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July 2012, 1385. Volume CCXXXII

Catherine Slessor

As a building type deeply rooted in human experience, the house reveals much about the state of society. Read this issue here

Mukesh Ambani is an extremely wealthy Indian businessman who will go down in history as the owner of what is believed to be the world’s most expensive private house. For the princely sum of $1 billion you get 27 storeys, three helipads, parking for 160 cars, assorted swimming pools, a gym, a 50-seat cinema and a staff of 600. Towering over its neighbours in Mumbai, it is the ultimate status symbol, executed in a vaguely Super Dutch genre of unevenly stacked fioorplates, like a giant and extortionately expensive club sandwich.

At the other end of the spectrum, Vijay Govindarajan, professor at the Tuck School of Business in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, is trying to develop a house that can be built for $300. Govindarajan, who grew up in India, is aiming to improve conditions of urban slum dwellers worldwide. ‘It’s not just a house’, he says, ‘it’s a metaphor for a whole slew of services that the poor need. Think about it as a way to deliver health, jobs, education.’ His philosophy is simple: allow people to build good homes, and the rest will follow. For the cost of Mr Ambani’s Mumbai super pad, you could buy over 3 million $300 houses.

It’s perhaps an unfair comparison. The architectural and social history of the house has been decisively and often dramatically shaped by the enlightened patronage of potentates, aristocrats and businessmen. Yet it does point up the obscene disparity that exists in the provision of such a fundamental human need. As a building type so intimately rooted in human experience, the house tells us much about ourselves, as well as how we relate to our neighbours and the wider community. New paradigms of domestic architecture can suggest better ways of doing things, in terms of urban planning and the use of resources. They can also suggest how to respond to changing family structures and how to exploit the potential of technology.

In the current era of ecological and economic crises, such investigations assume a new impetus, but genuine innovation is still often confined to clients who are willing to experiment and architects who are equal to the challenge. The average house purveyed by the average volume housebuilder remains relatively untroubled by architectural ingenuity or imagination. Where are the trail blazing Case Study Houses of today?

Some sense of what might be possible can be discerned in this issue, which is devoted to the winning projects of the annual AR House Award. And while many trophy houses are submitted for consideration (though none on the scale of chez Ambani), this year’s winner is the epitome of modesty, a mud brick house set in rural China. Using local materials and reworking a traditional courtyard typology, John Lin’s prototypical project explores notions ofself-sufficiency and sustainability, with the wider ambition of addressing the decline of Chinese rural life. In its sense of optimism, pragmatism and engagement with society it offers real hope for the future; something that even $1 billion cannot buy.

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