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Architects’ homes: Biographies in solid materials

About the author

Jonathan Glancey is a journalist and broadcaster. Formerly Architecture and Design correspondent of the Guardian and Architecture and Design Editor of the Independent, he writes for the Daily Telegraph and works with the BBC on radio and television documentaries. His books include The Story of Architecture, Lost Buildings, Spitfire: the biography, Nagaland and Giants of Steam.

  • Made of stone
    Günther Domenig’s Steinhaus stands on Lake Ossiach near Klagenfurt in Austria and has become an icon, appearing in books, magazines and on television. (Photo: GFDL)
  • Green house
    Erected in 1999-2000, Werner Sobek’s House R128 stands on a bowl-shaped piece of land above Stuttgart. It is an emission-free, totally recyclable building. (Photo: Werner Sobek)
  • Fit for a prince
    The building where Le Corbusier lived was built in 1934 next to the Parc des Princes in Paris. His apartment sits at the top and has its own roof terrace. (Photo: Taschen)
  • Museum piece
    Victor Horta’s house and studio, in the high Art Nouveau style, are located on the Rue Américaine in Brussels. They are now home to the Horta museum. (Richard Bryant/Arcaid/Corbis)
  • Finnish line
    Finnish architect Alvar Aalto erected this building at Munkkiniemi between 1935-6; he added a studio in 1955. (Photo: Archivio del Moderno - Accademia di architettura, Mendrisio)
  • The last straw
    Sarah Wigglesworth and partner Jeremy Till built their sustainable house on Stock Orchard Street in London. It is also known as the ‘straw bale house’. (Photo: Sarah Wigglesworth)
  • Swiss made
    The Swiss architect Aurelio Galfetti’s imposing concrete house was built in 1986 on the via D’Alberti, Bellinzona. It is still inhabited by the designer. (Photo: Aurelio Galfetti)
  • Block party
    Dutch architect Johannes Hendrik van der Broek built his freestanding block house in Kralingseweg, Rotterdam between 1948 and 1952. (Photo: Architectenbureau Van den Broek)
  • Mi casa
    Francisco de Asís Cabrero Torres-Quevedo’s house was built between 1961– 62, in Puerta de Hierro, Madrid. (Photo: Francisco de Asís Cabrero Torres-Quevedo)

HIDE CAPTION

A new book dedicated to the houses of architects is full of stunning images – but what do these spaces reveal about their owners? Jonathan Glancey finds out.

The Architect’s Home, a handsome new book edited by Gennaro Postiglione, professor of design at Milan Polytechnic, is a decidedly weighty tome –its 480 pages are dedicated to 100 architects’ homes of the 20th Century. This highly-illustrated book from Taschen is a monumental work, and one that for its photographs and plans of houses alone should keep architectural and interior decor devotees spellbound for many rainy days.

Mies van der Rohe, the great German architect whose abiding influence can be felt in minimalist 20th Century homes, said, “architecture began when two bricks were put together well.” Comparing the compelling houses on show in Postiglione’s book with the crude junk rushed up around our towns and cities, typically described as ‘traditional’ by developers, Mies’s dictum is clear: in every house chosen for The Architect’s Home, craft, skill, care, artistry and intelligence shine out whether these challenging designs have been realised in stone, timber, concrete, steel, ceramic, glass – or any combination of these – and, of course, brick, the material used to create the very first architect designed buildings, in Sumeria, some six thousand and more years ago.

A design for life

Architects’ homes are often very special places, because here is an opportunity to test new ideas of style, plans, materials, methodologies and ways of living. For historians, these buildings are biographies written in three dimensions and solid materials, with no place, as far as the Taschen book’s photographs show, for pets or children.

Just look, for example, at the yawning stylistic and emotional chasm between the explosion of a house shattered across a Carinthian landscape in southern Austria by Günther Domenig (1934-2012] and House R128, Stuttgart, a platonic, transparent four-storey steel and glass cube built to aviation industry standards by the German architect Werner Sobek (b. 1953).

Domenig made his name in the ultra-conservative town of Graz. His sprawling, yet beautifully realised shipwreck of a house broke every architectural convention going. He continued to build the house for himself between 1986 and his death; it is truly an expression of one Austrian’s struggle against Nazi cultural ideology – his father was a fanatical Nazi judge – and for freedom of expression at all visual cost. The house was unfinished at the time of Domenig’s death and, even then, only a third of this demanding home was usable.

Sobek’s formidably precise and crystal clear machine for living couldn’t be more different. It represents the triumph of post-war German technology, democratic and open, yet ordered and controlled. Such is the reliance on new technology, the house is free of door handles, taps and light switches: sensors have superseded all these. It as if the human element, or evidence of human frailty, has been edited out of Sobek’s supremely assured home. Is it House R128 too emotionally cold for anyone other than a perfectly proportioned and wholly rational engineering-minded architect?

This is a question that has been asked one way or another since perfectly proportioned architect-designed villas emerged in late Renaissance Italy. The exquisite classical villas of Andrea Palladio have haunted architects ever since; and yet as Goethe said of Palladio’s Villa Capra on the fringe of Vicenza, it was “liveable, but not comfortable.”

Domestic bliss?

I suppose many 20th Century architects have entertained a very different sense of domestic comfort than that of the vast majority of people, rich or poor. Look at Le Corbusier’s apartment on the top two floors of a building he designed in Paris in the late 1930s. The bed is raised high off the floor as if Le Corbusier (1887-1965] and his wife Yvone were giants; the Swiss-French architect was a cultural giant, but of average height. The bed looks painfully uncomfortable; it also stands in sight of a bidet. How very French? Or, just rather odd...

Le Corbusier’s apartment, like so many special architects’ homes is no longer lived in; it belongs to the Fondation Le Corbusier. The bold concrete Cambridge home of Colin St John Wilson, architect of the monumental British Library in Bloomsbury, is where you’ll find the Wittgenstein Archive today. The home and studio of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976] at Munkkiniemi - representing the moment Modernism was reconciled with nature - is a museum. Perhaps, though, every architect’s home is, in fact, a museum, a personal pantheon, a self-penned and meticulously-edited obituary. And, because of this, the points they mark in the development of architecture, the publications they generate by the score, and the photographs by the thousand, each is a source of endless and weighty fascination.

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