Photogenic, yes — but are they livable?
Home designers rummage in last century’s bag of tricks
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