Against the porn of lifestyle houses: four houses to dream about when you design a house.

The first house I designed was in second semester of second year and I didn’t really now what I was doing. How could you? Thankfully, thanks to my tutor I was slowly led through the process of how to design something as complex as a house. My tutor (who is now a colleague) wisely got me to look at numerous examples of houses, the AJ metric handbooks, and I did look a lot at all the houses that won awards for a few years in the magazine Progressive Architecture. I examined house plans. I spent a lot of time at home measuring things. How high was a bench, how wide was a door, how deep was a cupboard? What where the dimensions of a bed and how much room was needed to navigate around it. Of course in first year the time I was inspired by the work of MLTW and Sea Ranch, I liked the flow of the forms as they cascaded down the hill on the coast of California it seemed a far cry form the flat gable and hip tiled suburb I grew up in.

These days there is a lot of what I call house porn which seems to be incessantly streamed across social media. Big windows, a bit of cedar, white walls, long linear kitchens, minimal kind of Mediterranean bathrooms. These houses seem to be perfect and idealised settings for bourgeois lifestyles devoid of reflection, memory or dare I say it melancholy. Watching the reality television shows, either the cooking ones ( I am partial to MKR), or even the building and renovation ones, I get the impression that houses are simply containers for, and expressions of, lifestyle and nothing more.

Lifestyle houses are always different. They are always filled with “features” and customised to the whims of their clients. They both brand the owners identity, and help to form that identity. I am tired of seeing houses planned around an open spatiality, linear vistas leading to large windows; more and more the bourgeois house looks like a real estate marketing brochure. More and more I fear architects succumbing to this as the exemplar. In a way great houses are difficult and monstrously empty creatures. As an antidote to this I try and describe my impressions of four houses below which, for me at least, avoid the lifestyle paradigm.

Villa La Roche

The American architect John Hejduk in his book Mask of Medusa relates how he set up an exhibition in Corbusier’s Villa La Roche in Paris. The power of his prose is compelling but as he was hammering in nails to set up his 1972 exhibition to the house he remarkably found red dust coming out of the white walls. He states:

Villa La Roche is house with other qualities beyond the simple white cubed functionalism that we assign to works in the twenties. It is a house where the functional elements  suggest other uses such as some kind of dark religious ceremony or ritual. Hedjuk was convinced that the house was used by english spiritualists who came to the continent for ceremonies in the 1920s. He argued that the houses main sitting room was configured like a church. It suggests that houses must always refer to something like this, that functional elements have double readings, and that every house must have its own kind of  alchemy.

Ottolenghi House

This is another house that has always fascinated me, and whilst I have visited quite of few of scraps works in Venice and the great theatrical Castelvecchio in Verona an like many people who have visited Scarpa’s work in Venice I have yet to get the opportunity to visit this house.

Scarpa was quoted as saying I am “A man of Byzantium who came to Venice by way of Greece.” Again this is a house, like Villa-La Roche, suggests places outside of itself. The rusticated columns made of discs of stone and concrete are both monumental and yet made of a series of fragments suggesting ruins. The travertine floor, and the ponds which adjoin the house, as well as evoking the Venetian lagoon, are reminiscent of Scarpa’s influence in the gardens of the East. As a result of its compositional fragmentation, the house is also like Venice in other ways, itself constructed from fragments of plunder from the Levantine world.

The house is buried and Scarpa uses this as a means to introduce light into the interior spaces of the house in an extremely controlled way. This is done via a compositional incision on one side of the house. This incision is not unlike a Venetian street or Calle. Whilst no where near the Venetian lagoon the house still evokes this city. The combined effects of fragmented plan, entrance with adjoining ponds, the steps up and changes in level, and the dividing fireplace with its intense hard-plastered blue all suggest that this is a city within a house. It is the idea that the house can itself be a city

Villa Muller

Adolf Loos designed and built many houses. But Villa Muller is probably the best of these, perhaps because it is well documented, and perhaps because Hejduk (him again) wrote such beautiful words around it. The window grills with there hint of the orient, the exquisite Delft tiles at the entrance, the stone that adorns the house. More alarmingly, their are pictures of Loos in the house with his bride in his final years racked by Syphilis. It sits in a suburb on the outskirts of Prague overlooking that city.

