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Editorial: House – the building type that continues to inspire the architectural imagination

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The house, at its root, is about shelter with varying degrees of comfort, amenity and scale  – a carefully balanced combination which makes for experimental ground.

A house is certainly not necessarily a home, as we know very well from recent experience here in London, where absentee investors may not remove the polythene from the ironmongery after purchase, leaving the property as an isolated, commodified nugget of global capital that has nothing to do with the messy business of life, but much to do with the value of an appreciating asset in a city that does not build enough homes for its own people. This is not a crisis, because it has been going on far too long to justify use of that word: it would be more accurate to say it is a condition, albeit an unhealthy one. A happier condition, celebrated in this issue of the AR, is the challenge facing the designer of the one-off house. Ably met in the work celebrated by the AR House awards, that challenge is also discussed in a book launched this month, Architects’ Houses, by AR contributor Michael Webb (Thames & Hudson), who has produced a haul of 30 homes from around the world, designed by architects for their personal use.

‘Given the familiar history of house architecture since the primitive hut, it seems surprising that innovation and delight are still possible’

Webb’s last look at domestic architecture dealt with housing, rather than the house. Building Community: New Apartment Architecture was ambitious in scope and geographical reference, and of course dealt with architecture produced by architects for other people. What happens when they do it for themselves? Judging by the published examples, everything is beautifully finished, which may come as a surprise to the non-designer life partners of practising architects, whose frequent complaint is that nothing ever gets completed either on time, or sometimes at all. The houses in the Webb book are not only complete, but a form of personal statement, since they include familiar concerns and approaches that are apparent in their broader work – for example, designs by Norman Foster, Thom Mayne, Toyo Ito, Kerry Hill and Frank Gehry would fit comfortably into any compilation of their more public offerings.

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Casa Cien in Concepción, Chile, designed by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, is a seven-storey concrete tower that navigates the work/life balance by accommodating their home as well as their studio

Given the familiar history of house architecture since the primitive hut, it seems surprising that innovation and delight are still possible, but indeed they are. This is partly because locations may offer unique opportunities (many of Webb’s examples are on beautiful sites well away from urban context), and partly because of developments in technology and materials, which are allowing architects to play with fresh approaches, or simply to be more playful. In virtually every case, you would be interested in seeing the finished product, though that is rarely possible in the case of living architects, whose motive for creating personal dwellings is not least to provide privacy, not a public spectacle. For most of the public, experiencing these private worlds can only be done at one remove, through the book or sometimes the TV programme – unless the architect is dead, in which case you may be able to visit.

The most obvious example of this is John Soane’s house, that peculiar London miracle, which acts as a magnet for any visiting architect, reinforced by its contents, lovingly preserved and enhanced by directors and curators – an unparalleled exercise in cultural education. There is nothing like it. But then there are houses that are unique in very different ways, sometimes designed for themselves, sometimes by (or for) others. Take the three huts in separate locations, reproduced at 88 per cent scale for a current exhibition in the Prada Foundation, Venice: they were used by three giants of 20th-century philosophy, Adorno, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, for the same purposes – thinking and writing. (Britain’s former prime minister, David Cameron, has a shepherd’s hut in his garden, used for similar – if less elevated – purposes).

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Swartberg House by Openstudio Architects, 2015, on the edge of Great Karoo desert in South Africa. The house works according to passive solar principles. In the light and heat of summer, the house can be shuttered, while in winter the large openings act as suncatchers

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The Shearers Quarters House by John Wardle Architects on Bruny Island, Australia, 2011, was designed to house shearers, family and friends on annual tree-planting weekends and retreats

Of all the houses I have visited, a few stand out. Rudolf Schindler’s Los Angeles lightweight structure, built in 1922, is still an extraordinary experience. So too Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago (1910). But the almost mesmerising effect of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) put even these two slightly in the shade. This was partly because the evening before my visit, I had been given dinner in a Lake Shore Drive apartment: far from that wonderful experience acting as a vaccination against what was to follow, it simply increased the appetite for the house itself. I was with three other people on a study tour, and when we entered the home, we stood in awed silence, the experience exceeding expectation. More recently, houses in Singapore and Australia have rarely failed to impress; in the UK I much enjoyed recently seeing Richard Horden’s house for his parents, built in Poole in 1973 when he was a 26-year-old student at the Architectural Association. Visits to the Burton House in London, by Richard Burton of ABK, have always been a reminder of the way in which space, sequence, volume, furniture and landscape can combine in a completely satisfactory way, not least because you feel, to use a rather unfashionable word, comfortable. The long gestation, from 1986 to 2002, may be part of the reason.

As this awards issue shows, the house can have a social programme as well as (or perhaps despite) its domestic connotations, but at its root it is about shelter with varying degrees of comfort, amenity and scale. It is still an experimental ground for the profession.

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to get a copy.