Architects’ homes: Biographies in solid materials

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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