There is nothing automatic or unconscious about this house. Every gesture of composition is tightly planned:  this is a house that is seems to defer canonical notions of style. Is it modernist or is it a classical building. A tomb perhaps? I have been to the house but never inside. I suspect it is one of those houses that desire impels you to enter and experience. But, once inside, the desire only heightens as you realise you are in an empty tomb.

Villa Malaparte

Probably one of the great Villas of the 20th Century it is on the isle of Capri not far from Tiberius’s Villa where he ruled the empire. The villa is famous for  a number of reasons, design by Libera, who aside from Terragni, was probably the  best of the Italian fascist architects and its owner  Curzio Malaparte at first a fascist sympathiser and later a communist his most famous novel was Kaputt written in 1944. The novel is one of the few novels to authentically describe the banality of evil. It located at Capo Massullo, on the Isle of Capri. It was the central location in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mepris. The cinematic version, as compared to the house in reality,  gives evokes arcane rituals across ancient landscapes. It is a place where the limestone crags and shards of Capri meet the horizons of the Tyrrenhenian sea. Somehow in my mind Villa Malaparte seems to evoke all of these intertwined aspects of both the 20th C and antiquity.

All of the above houses evoke and suggest other places and indeed states of being. They are not overly saturated with light, reduced to nothing through minimalism, mock joined to the landscape or overly inscribed with parametric techniques. In some way each of these houses suggest that the house is still a site of poetry, a site where archetypal forms, memories and historical associations merge. These days the house is too often seen as lifestyle porn. A home for Kardashian luxury sometimes with a little bit of materiality  and craft thrown in to demonstrate authenticity.

The architectural tradition of the Australian house leaves a lot to be desired. The appeals to unifying landscape and environment, touch the earth lightly lifestyles, well meaning sustainabiltiy and the mannered stylistic traditions of the 20th C are all to noisy for my liking. As Hejduk suggests, in his foreword to the little book I have on Villa Muller it is the tone of the house which the architect must determine before anything else. The house is a setting for the theatre of life. Simultaneously, a place of where desire, loss and dreaming mingles. A house is ideally a place of silence that respects country rather than one that fills over country’s destruction with an endless stream of features. Better to speak into the void.




What architecture students should try and do over the festive season.

Architecture school won’t teach you architecture 

Don’t rely entirely on architecture school to teach you architecture. If you do you won’t learn enough to be an architect. A good architecture school is only an introduction to architecture. It should teach you a few different ways to design and give you an insight into architecture’s political, technological, cultural and historical dimensions. It’s up to you to be responsible for your own architectural education and educate yourself as an architect.

I came to this view as an architecture student in the dark ages of the 1970s and 1980s I spent very little time looking at a computer screen. At that time I  went to an architecture school that went through a lot of changes in the way that it taught its student’s architecture. When I began architecture the do-it-yourself hippies reigned supreme and by the time I graduated 10 years later the highly mannered post-modernist architects, with a regionalist bent, had the school in their grip. This instability in the school’s curricula (and staffing) meant that I could not rely on the architecture school itself to teach me everything I needed to know. It was certainly not like today’s factory like, and pedigreed, architecture schools with stable curricula and a tick the boxes approach to completing subjects. As a result, I took it upon myself to learn architecture.  As a result and to a large degree I was self taught. The festive season and holidays, depending what hemisphere you live in, is a good time to teach yourself a few things about architecture.

Get out of the computer

To live under the impression that you can learn all there is to know about architecture from a screen is a curious delusion. Ensconced in the computer some architects, and architecture students, never really leave it. The work needed to develop the lines of a computer model or simulation is intense. But all too often the 3D lines aggregated into form and then given a sense of volume take on a life and a power of their own. It is all too easy seduced by the bright lines and images on the screen. Its all too easy to privilege your own viewpoint as you use the computer.

