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Outrage: the toxicity of house porn

Sluicing salaciously through every media outlet, the corrosive impact of house porn is hard to escape

Everyone dreams of a home of their own, but some dreams are bigger and more lascivious than others. From the Disneyfied psychotropic palace of Schloss Neuschwanstein, occupied by Bavaria’s Mad King Ludwig for only 172 days, to Mies’s Tugendhat House, with its onyx walls and vitrine-like windows, patrons with deep pockets and wild ambitions can always get what they want. The world’s most expensive family house, valued at £2 billion in 2014, is the 27-storey Antilia in Mumbai, designed by US firm Perkins + Will for Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. With room for 600 staff and six floors for Ambani’s cars, it also features a health spa, swimming pools, a 50-seat theatre, dance studio, ballroom, hanging gardens and three helipads. 

There has always been a slack-jawed fascination with the interior lives of the rich and not so famous. We all love peering through a keyhole, yet Ambani’s expansive domestic arrangements merely represent the obscene tip of the house-porn iceberg. House porn, architecture’s salacious ‘come hither’ moment, is both insidious and ubiquitous, purveyed via the obliging conduits of magazines, websites and TV programmes. Switch on your set at 8pm on a midweek night and there they are, the gurning televisual boulevardiers talking dirty: Kieran Long showing you how to pimp your £100k House, George Clarke salivating over Amazing Spaces, Tom Dyckhoff overseeing the Great Interior Design Challenge and the daddy of them all, Kevin McCloud, trapped forever in Grand Designs, the Ninth Circle of House Porn Hell.

Img 20190609 152257 tc

Img 20190609 152257 tc

Typical Italian newsstand showing a banquet of options for house porn, from the heavyweight Architectural Digest, to more niche tastes around ‘distressed’ interiors. Magazines remain a surprisingly durable conduit for house porn, but TV programmes and, especially, Instagram, have served to amplify its reach. Photograph by Catherine Slessor

Framed as apparently harmless light infotainment, house porn appeals to the nation’s Hyacinth Bucket tendencies of slightly gritted, nosey neighbour one-upmanship. Would you want to live in a house like that? Yet it has a nasty, seamy underbelly, reducing architecture to a wretchedly idealised, devil-take-the-hindmost, Daily Mail vision of lifestyle. In doing so, it serves to reinforce the pervading sense of unreality and toxic inequality in a shamefully unaffordable housing market. Last year it was reported that London’s property listings contained only a single dwelling priced at £100,000. So much for pimping your £100k house.

The RIBA now plays along with this charade, consorting with Channel 4, originator of Grand Designs, to make a programme about each of the houses shortlisted for its House of the Year award during the annual Stirling Prize season. Where once there was some dedicated coverage of each of the schemes shortlisted for the Stirling, effectively expanding televised architecture’s typological gene pool, it has now shrunk back down to a handful of vacuous vignettes dedicated to simpering house porn. Architecture and the viewing public deserve better than such dumbed-down dross. 

In this self-serving milieu, architects are often their own worst enemies. Most start out with a commission for someone’s dream home so are happy to do what it takes to get clients and jobs. Specifically, this includes their work being featured not just in the trade press, where it will only be seen by other architects, but making the hyperspace leap into the more welcoming and oleaginous realm of consumer magazines, which are perused by thousands of potential clients. Astonishingly, publications dedicated to the minutiae of house design, interior makeovers and furnishing tips still vigorously defy regular prognostications of print doom. On newspaper stands around the world, you can find a title to suit your particular predilection, from Wallpaper* to the more esoteric Casa e Déco Shabby Style, one of Italy’s many such offerings. 

Straddling the apex of the house porn pyramid is America’s Architectural Digest, part of the Condé Nast stable. This glossy house porn juggernaut caters to the niche world of the super-rich with feather-light features and pandering prose. The snake-oil aura of its commodity and celebrity fetishism can be imbibed through its Twitter feed. ‘Living in your own world has never looked better’; ‘It should come as no surprise that $20 million can buy some pretty spectacular homes’; ‘You could have the same Instagram backdrop as Gwyneth’. Such stuff gives nauseating wibble a bad name, yet many architects would kill to be in its pages. 

As long as there are houses, house porn will always be with us, flashing us a cheeky wink that says ‘go on, you know you want to’. But, as cities like London continue to be hollowed out by spiralling land values, property prices, silos of buy-to-leave dwellings and a lack of affordable housing, when houses are seen simply as status symbols and repositories of capital, then the fetishisation of dream homes seems like a cruelly grotesque distraction, a tinsel-wrapped turd. 

‘In every dream home a heartache’, crooned Bryan Ferry, in Roxy Music’s 1973 ode to the anomie and emptiness of modern life. The song unfolds as ominous monologue; despite the trappings of sterile, domestic luxury, the mood is bleak. ‘Penthouse perfection. But what goes on? What to do there? Better pray there.’ Devoid of human connection, Ferry’s frustrated protagonist orders a ‘plain wrapper baby’ whose ‘skin is like vinyl’. You can guess the rest. Perpetually insatiable and appealing to the basest instincts, house porn leaves its sticky residue on every dream-home heartache.

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today