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The House: Ancient Roots, New Paradigms

Intimately anchored in human experience, the house is a powerful archetype in architectural and cultural imagination. Yet it also suggests new paradigms for how we might live more in balance with ourselves and the wider planet

Inaugurated in 2010 with a prize fund of £10,000, AR House is an annual awards programme for the best one-off house. This year, an international jury of Sofia von Ellrichshausen from Chile, Brian MacKay-Lyons from Canada, Peter Salter from the UK and AR Editor Catherine Slessor assessed nearly 200 submissions and chose a group of 12 winning projects. All are shown in this issue, and are also illustrated here in figure ground plans at a scale of 1:500 for constructive comparison of different space standards and layouts.

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This award would not be possible without the generous and imaginative support of Laufen, now in its second cycle of sponsorship. We look forward to welcoming both the winners and our sponsor partner to a prizegiving reception to be staged in London at the end of June.

Despite AR House being an award for a single building type, the jury were confronted with a great range of projects that spanned different locales, budgets, sites and programmes. Among the group of winners, the settings range from the Malaysian rainforest to a beach in New Zealand. Yet the jury agreed on certain criteria, prioritising issues such as response to site and context, an alertness to the potential of materials, technology and sustainability, how the experiential quality of space and light were choreographed, and how imaginatively each house was conceived as a setting for the rituals and intimacies of modern domestic life.

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As a building type, the house continues to exude a powerful hold on architectural and cultural imagination. Especially during the 20th century, a series of canonical houses have been turning points in the development of modern architecture, yet by rendering domestic routine the subject of dehumanising technical or formal abstraction, it often becomes removed from any semblance of life as commonly experienced, or severs its inhabitants from psychologically meaningful connections with wider elemental forces, as Peter Buchanan has persuasively argued in his series of texts for the AR’s Big Rethink (which will return to its usual slot next month).

One of Buchanan’s key themes is the importance of vernacular wisdom and precedents, which were marginalised, if not swept away entirely, by the universalising technological zeal of Modernism. Now, however, they are slowly being rediscovered and applied anew. This year’s overall winner is a project for a site in rural China by John Lin working with students from the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. Set against the wider backdrop of rural privation and depopulation impacting on communities that were formerly self reliant, it reworks and updates the traditional courtyard house on a standard plot using techniques of vernacular construction.

Unselfconsciously, it integrates many aspects of self-sufficient, sustainable living and environmental control, such as rainwater harvesting, use of thermal mass, natural ventilation, the cultivation of gardens for food, and a biogas system fuelled by pig waste. Lin sees it as a prototype: a generic solution that can be adapted by different users, with the larger ambition of attempting
to rebalance Chinese rural life, which is in a state of dangerous flux as people migrate to the cities and the countryside languishes. The jury found it a highly impressive project, both as a template for rural self-reliance that impinges very lightly on materials and energy, but also as a formal and experiential proposition.

Many of this year’s winners are in rural settings as object buildings in the landscape, such as Steve Larkin Architects’ subtle, sober House at Bogwest in County Wexford (p58), constructed within the armature of a former farmstead, and Hurst Song Architekten’s exquisitely stripped-down version of an Alpine chalet (p64). Japanese houses are again well represented, exhibiting perpetually inventive responses to the challenge of making experientially rich dwellings within the unforgiving context of crazily congested cityscapes.

It remains the case, however, that one-off houses still tend to be the preserve of relatively wealthy clients, who are apt to regard them as lifestyle trophies, while the great mass of ‘ordinary’ dwellings created by developers and volume housebuilders remains lamentably untouched by architectural imagination or ambition.

In the search for new paradigms of domestic architecture that explore and try to make sense of the vast territory between bauble and production line, the current economic crisis and the growing threat to the planet’s ecology provide a timely impetus for reassessing how we might re-evaluate and reconceptualise the archetype of the house. The projects shown here offer a compelling snapshot of possibilities.

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