However, architects intervene in the real world. They translate data, information and knowledge between the material world and the virtual and back again. For this reason it is extremely important  to study and observe the architectural phenomena of the so-called real world: Buildings, doors, windows, gutters, trees, spaces and the grain of different materials.  Be mindful in the way you observe these things. The purpose of this is to build up for yourself a knowledge of form and space and the relationship between things. It’s a good idea to develop a curiosity about details and try and figure out how things are made. How does a glazed window frame work? Where do the down pipes take the water? What kind of pattern is on the brick wall? What is happening in the timber grain.

Use a sketchbook

Corbusier did it. He used a sketchbook almost everyday of his life to observe and record things of interest. To included very bring and in it life, art and architecture merged. Now of course, Corbusier was the ultimate alpha male colonialist architect who would have probably worked for anyone if he had a chance. Nonetheless, his sketchbooks are full of his travels, his early sketch books show his journeys through the Orient. Greece, Rome, Venice, Istanbul and what the romantics and Beux-Arts architects called the grand tour. Many of these sketches informed his urban polemics about the modernist city. His sketches of Algerian woman became the contour lines in his paintings, plans, sections  and perspectival sketches. Of course, this has raised questions about the way he thought of women and his relationship to them.

His sketches of India include landscapes of the Himalayas drawn from the air, animals, Indian monuments and all the symbols of India’s religions. A kind of Instagram of the sub-continent. All of these sketches moments moments and sketched contributed to Corbusier’s design process. The icons and symbols that he collected through his sketches, as recorded in his sketchbook, were often re-used or  run up in his projects for the Capitol at Chandigarh. The scheme for the unbuilt Governors Palace is a good example of this. But none of the sketches made by Corbusier are in any way conventional, or academically correct, in the way they are drawn. They are messy, they are quick they re in pencil, sometimes they are coloured in. A few of them show an incredible poignancy for example the sketches of his wife’s hand the night that she passed away.

A sketchbook if kept diligently is a collection of material images and moments that can be drawn upon and used later in the design process. A sketchbook like those of the Italian architect Aldo Rossi merge life with memory and art.

Read a book

Recently in my friend’s studio the students were asked to read a book. It was like pulling teeth because architecture students hate reading. The book had words and sentences in it that if read would help the students design an important part of the community building they we asked to design for the semester. Towards the end of semester there were still a few people who did not read the book and as a result they did not do so well.

But, the great thing about being an architect is you don’t have to read that much. Nor do you have to read in English all that well. You only have to look at the plans and sections and all the other images and diagrams that describe buildings.  When I did my PhD in architectural history much of the material was written in French and sometimes German or Japanese. Most of the schemes I was studying were unbuilt and only existed as fragments in architectural magazines or in various libraries. But as an architect I was able to reconstruct what I was looking at by “reading” the plans of the utopian schemes I was studying. I did not have to read much of the text. My analysis and recovery of these schemes from the archive rested on my ability to reconstruct them in my mind as if they were real.

Go on a road trip

Get your friends and go on an architecture tour or road trip. I learnt so much doing this. Visit some buildings and try and figure out what you think of them. Are they what you imagined them to be? Are they well designed? Is their siting appropriate? Did the architect deserve the award or accolades the project was given? How does the real project differ from the way it was represented on the internet?

Can you tell from the completed project how it was designed? By this I mean is it evident if a project has been designed by a committee or has gone through a number of different, or too few iterations, in the design process. Can you tell from the physical reality if a project has been designed in particular software packages.

Make something (with your hands)

This is a really good idea. I don’t just mean attend the latest robot workshop or do some fancy stuff with the Architecture school’s 3D printer or laser cutter. Those things are good to do but I also mean that it is good to actually make something with your hands, a collage a physical model, or even a tree house. A bit of furniture. Use some tools. I was fond of making collaged comics with photocopies and sticky tape.

Sketching, reading, making, and even the architectural pilgrimage all help to bridge the gap between how something is in our minds and its constructed reality. Learning how to imagine spatial phenomena in your mind is a central element of architectural education. I fear that the computer all too often destroys this type of thinking. It is a type of thinking that seems to link memory and emotion with spatial imagination. It is a kind of thinking that is critical if architects are to create the cities of the future.