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Book - Courtyard Houses and Row Houses

A love of typology

Courtyard Houses and Row Houses are a sober antidote to architecture fluff, says Michael Howe

Courtyard Houses by Günter Pfeifer and Per Brauneck. Row Houses by Pfeifer and Brauneck. Birkhäuser, 2008. 217 illustrations. £22.90 each

Most students of architecture with even a perfunctory interest in building technology will be familiar with the magnificent Construction Manuals series, published by Birkhäuser over the last five years or so. Covering concrete, steel, timber, glass, roof and facade construction, these manuals culminate in the tablecrippling Constructing Architecture, published in2005 and edited by Andrea Deplazes, professorof architecture and construction at the ETH school in Zurich.

The Construction Manuals are restrained and handsome, mostly black-and-white affairs, which are clearly laid-out with examples of constructional methodologies culled from historical and contemporary sources, and supported by introductory essays of the highest quality. Because of the breadth of the publisher’s vision, the building examples are not exhaustively investigated, but they do get to the meat of the subject, laying out principles of construction in such a way as to encourage further research by the reader.

With Courtyard Houses and Row Houses, the two books for review here, the steely eye of Birkhäuser appears to have moved logically from construction technology to the exploration of typology. In this case, the small- and medium-sized, mostly two-storey domestic house is under inspection. (I must take a moment here: I use the term ‘small’ in relation to European space standards; the examples cited would be described as large in the British housebuilding context.)

The publication of these two books is timely to the point of prescience for architects, housebuilders, commissioning clients and, perhaps most importantly, local authority planners. In the drive to provide decent, sustainable and attractive homes in the urban and suburban context, all parties are struggling to deliver alternatives to Noddy boxes or dense block apartments (the latter still resisted by the average person in the street).

Courtyard Houses and Row Houses are not aimed at the casual reader. The books possess all the ordered virtues of the Construction Manuals noted above; however, the examples are rendered in a reduced manner that borders on the solipsistic – and I say this as a fan of the house style. The clear rendering of type and species of house plan through simple drawings allows the easy comparison of differing layouts and sections, although it could limit the untrained reader’s ability to grasp the spatial richness of the buildings cited. A very small carp, perhaps, given that the books are about typology, not resolution.

One assumes the black-and-white print regime has more to do with issues of economic publication and wide dissemination to students than the seduction of the coffeetable connoisseur. If one requires full colour, context-free architecture porn, publishers such as Taschen provide this in abundance. If one needs to design good housing, or interrogate design proposals produced by consultants, then these books will provide valuable source material.

I have no intention of returning these books on publication of this review and will recommend them as essential reading to housing authority and private housingdeveloper clients.

Resume: ‘Books worth having,’ says Michael Howe. ‘In fact, I’m not giving them back.’

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