Pho­to­genic, yes — but are they liv­able?

Home de­sign­ers rum­mage in last cen­tury’s bag of tricks

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - By Kelvin Browne

MOST cof­fee-ta­ble books about con­tem­po­rary houses are not un­like travel guides to beau­ti­ful but des­o­late lo­ca­tions — fas­ci­nat­ing, but they don’t in­spire you to visit.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, then, that in Next Houses: Ar­chi­tec­ture for the Twen­tyFirst Cen­tury by Ron Broad­hurst, the houses fea­tured are very pho­to­genic, de­void of any fur­ni­ture that might ob­scure the ar­chi­tec­ture, and owned by peo­ple who ac­qui­esce to what­ever their ar­chi­tects sug­gest. In other words, fine houses to ad­mire, de­ride or dis­cuss, but hardly places you’d want to live.

The book is also typ­i­cal of this genre be­cause it feels ob­li­gated to make an “aren’t-we-cool” state­ment with its thin, sans-serif type — but it’s just dif­fi­cult to read; it also lacks head­ings to sep­a­rate the sec­tions and a few other con­ven­tional el­e­ments that make read­ing plea­sur­able.

There are floor plans at a rea­son­able size for each house, al­though, true to con­ven­tion, some of th­ese plans are in­de­ci­pher­able: It’s very dif­fi­cult to tell which room is sup­posed to be which. Ar­chi­tects love do­ing this be­cause it al­lows the mun­dane to be trans­formed into art­work.

Even if you can de­ci­pher the plans (and some give clues by in­clud­ing fur­ni­ture), a few of those crude la­bels that de­sign­ers loathe (e.g. liv­ing room, kitchen, etc.) would be help­ful.

But, thank good­ness, the book de­vi­ates in some points from the pre­scribed for­mula for se­ri­ous de­sign books. For in­stance, the for­mula re­quires photography to be clever, mak­ing houses look like ab­stract paint­ings but not re­ally show­ing what they look like. Here, the photography is uni­formly ex­cel­lent. As well, the choice of pho­to­graphs is well con­sid­ered and gives a re­veal­ing sense of each house even when there are only a few im­ages. The pho­to­graphs are of­ten full sin­gle and dou­ble pages, which cre­ates an in­ti­mate sense of be­ing in­side, alone, to snoop around.

Broad­hurst’s de­scrip­tions of the houses come as a re­lief, too, as he’s not try­ing as hard to im­press as the houses (or the ty­pog­ra­phy) are. He clearly ex­plains what a client wanted, the chal­lenges of the site and the ar­chi­tect’s ap­proach. He avoids the usual un­bear­able mean­ing-of-life com­ments that ar­chi­tects tend to make about their pro­found de­sign in­ten­tions.

The au­thor in­cludes sev­eral notes that guided his se­lec­tion of houses, such as en­sur­ing he had some from ev­ery part of the world, and that at least a few demon­strated en­vi­ron­men­tal sen­si­tiv­ity. He says all houses re­quired “for­mal bold­ness.” I pre­sume that means build­ings that scream big ar­chi­tec­tural ideas.

He also men­tions the houses’ en­dur­ing con­nec­tion to the past or, more par­tic­u­larly, the mod­ernist past of Mies van der Rohe and Le Cor­bus­ier. He ex­plains: “Fas­ci­nat­ing was the de­gree to which the in­no­va­tive ar­chi­tects... look to the past, re­con­sid­er­ing the lessons of the mas­ters of 20th­cen­tury mod­ernism.”

The hippest ar­chi­tects to­day are ap­par­ently looking to the past cen­tury for in­spi­ra­tion and, he ex­plains, “The qual­ity that has al­lowed clas­si­cal mod­ernism to en­dure with such vi­tal­ity into this cen­tury is its nearly in­fi­nite adapt­abil­ity...” Since Broad­hurst is the for­mer di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Richard Meier, the ar­chi­tect who was the most highly vis­i­ble proof that Le Cor­bus­ier-in­spired mod­ernism lives, this is not a sur­pris­ing sen­ti­ment.

What you see with many of the houses fea­tured is the in­fi­nite adapt­abil­ity of the mod­ernist style — you too quickly make con­nec­tions be­tween each house and some mod­ernist land­mark, for in­stance, Le Cor­bus­ier’s Pe­tite Mai­son de Week­end, or a glass box sit­ting on a podium that re­sem­bles Mies van der Rohe’s New Na­tional Gallery in Berlin, in minia­ture.

In fact, there’s lit­tle that doesn’t ap­pear to stem from Mies or Corbu, so the au­thor has a shal­low gene pool from which to fill a book. Still, a cou­ple of the fea­tured houses bear lit­tle fam­ily re­sem­blance — they’re con­tem­po­rary but quirky. Be­cause the blood­lines aren’t so pure, it’s th­ese houses that are more in­trigu­ing

What would Corbu and Mies think about their (so to speak) “grand­chil­dren” — the homes in Next Houses? To­day’s de­scen­dants show a bravado that com­pares strongly with the poignant ges­tures of the pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tion. Le Cor­bus­ier, Mies van der Rohe and the orig­i­nal mod­erns had ideas — and by ex­press­ing them cre­ated a style.

But a new gen­er­a­tion of ar­chi­tects be­lieves that if you have style, you have ideas. I don’t think Mies and Corbu would agree.

— Canwest News Ser­vice

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