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A casebook history

reviews - The Presence of the Case Study Houses by Ethel Buisson and Thomas Billard. Birkhäuser, 2004. 336pp. £45

Looking back on 17 years of the Case Study Houses project in 1962, Esther McCoy, the writer who definitively established the significance of the programme in the history of post-war architecture, recalled the radical climate in which it was conceived and developed. 'There was something electric in the air, a particular sort of excitement that comes from the sound of hammers and saws when they have been silent for too long.' After the great depression of the 1930s and the constraints of the war years, when barracks, airfields and factories were the priorities, architects could again turn to the design of houses, bringing into play new materials and technologies that had come to the fore during the war. 'The day of the architect was in sight, ' wrote McCoy. 'His fortunes, which sag with each drop in the economy, were bright for the first time in a decade and a half.' The Case Study Houses (CSH) programme, launched by magazine editor John Entenza in 1945, was intended as a practical initiative to address the urgent need in the US for more new homes, to encourage innovation in the interests of economy and speed of construction, and to further the evolution of a distinctively Modern approach to the design of the typical American family house.

The setting was California, a territory conducive to novel thinking about the house, as the pre-war projects of Schindler and Neutra confirmed. By 1962, 23 houses had been completed, including the famous Eames House at Pacific Palisades and ones by Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig.

The steel-framed houses built after 1950 by Soriano, Ellwood, Koenig and others were to have an influence that extended beyond the US - Team 4's Reliance Controls factory and the early houses of Richard Rogers were directly inspired by them. Michael and Patty Hopkins acknowledge the influence of the Eames House on their own, now canonic, Hampstead residence. Julius Shulman's famous night-time shot of Case Study House 22 is one of the most alluring of all visual images of Modern architecture.

Ethel Buisson and Thomas Billard's book is conceived as 'a journey into the present reality of the Case Study Houses'; one undertaken, moreover, by 'representatives of old Europe confronting the achievements of the New World'. At times the writing is so eccentric in tone as to be impenetrable. One house is described as an 'image of excess on this coast, overinflated with silicone and amphetamines currently in vogue'.

Yet the book represents a potentially interesting investigation of the long-term prospects for radical and fashionable architecture when it passes from the field of the contemporary into that of the historic.

Helped by the generally welcoming response of present-day owners, the intrepid French architects (Buisson is a Princeton graduate) somehow managed to gain entry to most of the surviving houses. Thornton Abell's CSH7, built in 1948, proved a problem. The owner has a ferocious dog, 'threatening to call a patrol of the local militia, a group that the stranger did not particularly want to meet face to face'.

Writing in 1962, McCoy reported that the houses had generally proved 'excellent investments', but some owners, it seems, remain totally unaware of the significance of their homes and some of the houses have sold for modest prices.

The residents of CSH18 bought it only for the (stunning) views of the ocean and were amazed when a charitable foundation proferred a grant to assist with restoration.

Ellwood's CSH16 is owned by 'a thin and fine lady of a certain age' who has lived there since the house was built. It is well cared for, but CSH20 is in poor condition, the great pine tree that was a key feature of the garden chopped down. CSH28, the last of the Case Study Houses completed in 1966, appears to the authors a betrayal of the ideas of the programme, 'a mediocrity displayed and pronounced like a conventional manifesto of the go-getter American bourgeoisie'.

Useful for its plans and for a wealth of contemporary illustrations, this is a rather self-indulgent and opinionated book, outclassed by recent studies by, for example, Neil Jackson and David Jenkins. Nor is it of much use as a guidebook. The idea behind it was terrific, but I was left wondering if I'd want a visit from Buisson and Billard.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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