1400, and the heyday of the republican city-states of ancient Greece. The reason for these two omissions is unclear—most likely life outside the protection of city walls was simply too perilous.
The villa was a Roman invention, and in many ways all subsequent country houses, whether of Florentine merchant princes, English aristocrats, Tidewater planters, or New York City financiers, were merely variations on a Roman theme. What binds all these works together—and I would include the humble lakeside cottage and beach shack in this prestigious company—is the city dweller’s idealization of rural life, and his establishment of an architecture that encompasses, and expresses, this ideal.
The urban ideal of country life is, of course, a fantasy, and herein lies the interest of the villa as an architectural type: its unchanging purpose. “The villa has remained substantially the same,” writes Ackerman, “because it fills a need that never alters, a need which, because it is not material but psychological and ideological, is not subject to the influences of evolving societies and technologies.” When Pliny the Younger described the pleasures of lazing about on his seaside terrace, or of getting out of a toga and into some comfortable clothes, we know exactly what he is talking about. Petrarch, who reawakened Italians’ appreciation for the pleasures of country life, wrote that “I came to the villa at Careggi not …
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